Today, Patti Smith is a vessel through which fans clamour for the chance to commune with the idea of French poets, fallen rock gods, and heroic modern artists.
On February 8th, tickets for two March 7 performances at the Art Gallery of Ontario by the punk musician, artist, and poet Patti Smith went on sale at 10 a.m. The previous evening, nor’easter Nemo had buried the city under great masses of soggy snow, which some Smith diehards decided to navigate, assuming they’d have a better chance of scoring tickets in person. Before long, it was bedlam: Box office staffers were too slow; the gallery’s phone lines couldn’t handle the volume of callers; the AGO website froze and collapsed under the deluge. By 11 a.m., the tickets—there were only about 800 in total—were sold out. In another era, there might’ve been riots; in 2013, there were livid tweets.
It may not be rare for a musician whose definitive work was released decades ago to spark so much anticipation. But it’s interesting that, by and large, the throngs protesting the dearth of Smith tickets aren’t simply old-school devotees eager to reconnect with the sound of their youth. They’re just kids in their 20s and 30s, yearning to hear Horses live for the first time. That Smith has mesmerized so many fans the same age as her own son and daughter is unusual, but not unexpected.
An unruffled girl androgyne at a time when gender transgression was the purview of drag queens and male rockers, Smith may not have embraced second-wave feminism, but her brand of bent, spiritual femininity is achingly relevant today. Her use of style and self-portraiture to experiment with persona marks her as a pre-iPhone queen of defiant selfies. From her foulmouthed sacred verses to her queer, egalitarian romance with the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith’s lived experience in the ’60s was two decades ahead of her time. Even if Warhol’s Factory operated as a waystation for superfreaks and sexual deviants, there was little to no space for a woman like Smith, who was devoted to asserting her agency as an artist and thinker, and who only cared about being a muse on her own terms.
But what makes Smith an especially 21st-century girl, you could argue, is her commitment to her own artistic myth. She set her sights on a notion—represented by heroic, doomed bohemians like Rimbaud and Verlaine—and set to remaking herself in their image. That fuck-the-truth mode of self-actualization strikes a chord every time a creative, hungry 20something sends a well-calibrated self-promotional ripple through social media. Smith mapped out her rise to glory in Just Kids, her 2010 memoir of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, whom she met after moving to N.Y.C. at age 20. Their quest to become artists is portrayed as the noblest calling; their hubris knows no bounds. Their belief in their own talent was so strong that Mapplethorpe convinced the manager of the Chelsea Hotel to accept selections from the pair’s portfolios in exchange for room and board.
A few weeks ago, I ran into a friend on my way to see Smith’s photography exhibit, “Camera Solo,” at the AGO (it runs until May 19, and you can get tickets without lining up in the snow!). “Oh, god,” he moaned, rolling his eyes. “Please, not another Instagram of Patti Smith’s Polaroid of Rimbaud’s grave.” I laughed and felt sheepish. When I walked through the gallery, though, his Instagram comment resonated: I had a sense of being invited to share in a strange, sincere intimacy that I didn’t deserve and hadn’t earned. Her photos—moody black-and-white snapshots of personal items, or rooms caught in a state of disarray, or landmarks with a particular symbolic resonance for the photographer, most taken within the last decade—felt less like works of art than fleeting glimpses of Smith’s fixations.
“Smith was the president of a fan club that had just one member but a hundred idols,” Luc Sante writes in the New York Review of Books, offering up a list of the heroes who helped Smith envision the artist she wanted to become: Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Jackson Pollock, Isabelle Eberhardt, Brian Jones, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Burroughs, and other shadowy figures. Grouped together, Smith’s snapshots read like a collection of icons in a mystic crone’s shrine. It’s a less disingenuous version of Oprah’s inspiration board—or, to be crass, a creative Pinterest. Smith may have worshipped hundreds in her close-knit club of one, but today, she’s a vessel through which thousands of fans clamour for the chance to commune with the idea of French poets, fallen rock gods, and heroic modern artists.