Patti Smith rode off on her shiny grey steed (aka, a Lexus SUV) without me last night. Thus proving, as ever, that you can’t always get what you want, but…you get what you need. Or what something out there thinks you need, even if they're offbase.
The emboldened young men who'd surrounded me moments before walked away with signed copies of various Patti products, which instantly spiked in value. I could visualize their eBay listings in my head. And I stood there with my pristine copy of Witt, her rare 1973 poetry chapbook that I knew she’d be so happy to see, untouched by its author.
A small coterie of us said goodbye and thanked her as we tucked her into her host’s incongruous chariot. And gratefully, as Patti had given a funny, heartfelt, sweet, honest, and intimate performance—all the while exuding the Jersey girl she is. She’d sang, played guitar, brought out REM’s Peter Buck to accompany her on “People Have the Power,” read from her new book, fielded audience questions (even when they were ridiculous), and seemed to crack herself up as she presented herself, in ski cap and oversized bifocals, without affectation.
Seconds before I had been 6 inches away from her, leaning in as she signed 2 album covers for the troll-like young man who had lurked by the stage door with me. He had a bit of a Mark David Chapman vibe that scared me, and by God, he was going to get his vinyl signed no matter what. Standing immediately behind him, I had pulled out my vintage volume and had it at the ready. But for some reason, Patti zigged when I thought she would zag, and our paths did not cross, our eyes did not meet, and…sniff, sniff…she didn’t even know I was alive.
And given the icy stare Mark David had received when he’d asked her to sign, the way she’d said, “Got a pen? I DON’T have a pen,” I could tell that it was not the right moment. Not the time for me to tell her that I’d cried the whole way through one of the songs she’d played. “Beneath the Southern Cross,” the lyrics to which I’d posted on my blog at the depth of my depression when I fervently desired to be “not anyone…gone.” At that moment I had no inkling that I’d ever see Patti Smith in my very own state, be alive for her giving such a touching performance just a few rows in front of me. I connected with this person who has experienced so many deaths in her life and realized how profound such a cord can be between spirits. This in fact seemed the point of my 5-hour drive: that when the depths of despair corner us, when we feel hopeless after years of continual anguish, we need to trust that transcendent, amazing moments lie ahead of us—moments we may be happy to be alive for. Even if all we can see are the murky depths of a void that howls not with chaos but with still, black despair.
I’m never terribly skilled at meeting my idols, as many times as my career as a music critic has cast me in that role. The first time I met Jackson Browne, after having talked to him over the phone and written several long pieces about him, he acknowledged me politely but then took a huge shine to Michele, whom he mistook for a woman who’d baked him a loaf of bread 10 years ago in CA. They had a long conversation while I stood and watched from the sidelines, clearly a third wheel. Then there was one of the times I met the Indigo Girls. We were riding on their tour bus through Taos Pueblo. At one point, we disembarked to see the large buffalo herd. Amy Ray turned to me and said, only half-jokingly, “Let’s feed the journalist to the buffalo.” Well, at least she had addressed me, I guess.
In the mid-'90s I created a small stir with Rory Block, after having spoken with her on the phone for 2½ hours and hung with her in her tour bus after the show. The next time she came to town, I went to see her almost blind drunk. After the show, I went backstage and hugged her, which was probably more like careening into her arms trying not to fall down. I said, “Hey, Rory. You got married! That’s great!!! I just got married too!” I turned to introduce her to my spouse, whom I had in my stupor forgotten wasn’t backstage. Or in the bar. In fact, she'd never even been at the show. Darn, I hate it when that happens. Rory looked at me with all the bizarreness her eyes could conjure and made it clear that I should get my pillow and she would drive me to rehab.
With all this history behind me, I did not want to make any of the same mistakes with Patti. I wanted us to meet in a moment of profundity, on a mystical cloud of spirit and poetry only she and I inhabited. I wanted our souls to touch and meld together for all time. And if that couldn’t happen, I at least wanted her to look me in the eye, smile, and take some sort of joy, however minor, in apprehending me. Attachment. I craved a wee bit of genuine attachment.
As the Magic 8 Ball is known to utter, “Ask again later.”
After having been around a lot of celebrities, I believe many things about those we choose to idolize, idealize and fashion into public figures. One is that we must nurture their spirits as they so nurture our own. If an artist looks tired, it behooves us not to bug them, but to allow them to exit graciously, go home, and get some rest. If we want that artist to continue giving shows and interacting with fans at all, it is helpful if we don’t so push our agendas that they grow their nails 10” long and never leave their private screening room like Howard Hughes. We should treat them with dignity and respect, as we would a political dignitary or religious figure—not instantly assume that they are obligated to serve our whims simply because we’ve plunked a few bucks into their savings accounts.
I’m happy to say that I partially met Patti Smith tonight, and yet…part of me wishes I had simply left it at the sublime performance. At the hammy one-liners and self-deprecating wisecracks. At her quipping (after a particularly dumb question), "What are you, on pills??"
Seeing the performer’s mask get dropped and the cranky, impatient, all-too-human being come out ached a bit. And yet, much of why we respond to Patti and other poets in the ways we do is because their humanity shines through their work—and catalyzes us to shine through ours.
A review of Elizabeth Gilbert's most recent book, Committed
While Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book is not anywhere near as juicy as Eat, Pray, Love, it did manage to keep me reading till the morning hours the past 2 nights. This is the book that will probably be known by most as “the follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love,” which, like being the child of a celebrity, confers a burden so enormous that it would be difficult for any writer to overcome. If she had not been Liz Gilbert and this had not been Son of EPL, we might just deem this an interesting patchwork quilt of a book by an insightful writer on the topic marriage. Or more specifically, how a marriage-fearing woman who is forced by the government to marry the man she loves eventually makes an uneasy peace with the institution.
