Patti Smith

Patti Smith performing at Provinssirock festival, Seinäjoki, Finland. Photo by Beni Köhler.

Many of us–perhaps all of us–have a diva. She (or he) is many things to many people, but she is there, a trellis onto which we graft our hopes, desires, ambitions, failings–in short, our lives.

For some, this reverence is reserved for the brassy pathos of Judy Garland, the smoldering glamor of Eartha Kitt, or the aspirational high belting and flawless manicure of Barbra. Perhaps you worship at the sequined altar of Dolly. It could be disco grande dame Diana Ross. Maybe you’re a Cher gal, or you pay homage to the many, many incarnations of Madonna. Someone contemporary more to your taste? Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, or (god forbid) Britney. Certainly our recent losses, Prince and Bowie, can be considered divas in their own right.

Other possible options for diva worship include but are not limited to: peerless Grace Jones, indomitable Kathleen Hanna, the unmatched genius of Joni Mitchell, Bjork, Tina Turner, Poly Styrene, Stevie Nicks, Tracy Chapman, Liz Phair, Fiona Apple, Nina Simone, Neko Case, k.d. lang, Ronnie Spector, Taylor Swift, Janis Joplin, Kim Gordon, Amy Winehouse, Cat Power, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Lauryn Hill, Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Kim, Kate Bush, June Carter Cash, Aretha Franklin, or Maria Callas.

The divas are many and powerful. Don’t fuck with them

The word diva derives from the Italian word for a female deity, which seems fitting since our relationships with them often seem far more devotional than any religious practice. I have never dropped seventy dollars at God’s merch table, but you bet your sweet ass that I would at Dolly Parton’s.

When the mean kids in high school call us faggot and laugh at us for going through a brooch phase, she comes to us, reminding us that we are special, that this will all pass, and screw those guys anyway because brooches are a perfectly legitimate accessory, thank you very much. When you succeed, she provides the soundtrack for victory dancing and often victory drinking. After that boy who keeps texting you to hook up refuses to go on a real date with you because he’s “not interested in dating men” and you leave his house in embarrassment, she wraps her arms around you and reminds you that other boys have been shitty, other hearts broken and later mended.

My diva came to me later than most. There were some early incarnations of course. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music was my first. I would stand in front of my grandmother’s television, wrapped in a skirt made of whatever fabric I could find, and watch rapturously as Maria twirled across alpine heights, found herself and true love, and created couture garments out of curtains. Later, she would be replaced in chronological order by Raven-Symone circa That’s So Raven, pre-The View infamy, Nico, and Joanna Newsom. I still adore all of these women (except maybe Raven, but can you blame me?) but they are not my diva. That title is, and always will be, reserved for Patti Smith.

I don’t have an interesting story about discovering Patti Smith. I didn’t find one of her records in some dusty backroom bin or inherit my adoration from my family. I found her in the most boring, most banal way a college student can find new music. She came up on shuffle.

While studying in my usual corner of the library, listening to a Velvet Underground station, I mentally surfaced at the exact moment that the first notes of Free Money glimmered into existence. By the time the tempo picked up, when Patti says “I know they’re stolen but I don’t feel bad,” I was madly, religiously in love. I went home that night and listened to Horses all the way through three times. I worked my way through her musical output, then her poetry. Later, I read her National Book Award-winning Just Kids and cried at the end for the death of her artistic soulmate and best friend Robert Mapplethorpe and for myself.

Gloria is not my favorite Patti Smith song. It’s not even my favorite song on Horses. But it has become a signature, and for good reason. The song is, ostensibly, a cover of the Van Morrison/Them song about a girl named Gloria who is cool and really good at having sex with the narrator. However, in reality, though the two songs share some musical material, Patti’s version transforms Van Morrison’s cock-rock jam into an ecstatic denunciation of rules and regulations (religious or otherwise) in favor of sex, drugs, and rock n’roll. In many ways, the song is a distillation of everything that makes Patti great. One section in particular has always seemed to capture all of the elements of her work that most fascinate me. The lyrics are:

I walk in a room, you know I look so proud
I’m movin’ in this here atmosphere, well, anything’s allowed
And I go to this here party and I just get bored
Until I look out the window, see a sweet young thing
Humpin’ on the parking meter, leanin’ on the parking meter
Oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine
And I got this crazy feeling and then
I’m gonna ah-ah make her mine
Ooh i’ll put my spell on her

It’s all in there! Her inimitable swagger, her casual witchiness, the ecstatic madness, her social awkwardness, and the fluidity with which she presented her own gender and sexuality. She struts around, rocking just as hard as her male peers and actively trying to have sex with a woman. At one point she even describes hordes of woman calling out to her in lust and adoration, but she couldn’t care less because she’s banging Gloria and she just wants to tell the world. Her own sexuality aside, how queer is that?

Somehow in Patti I see all of my own triumphs and faults reflected back. She is the most un-cool cool person ever–a bookish wallflower who, armed with a guitar or a mic stand, suddenly transforms into some kind of feral creature who whirls and screams poetic utterances. I am not confrontational enough to give voice to all of my rage at injustice and authoritarian bullshit, but Patti does it for me. When I go to shows and feel out of place because I am not a tall, vampiric, punk-rock Adonis, I quietly remind myself that none of the famous artists and musicians who lived in the Hotel Chelsea thought Patti was cool. Look how that turned out. Sometimes when I’m getting ready to go out, I’ll put on Easter and imagine that I’m some kind of strung-out, rakish sex god, intent on turning the club into my personal pleasure palace. I usually end up just getting pizza, but still, the thought counts.

In her I also see my stupidity and self-absorption. Surely nothing less than the deep-seated arrogance of a talented twenty-two year old could convince someone that they could strip hundreds of years of brutal history from a racial slur and repurpose it for their own poetic purposes. It wasn’t just a one-off on Rock and Roll N****r either. Patti threw the n-word around pretty carelessly for a few years, at one point remaking about Edie Sedgwick that she didn’t possess the “n****r grace” that Smith and her New Jersey friends did when dancing (a comment loaded with not only casual racism, but more than a touch of delusion since Smith tends to dance like a white suburban teenage boy). To her credit, when I saw her perform in January, she expressed solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Patti Smith, out of ignorance or naïveté, has hurt a great many people over her career.

Queer thinkers have long discussed and written about diva worship within a larger queer consciousness. Many explanations offered for why this occurs are often predicated on the outdated notion that all queer people feel trapped and alone, unable to express their inmost truths. Divas, they say, are an actualization of repressed desire. They lead the lives we wish we could lead, and yet they suffer like us. There’s probably some truth to this, but I think it misses the point. I don’t love Patti Smith because I am scared and lonely, though, like most people I often am. I love her because, like every queer and their diva, in her I find solace, inspiration, and joy. Divas say the things we can’t say but desperately wish to. And they provide perhaps the greatest service any human being can render another–they make us feel less alone.