A Day with Patti Smith

The day began with Patti Smith walking around Tor House in Carmel, California taking pictures with a black and white Polaroid camera from the sixties. “I’m a person who likes to roam,” she says at Jeffer’s desk while looking at a poem by Yeats. Then her eye turns to a map of Ireland from 1844, and there she is; Patti Smith — the icon of my youth — in tattered jeans and flip flops.

That evening she would give a benefit concert for the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur. The concert is a group effort with library board members selling signed posters and Magnus Toren onstage against a video mélange: Miller’s eyes on the screen, Miller smoking a cigarette at Emil’s house, now The Henry Miller Memorial library. Magnus reads a manifesto about how truth has been sodomized. Then Patti comes on and the Sunset Center is still and silent.

Almost every seat is full, all of our atoms firing off electricity, but we all wait and she reads us her poem “Oath” with words reflected in her glasses, and she begins to sing and we sing with her: songs for Jim Morrison, songs for Robert Mapplethorpe, songs for us all.

She reminds us of a time not so long ago when we thought we’d move into greater realms of freedom instead of suiting up in corporate straightjackets. Patti’s voice awakens us from our collective slumber. My friend, who has never seen Patti perform before, looks at me after the first set and says, “Wow, that was like sex.” And there’s the spirit of Henry Miller laughing at us from somewhere.

The second set begins with Patti playing the clarinet. She plays it like she sings: violently and full of passion. And she rallies us to action with her words and says “the only way things are going to change is if we unify as human beings to protect our children and our environment.” Then she sings “Peaceable Kingdom” — a beautiful song which serves to remind us that though she plays tough, she’s not afraid to let all of her tender parts show.

The Patti Smith concert evoked the spirit of the carnivalesque wherein entire communities would gather in one giant catharsis. This concert brought our community together with mouths open, feet dancing, singing in unison, “G-L-O-R-I-A.” We should, each one of us, take a bow.

Maria Garcia Tabor