Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Patti Smith’

21 APRIL, 2014

Patti Smith’s Advice on Life

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How dental care protects our inner Pinocchio.

In May of 2010, beloved performer, poet, and renegade philosopher Patti Smith got up in front of the graduating class at Pratt and delivered a short and exquisite masterpiece of a special modern art form: the commencement address. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

She starts out with her characteristic fusion of wit and wisdom:

Now that I’m here, my greatest urge is to speak to you of dental care. My generation had a rough go dentally. Our dentists were the army dentists who came back from World War II and believed that the dental office was a battleground. You have a better chance at dental health. And I say this because you want at night to be pacing the floor because your fuse is burning inside of you, because you want to do your work, because you want to finish that canvas, because you want to help your fellow man — you don’t want to be pacing because you need a damn root canal.

And then — boom! — the classic Patti Smith stealthy sagacity that slips in through the back door to deliver a powerful point. Recounting her early days in New York City — roaming the streets with her soulmate, Robert Mapplethorpe, and being so poor that they frequently dined on the starving-artist staple of lettuce soup — Smith considers a profound human universality:

Pinocchio went out into the world. He went on his road filled with good intentions, with a vision. He went ready to do all the things he dreamed, but he was pulled this way and that. He was distracted. He faltered. He made mistakes. But he kept on. Pinocchio, in the end, became himself — because the little flame inside him, no matter what crap he went through, would not be extinguished.

We are all Pinocchio.

And do you know what I found after several decades of life? We are Pinocchio over and over again — we achieve our goal, we become a level of ourselves, and then we want to go further. And we make new mistakes, and we have new hardships, but we prevail. We are human. We are alive. We have blood.

On the question of finding one’s purpose, Smith recounts the advice William S. Burroughs memorably gave her, which she advocates for frequently:

What should we aspire to as we go on our road? When I was in my early twenties, I was lucky to have William Burroughs as a friend and mentor. Once I was with him and I asked him this question: “What should I aspire to?” and he thought, and he said: “My dear, a gold American Express would be good.” But after that, he said very thoughtfully, “Build your name.” And i said, “William, my name is Smith.” And he said, “Well, you’ll have to build a little harder.” But what William meant when he told me to build my name. Build a good name — because a name is not to get famous. He wasn’t talking about celebrity — he was talking about let your name radiate your self, magnify who you are, your good deeds, your code of honor. Build your name and as you go through life, your name will serve you.

She considers our most reliable anchors in life:

We might ask ourselves, what tools do we have? What can we count on? You can count on yourself. Believe me, your self is your best ally. You know who you are, even when sometimes it becomes a little blurry and you make mistakes or seem to be veering off, just go deeper. You know who you are. You know the right thing to do. And when you make a mistake, it’s alright — just as the song goes, pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start all over again.

On the importance of our cultural roots and sense of belonging:

When you proceed on your course, never forget you are not alone. You have friends and family, but you also have you ancestors. Your ancestors sing in your blood. Call to them. Their strength through the ages will come into you. And then there are your spiritual ancestors. Call on them. They have set themselves up through human history to be at your disposal. Jesus, he said, “I am with you always, even into the end of the world,” Allen Ginsburg, Walt Whitman — they are with you. Choose the one you wish to walk with and he or she will walk with you. Don’t forget that you are not alone.

She ends by recounting the advice her father gave her, bringing it all back to the bigger point behind her seemingly silly dental care counsel:

When I left home, I asked my father what advice he could give me. My father was very intelligent, very well-read — he read all the great books, all the great philosophers. But when I asked his advice, he told me one thing: Be happy. It’s all he said. So simple. I’m telling you, these simple things — taking care of your teeth, being happy — they will be your greatest allies. Because when you’re happy, you ignite that little flame that tells you and reminds you who you are. And it will ignite, it will animate your enthusiasm for things — it will enforce your work.

Be happy, take care of your teeth, always let your conscience be your guide.

Complement with Dream of Life, the fantastic documentary about Smith, then revisit some excellent commencement addresses by Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, Debbie Millman, Anna Quindlen, Bill Watterson, Joseph Brodsky, and Ann Patchett.

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30 DECEMBER, 2013

Dream of Life: The Ultimate Documentary on the Iconic Artist Patti Smith

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“Life isn’t some vertical or horizontal line — you have your own interior world, and it’s not neat.”

Patti Smith (born December 30, 1946) is celebrated as the “godmother of punk rock,” but besides being a magnificent musician, she is also a phenomenal poet, artist, rebel, and modern philosopher — a mind so diversely interesting and a heart so boundless in creative curiosity that she stands as a rare kind of modern muse to generation after generation of contemporary creators. Hardly anywhere does Smith’s singular spirit shine in more kaleidoscopic dimension than in Steven Sebring’s 2007 documentary Dream of Life, named after Smith’s 1988 album of the same title. The film, a decade in the making and narrated by Smith herself, offers an intimate portrait of one of the most important artists of the last century, in which she discusses everything from art and music to love and grief to politics to how creativity works. It’s available below in two parts — please enjoy:

My mission is to communicate, to wake people up, to give them my energy and accept theirs.

The film was eventually adapted into the coffee-table photo book Patti Smith: Dream of Life (public library), a treasure in its own right.

Complement with Patti Smith’s advice to the young, her tribute to Virginia Woolf, her lettuce soup recipe for starving artists, and her stirring poems mourning her soulmate.

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16 AUGUST, 2013

Patti Smith’s Advice to the Young, by Way of William S. Burroughs

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“To be an artist — actually, to be a human being in these times — it’s all difficult. … What matters is to know what you want and pursue it.”

In this short video from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, legendary performer, poet, lettuce-soup maker, and beloved reconstructionist Patti Smith offers her life’s wisdom to the young. Highlights below.

On finding your purpose and doing what you love:

A writer, or any artist, can’t expect to be embraced by the people [but] you just keep doing your work — because you have to, because it’s your calling.

On maintaining creative integrity and not compromising — the best advice she ever got, from none other than William S. Burroughs (who typically offered the young advice of a more politically incorrect nature), which stayed with her all along:

Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.

On relinquishing the false god of perfection and instead learning to ride with life’s ebb and flow:

To be an artist — actually, to be a human being in these times — it’s all difficult. … What matters is to know what you want and pursue it.

[…]

[Life] is like a roller coaster. It’s never going to be perfect — it is going to have perfect moments, and then rough spots, but it’s all worth it.

In her superb 2010 memoir, Just Kids (public library), Smith traces her own journey to that first spark of creative calling after a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a “moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs.” The visit left her profoundly mesmerized by the world of art and its alluring promise:

Secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.

In the book, she also paints a colorful portrait of the notoriously eccentric Burroughs:

William Burroughs was simultaneously old and young. Part sheriff, part gumshoe. All writer. He had a medicine chest he kept locked, but if you were in pain he would open it. He did not like to see his loved ones suffer. If you were infirm he would feed you. He’d appear at your door with a fish wrapped in newsprint and fry it up. He was inaccessible to a girl but I loved him anyway.

He camped in the Bunker with his typewriter, his shotgun, and his overcoat. From time to time he’d slip on his coat, saunter our way, and take his place at the table we reserved for him in front of the stage.

Just Kids remains a must-read. Pair Smith’s advice with more words of wisdom to the young (at heart) by Neil Gaiman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Charles Bukowski, and E. O. Wilson.

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