The Slow-Cooked Sentence

A night of song, a theory about sacrifice by priestess of punk Patti Smith

Rachael Conlin Levy
Patti Smith performing in Finland, 2007.jpg

Patti Smith performing at Provinssirock festival, Seinäjoki, Finland, 2007. Photo by Beni Köhler via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes and impressions from Patti Smith, who came through Seattle to promote her new book, “Year of the Monkey,” a memoir of dreams and reality in one transformative year:

With voice and guitar, Patti Smith commands us to listen. Words pour over me, unheeded. Instead I hear the sound of her voice, an instrument that rumbles, warps, growls and caresses, embraces and rejects us as we watch her, consume her, demand her attention. Music may be considered as a form of language in which emotion is divorced from information, philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell wrote.

The audience sitting close to the stage, who paid for premium seats and proximity to Smith’s body, this audience, it shouts out questions while those of us in the rafters lean, lean, lean, listening, lapping, lurking over an intimacy priced out of reach.

Smith stands alone, brushing long gray hair away from stony eyes that are locked on the audience that waits, baited, for an excerpt from “Year of the Monkey.” The paragraph read, the audience sighs. Now come her answers, curses, laughter, confidences. “Not knowing how to do something never stopped me,” she says, and we chuckle, co-conspirators and charlatans in life. She sings, and the hall’s thick floors and heavy drapes muffle the quiet stomp of scuffed boots keeping time.

Her lyrics from “My Blakean Year”:

In my Blakean year
Such a woeful schism
The pain of our existence
Was not as I envisioned
Boots that trudged from track to track
Worn down to the sole
One road is paved in gold
One road is just a road

Later will come questions about conflict between self and motherhood, between art and domesticity, questions that seemed to confound and amuse her, questions that she first dismisses–My identity is intact–and then returns to answer. From 1980 to the mid 1990s, Smith married, had two children, lost her husband. This was a time of solitude wrapped in the familiarity and intimacy of family. It was a time of introspection and sacrifice. During it, she says she rose early every morning to read and write and learn in the hours before her children woke. The domestic stuff? She shrugs; she wasn’t good at it, but it got done. Sacrifice, she tells us, is only sacrifice when it’s without complaint.

Home from the event, I search for her song, “My Blakean Year,” which begins with a chugging guitar, slow and rhythmic as a train, followed by her voice, rough as sandpaper. I discover her curiosity and the infatuation that lead to the birth of this song. On Smith’s website, she writes:

i have worked on this song for awhile. reading a lot of william blake as well as the wonderful blake biography by peter ackroyd. his life was a testament of faith over strife. he suffered poverty humiliation and misunderstanding yet he continued to do his work and maintained a lifelong belief in his vision. he has served as a good example in facing my own difficulties and feeling a certain satisfaction in doing so.

I play it again, again, again. Music is a language in which emotion is divorced from information, Russell wrote so long ago. The song’s meaning unravels into pure sound and exquisite ache; this is the desire to create.

Smith’s lyrics once more:

Brace yourself for bitter flack
For a life sublime
A labyrinth of riches
Never shall unwind.

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