She is a proven example that dreamers can do everything as long as they get on and do it. Repeatedly, with vigour, focus and authenticity. She may recall the days in The Chelsey Hotel hanging out with the enfants terribles of her time, with no money in her pocket, as the best times of her life. Her heart contains love for humanity and that’s all that matters. Patti Smith is a human more than anything else.
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Here she is – stepping in the Nobel prize room full of dignities and the laureate minds of her time. She has trimmed her rebellious hair, fitted in a manlike suit, with a stumbling voice starting off the first chord.
Patti Smith is 70 years old when she has to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in the absence of the literature laureate himself – Bob Dylan. “As I sat there, I imagined laureates of the past walking toward the King to accept their medals. Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus. Then Bob Dylan was announced as the Nobel Laureate in Literature, and I felt my heart pounding. After a moving speech dedicated to him was read, I heard my name spoken and I rose. As if in a fairy tale, I stood before the Swedish King and Queen and some of the great minds of the world, armed with a song in which every line encoded the experience and resilience of the poet who penned them.”
Her essay in The New Yorker is a candid take on what happened in her deep human heart when stepping on that stage. If you watch the video from her performance – shaky, with flaws, asking for a pardon, you will be taken by the depth of her experience. Patti Smith rises whilst failing in the most beautiful way and yes, it’s been a hard rain falling.
The Chelsea Hotel
The way to the stage of the Nobel Prize starts from the smallest room in the Chelsea hotel in New York: number 1017. Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe find refuge in their resilient artistic young adulthood lives for a symbolic rent.
In the 70s the punk rock star is just a talented kid with androgynous charm and a few dollars in the pocket. “I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively,” Patty wrote after returning in the 90s as a hotel resident. Robert, her most trusted companion in life, died of AIDS, but it was between the walls of the hotel that she realized her sexuality and harnessed her photographic genius.
Her polaroids are equally good as her writing and singing. Her multi-talents probably wouldn’t have developed if she didn’t cultivate them in the benevolent artistic environment at Chelsea. The emblematic hotel is where Janice Joplin meets Leonard Cohen and the iconic song “Chelsea Hotel” immortalizes the affair. Chelsea is the cradle of artistic talent, improvisation, carefree punk rock bohemian movement and the place to be if you were an artist in New York during that time.
The misfits and creative genius of the 60s and 70s somehow gravitated toward one another at the crossroad of a creative revolution. What a time to be born in America. Steinbeck, Worhol, Kerouack, Jim Morrison and Jannis Joplin, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe crossing each other’s paths. In Smith’s memoir “Just Kids” she traces her relationship with Robert – the love affaires, creative collaborations, gritty neighbourhoods, audacious bars, young people with no money or connections, who later would go on to achieve extreme success.
They had struggle to pay for food and accommodation, but would always look out for each other and feed their creative impulses. It seems like their success was destined, yet was a product of their willful determination. Their skinny bodies and sharp stares in the early photos might mislead the observer – drugs and alcohol weren’t at the focus, simply their daydreaming to pursue the need to create art has driven them forward to success. “Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”
I remember well that night – warm summer evening, sound of the zikadas and a sense of a humble expectation at Zitadelle, Berlin in 2018. What a privilege to witness such an iconic artist playing live, reading poetry, talking about love and humanity. Patti Smith has kept her signature look, thin and frail, with a large smile on her face and the eternal impulse for creation.
Robert is long gone and her husband from whom she has two children has also passed away in the late 90s. “I learned a lot from Arthur Rimbaud. People talk about how he wanted to be a seer and do that through the derangement of the senses. What they forget was that he also advocated, sternly and austerely, that one must be able to go through all that – and then articulate it. Just to go off and get wasted, into death even, is waste.” Her concerts are a melting pot of spoken-word performance, guitar riffs and punk rock songs.
Her voice, despite the age, somewhat magnifies the spirits of all her closest people who passed away. Her presence carries tha humble knowledge of being a success in being a human and an artist, rather than eny egocentric drive. Patti Smith projects wholeness and love with everything she does on stage – the gestures, the way she addresses the public, the effortless in her styling.
A metaphor of struggles, singing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at the Nobel prize looks so symbolic. The first line be “I stumble alongside of twelve misty mountains”. Patti Smith finishes off her essay about this experience with hope and dignity: “Looking to the future, I am certain that the hard rain will not cease falling, and that we will all need to be vigilant. The year is coming to an end”.