This past Easter, George Wallace, in his own inimitable commemoration of Easter Sunday, tweeted out a video of Patti Smith singing her song Easter. He ended his tweet, as I remember it, with the cheer, “Go Rimbaud.”
Before that moment, I’d not knowingly listened to Patti Smith or read a line of Rimbaud. I’ll admit, I’m late to the party. More than thirty years late, by one count; by another, well over a hundred years.
But recently, I scanned the table of new arrivals at a neighborhood bookstore (yes, there still are a precious few). There, beckoning me to pick it up, was John Ashbery’s newly minted translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations. And this year, Patti Smith won the “pop” half of the Polar Music Prize. So I may not be too late after all . . .
I’d been curious about Smith’s book, Just Kids, but not enough to pick it up, at least at first. While she’s of my generation, by the time she made her first albums, I’d left rock and roll behind. And, as the book recounted her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, I figured this was just another celebrity memoir, a genre the ubiquity of which I loathe.
But I do watch Stephen Colbert from time to time. One night, he had Smith on to talk about Just Kids. Early in the interview, she broke out in a toothy grin and pled “guilty,” when Colbert noted her book had won the National Book Award.
Her open delight was thoroughly disarming, but there’s something else that got to me even more. Colbert asked (in his own inimitable way), “What advice would you give to like a young person . . . who decides that, I’m going to throw away, you know, my life, and be an artist?”
“Well,” she replied, “you have to work really hard.”
Just Kids. Smith grew up in New Jersey (where they seem to grow rock and rollers in the soil). She had three siblings, and the family is close. Her father worked for Honeywell, her mother as a counter waitress in a drugstore. As part of her childhood, Smith traveled door-to-door for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “ . . . people would throw buckets of water on us and curse at us. It was awful.”
The family wasn’t a stranger to hard knocks. “I had seen my mother closing all the venetian blinds on many a sunny day, hiding from loan sharks and bill collectors.” Even so, Smith’s parents made room for dreaming, including taking all four children to the Museum of Art in Philadelphia.
“My parents worked very hard, and taking four children on a bus to Philadelphia was exhausting and expensive. It was the only such outing we made as a family, marking the first time I came face-to-face with art.” Smith was “transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”
Then, at age sixteen, Smith spotted Rimbaud’s Illuminations “in a bookstall across from the bus depot in Philadelphia,” which fed her dreaming for quite a while. “He possessed an irreverent intelligence that ignited me . . .”.
Though inchoate, Smith’s artistic bent was purposeful. New Jersey couldn’t hold her, and, when she was twenty, she struck out for New York. As she left, her mom gave her a pair of “white wedgies and a fresh uniform in a plain wrapper. ‘You’ll never make it as a waitress,’ she said, ‘but I’ll stake you anyway.’”
Her mom was right, Smith didn’t make it as a waitress. She lasted three hours. But she was no slacker. She searched for jobs until she found a right fit, at Scribner’s, where she worked long hours and got promoted more than once. That was only her day job, though. In every available waking moment, she searched for her own means of artistic expression.
Smith and Mapplethorpe lived together for a time. Smith was the primary breadwinner almost throughout. “My temperament was sturdier. I could still create at night and I was proud to provide a situation allowing him to do his work without compromise.” They had little money, often debating "how to spend our few dollars—a toss-up between grilled cheese sandwiches and art supplies."
For their second anniversary, they went to Coney Island, where they ate at Nathan’s. “Normally we only had money for one hot dog and a Coke. He would eat most of the dog and I most of the sauerkraut. But that day we had enough money for two of everything.”
Smith fell into rock and roll performance almost by accident. Her first public performance was a poetry reading at The Poetry Project. Mapplethorpe made the introduction that got her the reading, and Sam Shepard suggested that she add music. She writes of that evening, “as this was hallowed ground for poetry, some objected, but Gregory [Corso] was jubilant,” and Smith was launched.
Smith has had successes and failures in her artistic life. She seems to have kept a sturdy balance in the face of both. She never turned her back on her friends, including difficult characters like William S. Burroughs and Corso—and living with Mapplethorpe was certainly no day at the beach. She understood her friends, valued them, and accepted what they had to give, without expecting what couldn’t be there.
It would have been easy to do, but Smith didn’t get lost in the maelstrom of artistic New York. She kept to her purpose, even when the form it should take wasn’t clear. After a time, she retired from performing to raise a family in Detroit, emerging only after the death of her husband and brother in the same year.
Easter isn’t a day I celebrate, but I was struck when Smith wrote in Just Kids of its “restorative power” for her. References to Easter are frequent in the book. One Easter, Mapplethorpe bought her an Easter dress, “a tattered Victorian tea dress of handkerchief linen” that she adored. After Mapplethorpe's death in 1989, Smith wore her "Easter dress of black silk velvet with a white lace collar" to his memorial.
Smith’s song Easter is one long reference to Rimbaud and his siblings walking to church on Easter Sunday. The opening establishes a simple rocking pulse and melodic line, into which Smith sings. Easter Sunday, we were walking. Listening to the lyric, Isabel, my little one, take my hand. Time has come, I couldn’t help but imagine Rimbaud, his sister Isabelle, Smith, Mapplethorpe, and so many others, still kids, linking hands and not letting go.
Partway through, Smith segues deftly to spoken word. I am the spring, the holy ground,/the endless seed of mystery. When she returns to the final chorus, it has become an incantation, the drum keeping a sturdy beat as church bells peal and lift the song out of its simple story to encompass the whole of a creative life.
I’ve now listened to the album Easter, as well as Smith’s first album, Horses, several times. I can’t say that, for the most part, the music sings to me. I wish it were otherwise, as I’ve grown to admire its maker. The song Easter, though, is a keeper. Within its lyrical simplicity, Easter resonates of the complex personal history, strength, and resilience of Patti Smith.
To hear Easter, click here.
Credits: Stephen Colbert’s interview with Patti Smith, from which the interview quotations and the still at the head of the post are taken, can be found here. The photograph on the cover of Easter is by Lynn Goldsmith, Arista Records, 1978.
The Jehovah’s Witness quotation is from Thurston Moore’s 1996 interview with Patti Smith in Bomb. Though I didn’t know it at the time, in writing “Go Rimbaud,” George Wallace was likely intentionally quoting Patti Smith’s song Land (I stand ready to be disabused of this if my assumption is wrong). All other quotations, except the lyrics for Easter, are from Just Kids.