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My old boyfriends never would have loved my Keith Richards haircut

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

Patti by Robert

I finished Patti Smith's Just Kids. Sigh.

All she and Robert wanted was Art. They starved for it, took odd jobs for it, got sick and lice-haired for it. They saw themselves, and each other, as works of Art. They never stopped creating.

When Patti met Robert, he introduced himself as "Bob". She asked if she could call him Robert. Because Bob is your uncle, and Robert is your sexy poet. Right on, Patti. Already she was creating him, and he liked it.

On Robert's death bed, he lamented that he and Patti never had children together. Reading that surprised me, because having children seems so heteronormative and boring. (I guess everyone loves babies.) At that point Patti was pregnant with her second child with Fred Sonic Smith. She reassured Robert by telling him that their Work was their children. Of course she did!!!

I love their relationship. In it's beginning, maybe he knew he was gay but didn't want it to be true. (I mean, he'd been an altar boy.) At least that seemed to be the case when he and Patti were in their early twenties, scrounging around NYC, drawing and writing and turning their shitty room into art installations. Maybe having to label his sexuality was irritating. Robert loved Patti, but their their relationship was beyond romance. He told her, "Nobody sees things like we do, Patti." Wow.

I've never had a relationship like that. When I was 16 or even 22, my love for Art and desire to make it was something I didn't talk about with "guys". There was always some sort of shame involved, like it had to be hidden. Like it was my true virginity they could never take. Oh my god. Talking to someone I was dating about writing or drawing or even the books I was reading? Never! I mean who had time with so much of that other activity going on? Who wanted to bother with knowing me in that way when we could just fuck?

Why was it like that? It must have been something in me. Something I learned to hide. The first time I came close to being out about my Art was with my boyfriend in college, Chris. And that's because we met in a writing workshop taught by the awesome Michael Madonick at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Yes. So I couldn't hide that I was a writer. Sometimes I would turn in a story and hope that Chris would be impressed with a particular sentence. Once I wrote a story that had to do with my first real heartbreak, and the sentence described the way the heartbreaker's hair looked on a pillow. I wanted Chris to be enchanted. I guess he was, for a while. But we didn't dive into each other's souls via our work. It made us cute together, not bound by spirit and forever intertwined. If anything it made us competitive. Sure he won second place to my first in the undergraduate creative writing contest, but he also won first place in poetry. Hmph.

That was the last time I showed a more fully integrated self. Until five years later when I met my husband. The man I would marry. He was (still is) a musician and at the time we started dating, I was in a band, too. The Pumps. It was cool, but being in a band wasn't real for me. Playing in a band wasn't where my artistic soul was. I felt like too much of a fraud, and I was. It was like trying on a costume. Although I was letting my Art flag fly, I felt confused. My husband admired the fact that I had a full-time office job, unlike most of other arty/giggy girls he'd dated. And to little ol' me, He was the real musician, the real artist. (He never said anything like that, it was all me. Giving away the power to someone who didn't need it.) I felt that way for a long time. God. Stuck in a weird ass, shape-shifting costume. I think I felt that way until very recently. AND NOW I'M TOO OLD TO MAKE ART. Totally kidding.

But I do wish I could have been more like twenty-something Patti Smith when I was, like, proper "becoming" age. Brave enough and strong enough to assert my artistic self, always. Patti thought, "I'm hungry, but I'm free." I mean, no desire to starve. But to have so much faith. She had doubt, too. But more faith.

During the era in which she and Robert lived at The Chelsea Hotel, some condescending wad said that she and her hair looked like Joan Baez. Was she trying to be a folk singer? (She loved Joan Baez, but that guy was being a dick.). So she looked for photographs of Keith Richards. She cut her hair like his. She wasn't in a band yet; she was primarily a poet. But maybe there was some premonition happening. The haircut changed the way all these scenesters thought about her. They invited her into their art projects. It's like she was shedding.

But they assumed the wrong things about her. That she was a junkie, a lesbian. That she should act in their plays. Upon meeting her for the first time, Allen Ginsberg thought she was a very pretty boy. None of these things were rocks in her road. In fact they were pavers.

I'm about 100 times more bougie than Patti and Robert were then, and my twenties were nothing like theirs. Who knows, if I had met them then, I might have found them too serious and intense. Maybe arrogant and pretentious. Patti was naturally straight-edged (she didn't even smoke, don't let the above photo fool you), and Robert was determined to get in with the Andy Warhol Factory crowd.

But art is all I ever wanted, too. Writing and drawing. Allowing my creator-self to flourish without the pressures of capitalism. I could never care enough about a job or a career or most material things. Honestly, I'm trying to work on valuing relationships as much as I value time alone writing, being weird and dreamy with myself. I had to get to this age, and to read Just Kids, I guess, to see it a little more clearly. Some are called to art, and it's often not glamorous. Or recognized or catalogued or celebrated. If it is, glory be. And maybe more importantly: Who you're with matters. Can you know your true self, or realize your true self, with the people around you? Do they welcome your shedding? And if they don't, will you let them stop you?

I leave you with this, from one of Patti's favorite poets, Arthur Rimbaud:


One fine morning, in the country of a very gentle people, a magnificent man and woman were shouting in the public square. “My friends, I want her to be queen!” “I want to be queen!” She was laughing and trembling. He spoke to their friends of revelation, of trials completed. They swooned against each other.

In fact they were regents for a whole morning as crimson hangings were raised against the houses, and for the whole afternoon, as they moved toward groves of palm trees.

(copied from The Poetry Foundation)


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