Last night Patti Smith rocked the Auditorium in Rome. Sitting next to me was an eight year-old boy with glasses watching who could be his grandma tear the strings off her feedback-droning Stratocaster, on her knees in a pool of sweat. On her chest an oversized white t-shirt with “LOVE” scribbled by hand beneath the universal symbol for peace. Her voice was hoarse as she umphed and yowled some of her best songs, which are some of anyone’s best songs. I have a secret to reveal about Patti: I owe her my life.
Well, not exactly. But when I was young and impressionable her music took hold of me no less than her message. “Piss Factory” practically singlehandedly drove me to New York City with a suitcase and a roll of twenties in my pocket. I knew nobody, had no prospects, no degree. But I knew where I was headed as I careened toward my twenty-first birthday. I got a job in a bookstore where I knew Patti had worked. I drank and wrote poems and put some of them to music. I followed, almost literally, in her footsteps. A few years later, and in another bookstore, I would meet her. It was like meeting an old friend for the first time. And I still have my autographed vinyl copy of “Horses”, my only celebrity conquest.
Her message, as I perceived it, was bold and simple. It was tailor-made to a generation, perhaps, but no less authentic. It can be summed up in one of her images, the “sea of possibilities”. It gave me and countless others the impetus to imagine something more than an ordinary life, something to aspire to. And even if life has since become more ordinary than it was in New York when I was twenty, the dream is still there, like Wallace Stevens’ palm at the end of the mind. It burns in the back of the cerebellum and will not let go. This is the power not just of rock, but of poetry. It is the power of art.
Marc Alan Coen—also in the NEWYORKERS section of this blog.