Chasing Patti Smith Through the Haight, & through History
There she was, just within reach, the famous punk rocker poet, the shamaness beaming
raw mystic power, the one, and only Patti Smith. There she was, right on Haight Street hovering
in the San Francisco sunshine her presence breaking through the fog, still amongst the ragged
street kids all refusing the capitalistic agenda, while they push bunk acid on Starburst wrappers and oregano shag.
There she was with a flayed notebook in one hand, a black coffee with no coaster on the other. There she was, the one who had sung in poetic howls, Go Rimbaud! Go Rimbaud! In the bowels of CBGB; there she was the one gifted Because the Night by The Boss himself; there she was the friend of beat poet laureates like Burroughs and Ginsberg. There she was, just like my girlfriend had screamed at me just ten minutes ago.
“She’s here you dope! Get off your ass and get over here! Manifest destiny!”
I was pondering on this long lost moment some four years later typing away at some
mundane task listening to Patti Smith’s new book Year of the Monkey (Alfred A. Knopf). In my
office chair, I leaned back to feel the morning sun colliding with the fog outside my window and
thought of how confused I was the day I saw her, thinking why none of the cars were screeching
to a stop or how people weren’t running up to Patti Smith for an autograph.
As I listened to the chronicle of her 2015 concert at the Fillmore, her travels down to San Diego and beyond beyond, her thick Molotov voice burning me with its traces of her beginnings in Chicago and then her upbringing in New York (it kills me how she pronounces tea ), I thought how special an artist/writer has to be to take the form of a traditional memoir and make it one’s own.
She’d done it before with titles like Just Kids and M Train, all of which I had devoured, but still her ability at
form and narrative shocked me. Only she could spin prose and poetry together around a quiet
moment of black coffee with a side of black beans. Painfully heart-wrenching, joyfully
philosophical, listening to her words was like being on a slow-moving rollercoaster, eyes wet,
open, and all-seeing.
Year of the Monkey cleanses the mundanity of reality, showing us how deep she is willing and able to think and feel – her scope seemingly infinite – as she tries to hitch a ride, experiences their 70th birthday, finishes a set, or hears the news about a very old friend falling ill. Patti Smith takes us to those places with effortless familiarity and friendliness doing what all good artists do: invite the world into their greatest joys, their most painful lows, and their most spontaneous epiphanies.
After my girl let me know the news, I scrambled to get my pants and shoes on, chucking Don
Dellio’s White Noise on the ground. Frantically, I snatched a shark tooth from French Polynesia
gifted to me by mother, ripped a random page from Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat from its bindings,
and then swept up a pair of red dice with white numbering.
I don’t really know why I felt like I needed to give anything to Patti if I actually did find
her, but maybe, somewhere in my unworthy mind and soul, I saw those items as a kind of
offering just to be near her, if only for a second.
For some dumb reason, I went straight to where my girlfriend had spotted Patti – the t-shirt store on Haight and Ashbury.
“Jesus,” she sighed. “That was like an hour ago.”
“Really?” I blurted.
Time had seemed to stop, but in fact, it had sped up without any warning.
I flew, scouring Taco Time praying she was treating herself to a margarita; went to Gold
Cane to see if she was playing pool; Ploy II Thai in case she wanted a bite; Traxx for the music;
Whole Foods but there were only those long lines like forgotten train wrecks squished with the
hordes of cart pushers; and then the Bindery, Booksmith, Zam Zam’s with their beautiful flowing
martinis but nothing. She was nowhere, yet in my defeat, it dawned on me: why expect anything
less from someone that had always been that – nowhere and everywhere.
Making my way home, I thought of one of Patti’s lyrics, I like it like that I like it like that
/ I like it like that I like it like that. On the page, it doesn’t look like much but in my head and
eventually on the tip of my tongue, then under my breath then sung, I felt the rapture of that
repetition, the trance my soul psyche seemed to fall into.
Then, there she was, the scarecrow seer, the one and bony, Patti Smith.
She was admiring one of the curves of Buena Vista Park. Her head was bent to the side as
if listening to something only she could hear. Maybe the leaves in the trees or both. Perhaps she
was gathering for something I would later admire and cherish like I did all of her work. Perhaps
she was right there in front of me creating a world I would one day cherish, love, like a weird old
friend I saw every so often. For a second I thought to offer my items, but then stopped myself.
Time, in all of its duality, was so beautifully relative at that moment. I felt I was witnessing the
transference of beauty surrounding Patti into her own being, where, hopefully, one day, all that
glory, infused with her artistry, would one day be shared with us.
Patti Smith’s new book Year of the Monkey, released on September 24th, and can be found here. Patti will be at the Nourse Theatre in SF Oct 7th, tickets will sell out.