Patti Smith plays tonight at Detroit’s Majestic Theatre. I’ll be there, touching base with my three-decades-ago self, that self that used to sing along (badly) to cassette tapes of Horses and Easter, that self that lived literally in ’80s Baltimore but imaginatively in ’60s and ’70s Manhattan. I’ve never seen Smith in person, but I’ve been watching videos today of some of her recent performances. Here’s one from about a year ago:
Banga! I don’t know what it means, but I’m going to start saying it.*
Smith has been on my mind for reasons that go beyond having tickets to tonight’s show. I picked up a copy of her memoir, Just Kids, at City Lights Bookstore this summer. I read it warily, at first (I was also reading Christopher Hitchens’s Mortality, and Hitchens’s sentences were, in the early going, outpacing Smith’s), but then I fell in love with Smith’s prose, which is sort of tenderly formal and altogether welcoming. She recalls so well what it was like to be young and full of artistic ambition. She shoplifts Rimbaud’s Illuminations (“Not having the ninety-nine cents to buy the book, I pocketed it”); she nearly gets picked up by Allen Ginsberg (“I took you for a very pretty boy,” Ginsberg confesses). Listening to Gregory Corso’s reaction to a St. Mark’s Poetry Project reading (“Shit! Shit! No blood! Get a transfusion!”), she resolves to “make certain I was never boring if I read my own poems one day.” When she does finally give a reading, on February 10, 1971, at St. Mark’s, the reaction borders on the comical:
I was bombarded by offers stemming from my poetry reading. Creem magazine agreed to publish a suite of my poems; there were proposed readings in London and Philadelphia; a chapbook of poems for Middle Earth Books; and a possible record contract with Steve Paul’s Blue Sky Records. At first this was flattering, and then seemed embarrassing.
(File any of these sentences under “Things Never Uttered by Any Other Poet, Ever.” Or file them under “It’s Good to Be Patti Smith.”)
The majority of Smith’s memoir focuses on her friendship and love affair with Robert Mapplethorpe. Here’s the lovely passage that gives the book its title:
One Indian summer day we dressed in our favorite things, me in my beatnik sandals and ragged scarves, and Robert with his love beads and sheepskin vest. We took the subway to West Fourth Street and spent the afternoon in Washington Square. We shared coffee from a thermos, watching the stream of tourists, stoners, and folksingers. Agitated revolutionaries distributed antiwar leaflets. Chess players drew a crowd of their own. Everyone coexisted within the continuous drone of verbal diatribes, bongos, and barking dogs.
We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed, and he affectionately squeezed my hand.
“Oh, take their picture,” said the woman to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.”
“Oh, go on,” he shrugged. “They’re just kids.”
And now I need to go on, myself: on to the show. So I won’t be able to do justice to a number of other favorite moments from the book: Smith’s own pilgrimage to City Lights (much cooler than mine: it follows her set at the Fillmore West, with Jonathan Richman on drums); Smith’s description of her family dinners (also cooler than mine: “My father read us Plato. My mother made meatball sandwiches”); Smith’s exegesis of her signature line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” (“Christ was a man worthy to rebel against, for he was rebellion itself”).
But I will say this: Banga! And I’ll echo Smith (as my middle-aged face reflects back at me from the laptop screen): “Who can know the heart of youth but youth itself?”
* OK, now I know what Banga means (thanks, Google). It’s the name of Pontius Pilate’s dog in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (another work that exploded my mind, three decades ago). According to Smith, “That dog was loyal for 2,000 years on the edge of heaven while Pilate was waiting for Jesus Christ to speak to him. The dog didn’t run around heaven looking for bones. He sat at his master’s feet. I thought that is true loyalty and used it as a fun metaphor for all the loyalty I’ve experienced.”