At the beginning of January, I saw Patti Smith in concert. This wasn’t the first time I had the privilege of seeing her live. I saw her only a few months before on the LA stop of her M-Train tour. She talked about writing and also sang a few songs for us. When I heard she was coming back and would be performing all of Horses, which is her first album (and my favorite of all her work), I promptly 1) had a coronary and 2) saved up for a ticket.
I’ve admired Patti’s music for years, but it wasn’t until last year when I read her memoir Just Kids that I really devoured her writing and interviews. I was struck by her absolute determination to live without concern for the constraints of gender, or decorum, or dogma. She wanted to become an “artist” in the purest sense of the word, and to do that, she would have to be free of any excess or affectation.
And now, seeing Patti live, one sees the result of that determined focus. From the cheapest seats in the house, I watched as Patti remained present while faced with a huge theater of people going absolutely insane because they were breathing the same air as her. She was constantly interacting and reacting with everyone on stage, including her two children, who performed with her. Even her voice is wild, with its unflinching ties to her instincts and emotions and total disregard for technique in the classical sense. Watching her perform, I realized that every moment with Patti feels authentic because she feels free to do exactly what she wants. She doesn’t live in a predetermined way.
The struggle for freedom is an important theme for young Patti in Just Kids. Patti is one of those rare people who truly did something that hadn’t been done before: she merged poetry and rock and roll. She trusted herself and her band so completely that she was able to break through creative barriers that many of us never will. Even now, her songs are evolving, and she altered some of her lyrics on stage to reflect the time that’s passed and the things she’s learned and the people who are no longer in her life. Patti doesn’t reach for an end point. She responds to the world around her, and what the audience receives is her art. It’s never static.
I’ve never been as devoted to Bowie as I am to Patti. But I love Bowie’s music and have always been fascinated by his personas. So when I saw the headline on the front page of the LA Times, I felt some of the grief of his dedicated fans, though many of them felt it more deeply than I did. More than anything, I felt a greater sense of loss, like there was suddenly a hole in the world.
The word “authentic” comes rife with negative connotations. I used it to describe Patti, and I believe it can also be used to describe Bowie, though in a very different way. Patti chose to make much of her creative evolution public in Just Kids, but David Bowie has made his evolution public from day one. As he changed his appearance and adopted various stage names, he was going through vastly different times of his life.
During middle school, sometimes a girl would start wearing punk ties or a boy would put on a chain, and people would describe them with the King of Adolescent Insults: “Fake.” We didn’t allow others to grow or change without calling them out on it. Somehow, the fact that we could see their progression nullified the changes they were trying to make in the first place. Choosing to be publicly vulnerable in this way is challenging, because when you let people see your interior life, their insults can hit much deeper.
And here we have Bowie, someone who made his career on publicly examining and reexamining different facets of himself. In the age of branding, in which your image needs to remain consistent so that the consumer “knows what she’s getting”, Bowie’s success is that much more striking. Like Patti, Bowie allowed himself to be free in experimenting with his art – and for him, this included different ways of adorning his physical body. The result is that Bowie became a beacon of hope for us as we grow up and inevitably adopt some different identities ourselves. No matter what the mean kids whisper, it’s more important to be true to where you are in this moment than to hide yourself away. And when I find myself questioning someone’s decision to make a major change or take on new responsibilities, I always remind myself of this.
Patti’s concert and Bowie’s death happened within days of each other. Somehow these two events seemed significant not just on their own, but together. Patti and Bowie are both iconic artists, but superficially, they seem extremely different. But the feeling I get from watching them perform or listening to their music is the same: the feeling that if I did the work I wanted without regard for what I thought others expected, somehow I would get to where I wanted to be. I’m grateful to Bowie and Patti for that lesson, and I’m also grateful that Bowie has left behind such a rich legacy. People are still mourning him all over the world, as it should be. And they’re mourning in vivid color, which is probably the way he’d like it.