Gilbert had actually penned a 500-page first draft of this book that she trashed. I mean, completely set aside. Just the thought of that makes me cringe. Her rationale was that its perky tone was no longer that of her nearing-40 self. Hmmm. Yet this was the voice that drove EPL, a voice that 7 million readers were altogether fond of. And thus, I found myself wanting to gently inquire, “Could I just page through your trash can for a few hours?”
Yes, this is a more mature voice, and maturity is, well…often a desirable quality, especially in doctors and barristers and funeral directors. But some of what we look to younger works for is their youthful joie de vivre, and EPL had that in spades. It was truly a coming-of-age book, almost a bildungsroman, of a woman who deeply comes to know herself after a painful divorce prompts her to question her life and life itself. In it, she takes us through three of life’s most powerful moments: eating (feeding oneself), finding a spiritual path, and falling passionately in love—while traipsing through some of the most romantic geography on Earth. Now, if there’s a more irresistible premise, please tell me. EPL was like a torte. My partner and read the book over the phone to each other, savoring every rich page and delaying reading the final few chapters, as we didn't want the adventure, the jokes, the insights to end. As I’m sure Gilbert was keenly and painfully aware, that sort of appeal is nigh-impossible to top—or follow.
She could have simply kept going, stitching together outtakes from EPL into a second act that readers would have hungrily devoured. But to her credit, she was attempting to grow stylistically as a writer, satiate her intellectual curiosity, and share the results of her research. However, as with any monograph, as fascinating as the information uncovered may be (and it is), there’s little plot. Here we enter Wait, Think, Wait territory. Gilbert has embodied the Hanged Man of the tarot deck, on a trip through hell via a holding pattern in the airspace of Homeland Security. However, as maddening and frightening this place is, it doesn’t offer enough of the sort of dramatic trajectory that made EPL famous. To make matters worse, Gilbert opts to lose her narrative tension almost immediately when she tells us that ultimately she will marry. A little “will she or won’t she?” could have bought her some momentum.
Gilbert’s forte are her interviews with people of other cultures, often those bearing scant resemblance to modern-day America's, such as the Hmong of Vietnam. I don't know what drug she slips them, but she establishes an amazing amount of instant rapport with her interview subjects. Here is this tall, blonde, white, American female who drops into a remote country such as Vietnam for a few days, immediately finds a 12-year-old translator, then sets about quizzing 3 generations of Hmong women on their feelings about their marriages—after little or no introduction. Granted, just her very being is an immense novelty to them, and I'm sure her lovely spirit warms them up, but trust? It is here where she sparkles most brilliantly, and here where I wish she’d lingered longer, as in EPL.
But curiously, Gilbert foregoes the luster of her real-world anecdotes to lead with extended passages about the history of marriage. And despite some fascinating facts, they seem to go on for many pages at a time, with little of her trademark humor. The “Marriage and History” chapter is 32 pages long, tossed in right as she starts to get some traction and grinding things to the halt like a droning Sunday sermon. It’s sad because this could have been a reasonably quick fix. Her research simply needed to be assimilated more, spoken through her own lovely voice, and lavishly punctuated with fine examples from her globetrotting.
Part of this chapter is needlessly soapbox-y, specifically her assertion that “gay people can and should have the right to marry.” Well, yes, obviously—and I think her average reader would share that sentiment without its even having to be proffered or expounded on. Perhaps I’m overestimating her target audience, but this bit of preaching to the choir could have been nixed.
As Gilbert’s editor, I would have sent her back to the parts that really sing: Her obvious affection for people and fascination with other cultures. Her capacity to sort through the noise and cull her own truths, after assimilating the perspectives of others. And her ability to turn our cherished paradigms on their ears by presenting radically different points of view. I will say that she does do some of the latter when she interviews the Hmong women, who seem to possess few romanticized notions about marriage—or the specialness of personal identity overall. To these people (whom she characterizes as throwbacks to ancient history), “one man is the same as the next.” Unless the translator wasn’t doing her job, they seemingly can’t even grasp how a woman would fall in love with a man’s specific qualities or personal za za zsu. They simply don’t differentiate themselves from others—a fascinating concept, especially for Westerners hung up on their own personal punch lists of traits they bring to the party and those they can’t live without. And, as Gilbert discovers, these marriages tend to endure far longer than ones driven by love and personal preference. As odd as it may seem, arranged marriages statistically stand a better chance of lasting. And thus, she worries—and worries and worries—that her own marriage to Felipe may not.
The book also lends many perspectives on marriage of which the solipsistic Westerner steeped in the culture of $40,000 weddings may be completely unaware. For example, in the 14th and 15th centuries, nuptials were extremely drab affairs, conducted in street clothes at home and lasting for just a few minutes. There were no websites, no destination weddings, no caterers, no videographers, and certainly no guests boogeying down to “I Can Love You Like That.”
But I really started to perk up about 2/3 of the way through, when Gilbert takes a sudden left turn, becoming much more personal, as she sifts the marriages and child-rearing experiences of her matrilineage. The excellent questions she raises about what constitutes happiness and satisfaction within the confines of marriage and rearing children provoke much thought, as they ask what we sacrifice or subsume in order to sustain a long-term marriage or family.
Despite its many strengths, Committed has still left me a bit cold, and I can’t tell if that’s because I so adored its predecessor or due to its blatantly patched-together quality. I found myself wondering why her editor had apparently fallen asleep on the job--and how I might apply for the position next time around. Give me a jingle, Liz.