The article is based on a lovely interview with Patti Smith.
All I’ve ever wanted, since I was a child, was to do something wonderful.
I had my Patti Smith phase as a student in the 80’s, courtesy of a boyfriend who gave me Easter, the record with the amazing picture of Smith on the cover. She was a vision of all that was cool and renegade and defiant. I played the record over and over for a couple of years, giving ‘Because the Night…’ a particular flogging. I didn’t know it, but while I was admiring her as a rock ‘n roll rebel, she was living in Detroit, raising a couple of little kids and not performing at all. She didn’t start performing again until after her husband died and she needed to work to support her family.
Her life and career touch on a couple of things I’ve been thinking about recently. She certainly gave herself permission to be what she wanted to be, turning down offers that were counter to her vision, even when she was horribly broke and accepting the offers would have meant security. She says in the interview that a few people:
saw potential in me and offered me quite a bit of money to do records as early as 1971, ’72, but not in my own way. They would have a vision of me – a pop vision, or how they could transform me, and the money didn’t tempt me…If somebody said I’ll give you a million dollars, but you have to go against your own grain, you just have to do what I say – it would take me one second. I’ve never been tortured by something like that. Tormented more about what line to use in a poem, or the right word to use in a sentence.
The flow of her life also gives the lie to the dichotomy between public work and domestic life, with its concomitant undervaluing of family life, that dogs women. She points out that being a wife and mother is a job and that she was productive and busy during the 80’s, even if she wasn’t performing.
[When she stopped performing to have her family], those who looked to her as a feminist pathfinder felt betrayed. They accused her of selling out, called her a “domestic cow”, a phrase that clearly still stings. “I was still a worker. Some people said, ‘Oh, well, you didn’t do anything in the 80s – first of all, to be a mother and a wife is probably the hardest job one can have. But I always wrote. I wrote every day. I don’t think I could have written Just Kids had I not spent all of the 80s developing my craft as a writer.” She wrote for three hours every day, from 5am to 8, when her baby woke; having two children, and a husband, “I had to learn, really, how to rein in my energies and discipline myself. And I found it very very useful. I rebelled against it at first, but it’s a good thing to have.”
She’s now a National Book Award-winning author, so all that quiet work in the 80’s has paid off for her.
She’s inspiring in a whole lot of ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I listened to her music back in the day. And, she’s still cool.