Tonight, poet, punk avatar and author Patti Smith concludes a three-night New Years’ stand at the Bowery Ballroom — the day after her 64th birthday. The New Year’s Eve shows are something she’s done for years, long before she was a National Book  Award-winning author and “godmother” of punk rock (as she told Stephen Colbert in the clip below). But many years before that,  women like me were playing her music over and over, putting her album liners up on dorm-room walls and memorizing lyrics like “Down by the ocean it was so dismal/Women all standing with shock on their faces/I was just looking for you….” I’m a smidge too young to have heard Smith in the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe-loving days she limns so beautifully in Just Kids:

In between I clock the action. Eyeing the traffic circulating the lobby hung with bad art. Big invasive stuff unloaded on Stanley Bard in exchange for rent. The hotel is an energetic, desperate haven for scores of gifted hustling children from every rung of the ladder. Guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses. Junkie poets, playwrights, broke-down filmmakers, and French actors. Everybody passing through here is somebody, if nobody in the outside world.

The elevator is slowgoing. I get off at the seventh floor to see if Harry Smith is around. I place my hand on the doorknob, sensing nothing but silence. The yellow walls have an institutional feel like a middle school prison. I use the stairs and return to our room. I take a piss in the hall bathroom we share with unknown inmates. I unlock our door. No sign of Robert save a note on the mirror. Went to big 42nd street. Love you. Blue. I see he straightened his stuff. Men’s magazines neatly piled. The chicken wire rolled and tied and the spray cans lined in a row under the sink.

I fire up the hot plate. Get some water from the tap. You got to let it run for a while as it comes out brown. It’s just minerals and rust, so Harry says. My stuff is in the bottom drawer. Tarot cards, silk ribbons, a jar of Nescafé, and my own cup—a childhood relic with the likeness of Uncle Wiggly, rabbit gentleman. I drag my Remington from under the bed, adjust the ribbon, and insert a fresh sheet of foolscap. There’s a lot to report. (From Just Kids, Harper Collins, 2010).

By the time I was immersed in her voice, in the early 1980s,  I thought I would never hear her. She was in semi-retirement in Detroit, having married the Frederick she sang to in that album I loved. I mourned the voice I thought was lost. It was always a poet’s voice: long before my generation discovered her, she was reciting poetry in the East Village, sometimes with music. And she’s never stopped, as the reading above from St. Marks’ Poetry Project shows.

Few were as selfishly thrilled as I when she came out of that retirement in 1995, after her husband and brother died.  I was lucky to see her when she first sang  in public again, with Bob Dylan in Philadelphia, and have been privileged to see her several times since as she became the musical mama to a generation not yet conceived during those early years.

The poems below, via the Poetry Foundation and W.W. Norton, aren’t from her most recent collection, Auguries of Innocence. But I hope they persuade you to find that book, to buy or replay her music, to join the tribe she’s led so well for so long. Happy birthday, Patti,  and Happy New Year. Thank you for your  grace under so much pressure. You made us feel like we can have that too —that we already do have that grace, along with the power.

the sheep lady from algiers nodding tho’ the lamps lit low nodding for passers underground to and fro she’s darning and the yarn is weeping red and pale marking the train stops from algiers sleeping tho’ the eyes are pale hums in rhythum w/a bonnet on lullaby a broken song the sifting-cloth is bleeding red weeping yarn from algiers

lullaby tho’ baby’s gone the cradle rocks a barren song she’s rocking w/her ribbons on she’s rocking yarn and needles oh it’s long coming from algiers

from EARLY WORK: 1970-1979 by Patti Smith. Copyright © 1994 by Patti Smith. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

seventh heaven Oh Raphael. Guardian angel. In love and crime all things move in sevens. seven compartments in the heart. the seven elaborate temptations. seven devils cast from Mary Magdalene whore of Christ. the seven marvelous voyages of Sinbad. sin/bad. And the number seven branded forever on the forehead of Cain. The first inspired man. The father of desire and murder. But his was not the first ecstasy. Consider his mother.

Eve’s was the crime of curiosity. As the saying goes: it killed the pussy. One bad apple spoiled the whole shot. But be sure it was no apple. An apple looks like an ass. It’s fags’ fruit. It must have been a tomato. Or better yet. A mango. She bit. Must we blame her. abuse her. poor sweet bitch. perhaps there’s more to the story. think of Satan as some stud. maybe her knees were open. satan snakes between them. they open wider snakes up her thighs rubs against her for a while more than the tree of knowledge was about to be eaten…she shudders her first shudder pleasure pleasure garden was she sorry are we ever girls was she a good lay god only knows

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