we can be heroes

     by patti smith

[from Details, July 1993]

Patti Smith on the poets and pop stars who rescued her from teenage hell

When I was fifteen I salvaged a large oval mirror from an abandoned shed and set it against the wall of my room. I'd sit there for hours pressing my hand against the glass, trying desperately to assess who it was that was staring back. For a reference I taped two images to its surface. A still from Funny Face—Audrey Hepburn in black beatnik garb and white socks. Fashionwise, that was tops. And a Blue Period Picasso—a melancholy harlequin—angular, alien, not unlike myself.

It was 1962. A time when roles were rigidly assigned. The boys had Bond and Brando. They beat off to Bardot. The girls had the pale range of Doris Day to Sandra Dee. All through childhood I resisted the role of a confused skirt tagging the hero. Instead, I was searching for someone crossing the gender boundaries, someone both to be and to be with. I never wanted to be Wendy—I was more like Peter Pan. This was confusing stuff.

There were a few bright glimpses, mostly past tense: Jo March, Madame Curie, the brave mistresses of art. And there was always Joan of Arc. She definitely made the mirror with her shorn hair and full soldier attire—the tomboy who talked to God. I studied her face. "Ready to die," it said. I shook my head. "Ready to live," I whispered. For I desired, as Youth does, to be taken by the hand and hurled into the world. But who would do the hurling. And what would I wear?

In 1964 1 graduated from high school, unformed and still uninformed about life. I got a job in a factory. It was a miserable place, and I felt more alien than ever. It was hot there and nonunion, and the piecework was boring. All of the workers were either too young or too uneducated to work anywhere else. We were paid under the minimum wage. The veterans kept the quota down so they could work slow and hang around and gab. I had too much energy for this and got myself into hot water by working too fast. I was demoted to the basement, on my own all day, inspecting pipe.

Dirt pay, dirt treatment, but on Saturday I was free. I'd hop a bus to Philly and walk around in search of some small magic, some character, some shining street, some movie—Bergman, Fellini—some face.

I found it atop a little pile at the Paperback Forum across from the bus depot. Illuminations, by Arthur Rimbaud. The poetry lured, but the face—defiant and restless long before we were blessed with the images of Dylan or the Rolling Stones—obscured everything. This was the face of the future born in nineteenth-century France. And before I headed back over the Walt Whitman bridge, through Camden, back home to the Jersey fields, that face was mine.

Monday, back at work, I took my station checking and cleaning pipe, but I was no longer alone. The face was there too. Me and Rimbaud together in the bowels of the piss factory.

It was my salvation. He was my Rimbaud. And there was the secret pride of having someone I wasn't supposed to have. Far from the TV teenage idols—Frankie, Fabian, even Peter Gunn. Someone who was beautiful, obscure, and wholly mine. Whose words expressed all the noble egoism of adolescence: the pain, the rapture, all the indignities suffered. I examined the title of his book, Illuminations—possessing a special knowledge, supplying us with light—and he became the prince of my mirror.

Some time after, I was greeted with another shot of light. My parents worked nights. Me and my brother and sisters would do our chores, then put on records and dance—Motown and Philly music were great then. We'd attempt to express the inexpressible to the words of Smokey Robinson, who seemed to express it all.

My mom waitressed at a soda fountain in a drugstore. Some nights she'd bring us hoagies and magazines, but one night she brought me a record album. "I found this in the bargain bin," she said. "It looked like something you'd like." Another Side of Bob Dylan. Another phantom friend. Another poet's face.

And this one was alive.

Dylan was somebody to be with, somebody to be. He gave voice to my yearnings. His urgency, his awkwardness, matched my own. I adopted his walk, his Wayfarers, and his tarantula look, with just the right white tab collars and black jacket which he probably adopted from Baudelaire. I borrowed from him as he borrowed from others. I recognized him as one who had searched and suffered himself, who had taken another poet's name. He reflected Guthrie and Ginsberg and a little of us all.

So the liberty cap is passed from hand to hand, and placed, even briefly, upon our heads. This reminded me of a baby-sitter I had when I was a kid. She loved James Dean. She'd even dress like Pier Angeli because that's who he liked. She'd come over in her ponytail and her cardigan draped over the shoulder of her peach shirtwaist. She'd moon over James Dean's picture or talk about him on the telephone. I didn't get it. A girl gushing over a guy she didn't even know.

"What's he give you?" I once asked.

"Freedom," she breathed.

Chimes of freedom. I taped Dylan's picture between Rimbaud and Lotte Lenya. I was beginning to comprehend why we draw from others. We are trapped in our own teenage skins. We long for a way out but lack the right moves, verbs, and curves. So we lift a hair, a gesture, a way of dress. Any means necessary to break out.

Sometimes it soothes, investing some of this wondrous, terrible energy into the profile of a stranger, transforming it all—from acne to ecstasy—and gleaning a little confidence, a little imagined love. It is how the artist creates, how the young man gets through the night, and how the girl gets through her day. It's how we expand ourselves, and extend the perimeters of our mirror.

By 1966 mine needed extending. The surface was papered over—Blonde on Blonde, Brian Jones, Maria Callas, John Coltrane. I could no longer see myself. Even at nineteen I could see the irony of it all. Time to move on.

By the turn of the decade, I had gone through, along with our country, a lifetime of growing pains. Integration, assassination, hallucination, Vietnam—all backed by great spurts of rock 'n' roll. Through it we evolved with new eyes on everything—gender, race, God. Borders were crossed, blurred, obliterated.

I spent my days combing junk heaps for the same orange pants George Harrison wore in Magical Mystery Tour. There was the Hendrix wild-neck poet-gypsy look that washed out the color line. There was just the right black slip to salute Anna Magnani. I chopped my hair like Keith Richards. Through all these happy casualties one could almost forget how hard it was to be a teenager. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery.

In New York City in 1970, with my old red Remington on an orange crate, I sat before my wall and began to write. The wall was the New York version of my mirror, with a little added humor. My "hero wall," I jokingly called it: Dylan, John Lennon, Camus, Genet, Hank Williams. . . . . I'd sit and write, grinning up at them, my abstract friends spurring me on.

We go through life. We shed our skins. We become ourselves. Ultimately, we are not seeking others to bow to, but to reinforce our individual natures, to help us suffer our own choices, to guide us on our own particular journeys.

Sitting here today, at my writing desk in Detroit, I look up to the faded image of Rimbaud flanked by the Dalai Lama smiling and Audrey Hepburn in Somalia. I no longer have the need for angels—they have all been internalized. But old habits die hard.

I considered this recently, while watching Bob Dylan on PBS. There was an anniversary special in his honor and he was joined by many friends. But the most wonderful moment was still, as it always was, when he took the stage alone, looking a bit like Humphrey Bogart in the opening shots of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And as he sang, I felt all the emotions of all the years crystallize into one single revelation.

What had I derived from him and others like him, besides the ability to choose just the right dark glasses?

The ability to fend for myself.

copyright © Patti Smith 1993

back to babelogue