They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes. Given how hard I worship Patti Smith this means I probably shouldn’t even be in the same room with her. The thought sticks in my head like gum on the sole of an expensive shoe as my best friend and I scuttle through raindrops into Cardiff’s Coal Exchange. The lights are low and security minimal. An unobtrusive table covered in tee-shirts suffices for merchandising. “When is the support act on?” my friend asks. Security shakes his head: no support act. My heart hippity-hops. I hate the farce of standing around while two guys in black take an hour to plug in the headliner’s guitar. Tonight is already exceeding expectations.
The stage is small, low, close; we could hop over and perch on the edge. No fanfare, no lights-up-lights-down, just a sudden soft landing of feet onstage. Patti smiles at our delayed whoops of recognition. She opens her mouth and the world breaks open. There is no discernible relationship between that slight torso, overhung with an Electric Lady Studios tee-shirt and a too-big black blazer (red marker pen hooked in the left pocket, as if she’d just been labelling boxes) and the voice that envelops the air. It’s like being run over by a Rolls-Royce.
I’m dancing barefoot
Heading for a spin
Some strange music draws me in
“The look on your face,” my friend says (later). I wonder if the look matched my thought: that I am finally looking at a flesh-and-blood human after a lifetime of watching holograms.
She extends her arms in blessing, evocation, incantation. Girl is washed up on Redondo beach by the waves her throat makes. The mike is a token gesture; a puff of smoke to screen the dark art of her voice. There is a peace sign inked on the left knee of her jeans, like kids did back in high school. It matches the girlishness of her grin. “I went looking for a Welsh rarebit today,” she tells us, “rarebit” drawling out like rabbit in flat American vowels. A man in the crowd calls out an offer – he makes a great Welsh rarebit. She chuckles, flashing un-American teeth: “I’ll see you after the show.”
I want to freeze every instant, turn each note to ice then taste it melt. Lenny Kaye, her musical compatriot for over 40 years, is tucked in the corner, making magic with his guitar. The rest of the band moves in orbit; Patti is the centre of the universe. Dedicating a song to the people of Japan Patti says gently: “We’ve been very cruel to Mother Nature and she can be very cruel back… we honour you, Mother.” It should be a platitude, but it isn’t.
None of the words tumbling through my head are strong enough to hold up to her light: sincerity, energy, androgyny, and the one that comes closest yet falls most infuriatingly short: integrity. Patti Smith is the most complete human being I have ever seen. This is not performance, it is revelation.
She tells a little story about her friend, Johnny, before playing (for the first time, live) his birthday song: ‘Nine.’ “We were sitting at the bar and I said, ‘You’re a pretty handsome guy.’” she recounts. “I’d never noticed before because he’s so radiant that even if he were the ugliest man on earth he’d still be beautiful.” If anyone else told this story I’d think: “Lucky cow, hanging out with Johnny Depp” but I’m thinking: “Lucky son of a bitch, Patti Smith wrote a song for you!” Together, they must gleam like stars.
She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her face should be carved in granite, Rushmore-size. I strain to memorise the slant of her cheekbones, the swoop of her nose, the triumphal lines that mark her as an elder. “I have Welsh, English and Irish blood,” she says. Someone boos the word “English” and she scolds: “What do you want me to do? I can’t divide myself.”
If only time would slow down. She dedicates a sweet, sad song to Amy Winehouse; whisks us to CBGBs with ‘We Three’; then lulls us with the affectionate rollick of ‘April Fool’. Between gripping my friend’s hand and shrieking myself hoarse I try to grab as many details as I can: the black and silver ring on the middle finger of her right hand; the band on her wedding finger; a charm bracelet on her left wrist; the unbuttoned cuffs of her jacket; the jeans stuffed carelessly into cheap-looking gilt biker boots. Her cloud of brownish-grey hair carelessly plaited at the ends.
Then, sudden as she soft-footed on, Patti slips off stage. The band continues. She’s right there – a handful of feet away, next to the mixing desk. She looks over, smiles and waves. Jaw slack, I wave back, willing, praying, desperate to transmit some of my love and awe. You’re more than a hero. Faces around me begin to take note and bodies eddy towards the slender barrier. She blows a pair of kisses then drifts back to perch onstage between the monitors, heels swinging like a kid on the edge of a dock, un-self-consciously singing along as her band mates whirl through snippets of old standards.
Everything is easy. When she’s ready, Patti gets up and sings again, as natural as a cat rising from a patch of sun and stretching. She joins the band in a fierce guitar jam, notes racing, her free breasts moving beneath that baggy tee. I am transfixed. It is almost unbearable.
Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe.
A man with a pink-and-purple Mohawk grabs his partner and they dance as we throw our voices back to her because the night belongs to lovers. I’m sweating; hot and cold as my last first kiss. When the opening chords of ‘Gloria’ reverberate my heart melts into my stomach and fizzes like popping candy. G-l-o-r-i-a she spells and we’re spellbound. My sins my own/they belong to me.
I refuse to contemplate the end. A girl in a black spaghetti-strap vest with cropped blonde hair dances beside me, golden arms twirling in tribute. The band slips quietly offstage. We stomp, whistle, and holler; please come back, please.
Patti shed the blazer a long time ago, stopped once to wipe her mouth on her tee-shirt. She is at once huge, luminous, a warrior king/queen (beyond sex, beyond gender, beyond binary) and a slip of a woman, sinewy, and not young. Anticipation clenches my heart like a fist. “You don’t need their shit!” Patti cries, raising her arms (prophet, priestess, the voice of one crying in the wilderness) “Be free!” The air crackles and atoms smash as the band launches into the driving riff of ‘Rock’n’Roll Nigger’. The blonde and I scream like schoolgirls. Baby got a hand; got a finger on the trigger. Baby, baby, baby is a rock-and-roll nigger. My blood rushes like it’s late for an appointment.
We wobble out: dazed, high, jelly-legged and dry-mouthed. The engine of compulsion is revving: I must write, have to. But anything I muster will be inadequate to the point of dishonesty. There is so much I want to say: thank you Patti, I love you, hallelujah, how?, you’re beautiful, you’re an artist, you’re a blessing. Thank you.
She is benediction