Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.
The opening line of this seminal album still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. This week I have immersed myself in the life and work of Patti Smith, rediscovering Horses, watching astonishing videos of performances and interviews and reading not only her work, The Coral Sea and Just Kids but other writing about her and her extraordinary life and work.
One morning this week, feeling unusually energised in this strange time in our collective lives, I danced to the whole of Gloria, in my pyjamas, shaking my whitening locks and soaking in the raw, energetic brilliance of it.
There is so much written about Patti, her life and her work, and so much critical appraisal of Horses that it is hard to know what to add. There are two personal moments of intersection with Patti Smith’s life and work that have returned to me as I’ve been listening and reading. One was my recollection of seeing her 1976 performance of Horses on the Old Grey Whistle test. I didn’t see it in 1976 because I was nine years and it was on late at night. I saw it in the early eighties, probably 84/85 during a repeats season. I was emerging as a young woman, curious about the world, about art, intent on discovery. I was encountering feminism for the first time and beginning to question the paradigms of femininity in my own life and culture. There was Patti, snarling out of the screen, androgynous, raw, powered with an energy unlike anything I’d seen. I found her a bit scary. I was used to seeing a very different presentation of women in music, often doll-like, obscured by hair and make-up. As a little girl I had cavorted around the living room every Thursday evening, imitating the dance moves of Pans People/Legs and Co on Top of the Pops, believing this was a zenith of female achievement and artistic expression. Patti was not that.
My second intersection with Patti’s world was an unexpected surprise. In 2012, on holiday in Scotland, myself and friends discovered that Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs were on display in the arts centre in Dunoon. It was a cold March day in a small town where we spent a thoughtful couple of hours with these provocative and moving works.
The Romantic, Bohemian sensibility of Patti Smith, and Robert Mapplethorpe imbued their life and work from the moment of their chance meeting in New York. Rimbaud and Blake were their guides and watching Patti now, singing In My Blakean Year, with her band, masked for our times, bringing in 2021, her words joy will conquer all despair take on a whole new depth and resonance.
Patti now has all the grace and power of a magus, a shamanic crone, shimmering with gravitas. Her generosity and compassion radiate from her. After all her losses, her tragedies she could have so easily succumbed to bitterness and corrosive sorrow; instead she stands in the light and offers her hand to all and invites us to dance with her and to embrace hope and responsibility for a better future.
If you’ve not seen it yet – watch this.