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Seeing My Favorite Artist Live Helped Me Find Beauty in the World Again

A fitting end to a "Blakean" year.

Patti Smith reflects on quarantine in her backyard.

When I was 18, I liked to drive into the city by myself and explore whatever was going on. One day, on a whim, I went to the Getty museum and checked out their special exhibit. It was a tour of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, which stunned and inspired me so much that I was compelled to buy a book on the way out (he’s still my favorite photographer).

That book was Just Kids by Patti Smith, and it quickly became one of the most impactful pieces of media I’d ever engaged with. My whole life, I was told that artistry was a frivolous thing that held no merit in our brassy capitalist world, and that there were only two ways to truly pursue art: To dedicate yourself to the soul-crushing industries that exploit you and your art, or to just keep it as a hobby. Neither of those sounded appealing to me, and I was called naïve for it. Yet here was Patti Smith, moving to NYC at the young age of 19 with scarcely anything but the clothes on her back, determined to forge her own path.

It was inspiring, and it filled me with hope—enough hope to even make me believe in magic a little. I brought that book with me everywhere. I loaned it to friends and then demanded it back only a week later. It’s the most beat-up little book on my bookshelf, and I will treasure it for the rest of my life.

But then, to quote Diane Ngyuen: Life’s a bitch and you keep on living. The years between then and now were full of trials I didn’t anticipate, and the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Madeline of yore had to get tougher. There wasn’t a lot of room for magic in between all the immediate bullshit I had to deal with. And while I never stopped holding Patti close to my heart, I gradually became more jaded, unable to see the world with the same color and awe as I had before.

Then, miraculously, as my friend and I were recently trying to make plans for a night out, I saw that Patti was going to be at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills. Our mutual love of Patti was one of the things we bonded over when we first met. So there was no question: We were going, work nights be damned. And after a mix-up with the ticket sales, we were somehow able to score seats in the middle of the orchestra section, with a clear, direct view to the stage.

My friend had a perfect word for the night: Serendipitous. It was an utterly serendipitous night. I got to feel magic again, if only for a brief moment.

A Book of Days

Black and white photo of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe
(Norman Seeff)

Watching an idol stroll out onstage is something I thought I’d gotten used to by now, after attending so many readings and concerts and festivals, but it’s different when the idol in question is as storied as Patti Smith. And since the event was hosted by the Los Angeles Public Library, all the library-goers in the crowd seemed to feel equally as awkward as they tried to figure out how to respond to this powerful person casing out the scene in her quintessential manner.

Yeah, at 75, Patti Smith is still just that cool. The sort of cool that comes from a person who knows what they’re about and has dedicated their life to it. Accompanying her was her current band’s bassist, Tony Shanahan, who’d step on and off stage and sometimes sit at the piano. In between talking and reading, Patti would sing us songs, culminating in a night truly dedicated to the art of storytelling—a thing she’s always been good at, even at the very start of her career when she was reading poetry with music in New York.

Of course, at its core, this event was part of a tour to promote her new book, A Book of Days—aptly titled, considering it’s not a novel (like her prior works), and instead a book of photography detailing notable sights from every day of the year. For instance, my dog shares a birthday with Keanu Reeves, who is a friend of Patti’s, so when I turn to the page for September 2, the corresponding image is a birthday pic of the two of them. Other images include gravestones in cemeteries she’s visited, heroic people she finds notable, and simple pleasures in life that she wants to recognize (such as a “thinking chair” that she never uses, and is only called such because it looks like it’s pondering something, sitting alone in a corner). As such, she spoke to us as she flipped through images in a slideshow—photographs taken by Smith, for the most part, with few exceptions—and told us stories about each one.

There’s something truly childlike in the way that Patti describes things—not in the sense that she’s somehow juvenile, but the awe and holiness with which she imbues her findings. Initially, I wondered if it was a front to keep up with the times, but by the end of the night I realized Patti was much like the rest of us: Just trying to find some beauty in the world, both immediate and from afar, while the world continues to bite back. She told a fascinating story about the person who helped cure leprosy, Alice Ball, a Black woman whose story was stolen from her and went unrecognized for far too long. And while some people tell such stories with an air of performative self-indulgence, you could tell that Patti really cared about this story, treating Alice with the reverence she was due and imploring us to read more about her.

In between stories and songs, Patti would also answer some questions from flashcards provided by a local school that was in attendance. I was tickled by one question and answer in particular: Asked about her favorite concert(s) ever, Patti opened with the opera of “Tristan und Isolde,” speaking of it with an almost dreamlike quality. She immediately followed up with the time she saw My Bloody Valentine in the 90s—My Bloody Valentine, the shoegaze band with sounds so loud, their frontman became partially deaf when he fell asleep while editing a track. I was a little drunk (not intentionally; I had one drink and it was nefariously strong), so I couldn’t help but let out a holler at that admission.

In a way, that just perfectly encapsulates what’s so wonderful about Patti Smith. She isn’t confined by artistic or aesthetic expectations: Her career as an artist has been built on the exploration of the world around her. To Patti, there is no such thing as being “too cool” to enjoy something that was created in earnest. She is constantly searching for new things, and building on the things she already loves. Sure, she’ll talk about piss, sex, and liquor, but then she’ll wind down the day with a few volumes of Death Note. It’s something that’s always resonated with me, and a large reason why I took after her so heartily when I was a girl. I didn’t know you could be like this. I thought that, as a creator, you had to pick a lane and stay in it, or else you’d be alone.

Patti ended the evening by performing one of her most beloved songs with little to no fanfare, stripped down to just her, Tony, and their guitars. She wrote this song, she said, for her boyfriend, who ended up becoming her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, but whom she still thought of as her boyfriend for all the fun and joy they had (her stories about him that night made me cry). The song was “Because The Night.” And look, I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest fan of her music, but even I stood up to dance with my friend. Patti’s voice is still so strong and powerful, how could you not dance?

When we left and started the brisk walk back to our cars, I couldn’t believe it; that old feeling of magic and awe had returned to me. It didn’t last, of course—nothing good ever does. But for the most beautiful, brief moment, I felt it. It made me want to look at the dirty, lonesome Beverly Hills streets with the same level of reverence I once held, when I was young enough that everything still felt new, somehow. It made me realize how special an artist Patti Smith is, to be able to evoke that in others. She reminded me of one of art’s essential purposes: To evoke.

Seeing her perform is truly an experience like no other. There really is no one quite like Patti Smith.

(featured image: Steven Sebring)

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Madeline (she/her) is a writer, dog mom, and casual insomniac. She aims to use her writing to positively represent mixed-race people like herself. Niche interests include folk music, elves/wizards, and why horses are cool actually.