In his book “A Bright and Guilty Place” Richard Rayner writes that “cities have characters, pathologies that can make or destroy or infect you….” This phrase came to mind when I went to hear Patti Smith speak and sing at USC. I associate her with certain places and times— New York City, the Chelsea Hotel, the punk scene….but then, too, with Detroit, where she raised her children.
Josh Kun asked Patti Smith what place Los Angeles occupied in her imagination. She said that she first saw it through the eyes of her mother, who loved Hollywood. She also mentioned the influence of hard-boiled Los Angeles writers—from James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler onward. She mentioned that she loves the nicotine-gum chewing detective from “The Killing” so much that Sarah Linden is the screensaver on her computer. When I told my friend Dawn Prestich, who is an Executive Producer on “The Killing,” she was thrilled—she texted me that “Patti Smith is now our screen-saver!”
Los Angeles figures as a place in the imagination through a blend and a whirr of associations. Geography, immigration, inheritance and new technologies were the perfect mulch-bed for Hollywood. There is also Noir—that distinctly Los Angeles sub-genre. Rayner describes noir as “on the one hand, a narrow film genre, born in Hollywood in the late 1930s when a European visual style, the twisted perspectives and stark chiaroscuros of German Expressionism, met an American literary idiom.” He goes on to say that it is also a “counter-tradition, the dark lens through which history came to be viewed, a disillusion that shadows even the best of times…”
Patti Smith went on to talk about her love of the materiality of books: “the feel, the tissue, the paper, the frontispice”—I am reminded of a short essay that she wrote for the New York about shop-lifting a book from a New Jersey supermarket.
She also talked about what Josh Kun called her references, but what I understood to mean her influences: “I mix freely,” she said. “I take what I like from different worlds and try to make my own world. I look to work that makes me want to work—work that agitates me.”
She said that as an artist she feels “sort of dogged…I can’t relax. I always want to photograph– I always want to translate–” I always travel with a small notebook, and as she spoke I was trying to keep up with her, trying to write down the sense and gist of her phrases. We weren’t allowed to record or photograph that night, so this is written from those notes and those impressions—of course I did see many people in the audience covertly taking photos or recording on their little easily hidden devices.
Patti Smith spoke about loss and love—and how emotions and experiences get transformed into art. She spoke of losing her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, and her mother and her dog—“they’re all gone. I’ve lost them all. But as I lost people I thought I can still talk to them. Because they’re still here—a host of happy, scolding spirits.”
As she played “Because the Night” she invited the audience to join in. She said that she’d always hated it when she was at a concert and the singer cajoled the audience. “Now I’m doing it,” she said. She also said how she still felt the love and tenderness and lust she’d felt for her husband when she sang “Because the Night.”
After she sang, after she spoke, after the event ended I was walking my dog Violet across campus. We crossed paths with Patti Smith. When I introduced Violet to Patti Smith, she kissed Violet on the head and said “Beautiful name.” Yes. Then she asked me “Do you want a pick?” YES, I did, and she handed me a guitar pick. Here it is, and here is Violet:
“I don’t like meeting my heroes,” MG Lord said to me when I told her this story. I didn’t really meet her, I said, Violet met her. I just happened to be there when it happened.