Patti Smith Only Cares About Doing The Work
"Why Patti Smith Matters" author Caryn Rose on the 75-year-old icon and the attitude that frees her mind for endless creativity.
In a recent video message to her Substack subscribers, the musician, writer, and artist Patti Smith informed viewers that she was getting her teeth cleaned the next day, because she was going on tour soon and joked, “That's my big beauty enhancement, I go and get my teeth cleaned.” It reminded me of something music writer Lisa Robinson wrote in her book, There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll: “Now that Yoko Ono, Patti Smith, and Marina Abramovic are too old to be thought of as sexual in this culture, they get respect.” Smith, now age 75, absolutely does not give a fuck, wearing the same outfit of Electric Lady Studios t-shirt, black jeans, blazer, and boots day in and day out, on the red carpet, onstage performing, and gardening in her yard. It’s classic elimination of decision fatigue, and when men do it, they’re hailed as visionary.
Smith, now age 75, absolutely does not give a fuck, wearing the same outfit of Electric Lady Studios t-shirt, black jeans, blazer, and boots day in and day out, on the red carpet, onstage performing, and gardening in her yard.
But there are just so many levels to unpack in Robinson’s very correct statement. As a journalist and critic of music and popular culture since the 70’s, Robinson has been watching and reporting on Smith’s work since the beginning of her career. And Smith famously just did not engage with the kind of dorks in the early days who wrote reviews or articles that incorporated the male writer’s opinion of her body, usually her breasts, which some described as “incongruously large,” while others declared her “reedy and breastless,” or noted that her hips were “boyish.”
It felt like the former were trying to make the case that she was worthy of attention because she 1) had boobs and 2) these men rated them A+, while also attempting to detract from Smith’s own statements that she was “beyond gender.” The “breastless” ones seemed like they were trying to help, that they were on her side, because in the rest of the article, they defended her as an artist: She is a serious artist, who has no boobs or curves, so you can take her seriously, boys, it’s okay!
Obviously, I don’t know what these men were thinking, but given that they wrote articles in major publications where they freely discussed the subject’s body parts, I feel equally free to pontificate as to their motivation (as well as roundly mock them). As a teenager, though, reading that kind of coverage in the rock press made me wince uncomfortably on her behalf, as well as make me confused about my own boobs and how I was supposed to feel about them. I look at all of this now, and am mostly annoyed. It’s not even just the objectification, the inconsistency between the takes is also ridiculous, but if there’s one thing I have learned in my 58 years living as a woman, sexism is always going to be arrogant and boorish, not to mention boring. These takes are boring as hell! They’re not even poetic, or florid, or unique. A woman has breasts, film at 11.
As a teenager, reading that kind of coverage in the rock press made me wince uncomfortably on her behalf, as well as make me confused about my own boobs and how I was supposed to feel about them.
When Smith returned to active public life in the mid-90’s following the sudden death of her husband, the MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith, no less than the New Yorker felt the need to assure us that she was still sufficiently comely, sharing that “On a recent visit to New York, Smith was still in possession of her angular charm; her equine features were still distinctive.” At the time, she was 49 years old, had released five record albums and multiple books of poetry, and had performed all over the world. But the writer wants to make sure we know he thinks she’s still fuckable. (The same writer would later criticize her for “overdoing her widowhood” because she had the gall to write songs about her late husband and answer questions about him during interviews she was doing to promote a record.) And when Smith was nominated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, a leading music industry pundit was enraged for many reasons, one of which was that she wasn’t “cute.” (He preferred female artists like Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart, who present as conventionally feminine.)
Coming back to Robinson’s statement, I will offer a corollary: that Patti Smith didn’t start being taken seriously as an artist as she grew older until she actively extended her creativity into the areas of literature and visual art, and rekindled her relationship with concert audiences outside of the United States. At 63 she published her memoir, Just Kids, which both opened her to a brand-new audience and brought back people who may have been fans in the early days. She curated multiple exhibits of her visual art and photography. She won awards, like Sweden’s Polar Music Prize (an international award recognizing “exceptional achievements”).
Right now, in her mid-70s, Patti Smith is simply leveraging her well-earned cultural cache to elevate her other areas of artistic output, and the result has been voluminous and illuminating—everything from her unexpected embrace of Instagram to her genuine delight in recording vlogs for her Substack subscribers.
Her age may have certainly increased her gravitas, but as an observer it feels less like she is being granted a platform or a position, and more that she is simply going where she wants to go and doing what she wants to do, which is essentially how she began her career. Right now, in her mid-70s, Patti Smith is simply leveraging her well-earned cultural cache to elevate her other areas of artistic output, and the result has been voluminous and illuminating—everything from her unexpected embrace of Instagram to her genuine delight in recording vlogs for her Substack subscribers. She has always been about doing the work, and she will, clearly, keep doing it for as long as possible.
Thank you for this. I was talking with a male collleague a few years ago about Bonnie Raitt (this was after she won a Grammy), and he actually told me that she shouldn't be performing because she was ugly (as in not pretty). I said, "you have to be kidding me." He said he wasn't, and that no women singers should be on the stage if they weren't attractive (to him) too. So ridiculous. I don't happen to think Mick Jagger is good looking (I never have), but I would never kick him off the stage for it.
Absolutely this is right on and an apt metaphor for where we are in 2022. It's about doing the work whether we are musicians, writers, lawyers, politicians, physicians, scientists, academics or simply parents, grandparents, kids. Just "sweep the garden, any size" Poet Gary Snyder.