a graven image: the fallout of punk idolatry

I haven’t been to the Fillmore since I was very small, so when I step into the blue light and look up at the Banga bass drum I’m a little taken aback by how close it is, how close she’ll be. People are making sardines of themselves already, staking their claim in the splash zone. I take a wide stance. I, too, am a territorial fish.

Patricia “Patti” Lee Smith, godmother of punk and high priestess of my heart is somewhere in this very building. It’s a presence deeply felt: she’s just so much. Like, to culture, to music, to art, of course! But also to me. Just Kids is the best kind of comfort food, it’s a fire under my ass, it’s my favorite ode. I spent the final months of my schooling becoming crow-girl Cavale, a character in a play based on its authors’ (Patti Smith and Sam Shepard’s) tumultuous love affair. She is my work, my wail, my lullaby. Music is never not intimate, but some artists just crawl into your lungs, and sort of by accident, and soon you don’t really know what it is to breathe without their involvement.

That’s really dramatic. But anyhow, it’s personal.

And good lord, is it incredible. Incroyable in the esoteric sense. She is electric. She shakes the ground because we shake the ground because she shakes from inside our bones and vibrates into our feet and we dance because we must. It’s moving. We are moved. Sixty-eight years old singing we explore the men’s room/we don’t give a shit/ladies’ lost electricity/take vows inside of it and I see her, we all do, young and wild and sonically entwined. I’ve never felt so like a witness of such exquisite fervor between a woman and a beloved ghost. Sixty-eight years old and caterwauling EOWROWROWROWROWROWROWROW, turning the crowd into a chorus of stray guitars in heat. Sixty-eight years old and burying Lenny Kaye in the curtain of her silvered hair as they play creature in an erotic rock-out shred dance that takes them both to their knees. She spits. She spits a lot. Maybe it used to be a defiance, a middle finger to the sky re: femininity, re: manners, re: appropriate places to spit, but now she does it because it’s a part of her. Patti Smith spits on the floor and I think Oh my god, I just saw Patti Smith spit on the floor. And then Oh my god, I wish she’d spit on me, because there’s so much history in her saliva and I’ve got this weird faith that her amylase could somehow dissolve my fears, catalyze me to make a grand thing.

That’s not how spit works, but that’s okay. Because she keeps going. She sings love is an angel disguised as lust, and I bathe in it, letting myself have a crystalline moment of belief in a love that will later betray me but it doesn’t matter because here it’s good and pure and in her words I see myself: take me now, baby, here as i am, and for now I escape the sorrow and only feel wonder at what a human can give to another human in a kiss.

We are given a parable. We are given a medium. We cry as wolf all together, and we taste it all, as she tastes it, each epoch of herself. She knights a girl in a turtleneck sweater who clambers onto the stage and takes Patti’s guitar in hand, playing not one song but several, singing backup, fucking rocking. It is a marvel to see a hero make a hero. Some kid from the crowd shoulder to shoulder with veterans and saints and holding her own. (I cry a lot during this show, but especially now.)

So we get all this and we stomp for more and this truly delicious riff is taken up by the band but suddenly I get this woozy feeling because then Patti is snarling baby was a black sheep/baby was a whore and I want to vomit, I want to curl up and die, but I don’t. Patti Smith and Her Band are singing “Rock N Roll N____” and suddenly these, like, 32 year-old white dudes are moshing at me in near-bacchic frenzy, more stoked to rock than they’re ever been in their lil bro lives. The room vibrates in response to the priestess’ call, a sea of ecstatic white faces taking full advantage of this permission they’re being given to say a word that is inherently ugly on their tongues. I push to the edge of the crowd, I disengage and back away from the stage, refuse to let the sheer visceral musicality of the song make me dance to it.

I feel sick. I feel sick because I knew this song existed and I knew she might play it but I came anyway and just hoped that she wouldn’t, that the set list would be clean. I knew it could happen but I wanted to forget, because it is easier to relax into the quasi-deification of an artist you admire if they don’t make shitty things and insist that it’s a compliment. That she, having been othered in her own domain, may call herself revolutionary in using the word, give it to her favorite white men, point us out one by one, giving it to us too, with the lights on so we all see each other, most people’s lips forming shapes of slurs with a grin.

I feel sick. I feel sick because I knew this song existed and I knew she might play it but I came anyway and just hoped that she wouldn’t, that the set list would be clean.

And look, I truly believe that Patti believes that all mutants and the new babes born sans eyebrow and tonsil-outside logic-beyond mathematics poli-tricks baptism and motion sickness-any man who extends beyond the classic are this new breed of rock n roll being, existing outside of society, the most noble-hearted of folk. But it’s wrong! It’s wrong for the white punx and their foremother to appropriate such a word, a poison doled out from white people to black people. Just because you know that black people exist and you think they’re pretty cool and radical doesn’t mean you can straight up position your oppressions and defiance thereof as equivalent. As worthy of so weighty a word.

One hour and fifty-four minutes of punk rock piety made illusion by one song clocking in at three minutes and thirty seconds. This isn’t about my time being ruined or wasted. This isn’t about me much at all. It’s about “how do you negotiate the simultaneity of great love for an artist and great disappointment in a facet of their art and, by extension, their concept of rebellion?” I shuffle out of the venue, and I think about it. I think about it in the cab. I think about it on BART. I think about it when I go to sleep and when I wake up. I think about it on the plane. I think about it while I write about thinking about it, and honestly I don’t know. I can neither escape what Patti Smith has meant to me, nor can I ever even try to want to justify the song and its 37-year tenure as the encore that’ll really bring the audience to its knees.

I hate that we live in a world where an artist feels in good conscience and just power conflating her oppression—as woman, as artist, as captive of capitalism—with the oppression of others, black people whose scars are directly proportional to this country’s growth, both industrial and cultural, who are eponymous to the song specifically because the slur has been hurled at them with such vitriol and accompanied physical and spiritual violence. To survive that? That’s nothing short of miraculous, but to call it a miracle would rob individuals of their ownership of the struggle. It’s artistically irresponsible at best to strip a word of its bearers and assign it to your sanctified self. Black lives matter because they do, not because you found in them a way to (en)title your own. You can’t shock the world out of racism and into revolution. That doesn’t belong to you. Cut it out.

It’s hard to allow yourself to be disappointed in an action and still treasure its overarching experience. I think we’re told that in order to be grown ups we have to know what to do about the uneasiness we feel. But I know no other way than to talk about it. To weave in and out of it. To look at it and call it for what it is. I don’t know how to kill my idols, couldn’t bring myself to burn the book and melt the wax and trash the merch tee. But I’ll be damned if I lionize or hasten to protect that moment of venue-wide complicity in a linguistic assault that got disguised as a moral high ground.