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Sunday, July 15, 2018


by John Azrak

Patti Smith’s books, particularly Just Kids and M Train, reflect the same humanitarian, progressive, genuine spirit found in her eclectic music, a catalogue that spans over fifty years. Patti has been nominated this week for the New Academy’s alternative to the suspended Nobel Prize in Literature for those “who have told the story of humans in the world.” Photo: Patti Smith performs at Glastonbury in 2015. Credit: Dylan Martinez/Reuters via The Guardian.

In the early days of rock ‘n roll
when licensing was free
Patti Smith crossed her poem “Oath”
with Van Morrison’s garage rocker “Gloria”
on her album Horses turning her disavowal
of her family’s Jehovah’s Witnesses
into a punk anthem
with a scorching opening refrain
Jesus died for somebody’s sins
But not mine—

Just a kid when she turned her back
on religion (critics clamored atheist)
living with Robert Mapplethorpe,
avant-garde photographer and lover
who broke her heart when he came out
of the closet in her wiry arms,
nearly shattering her self-esteem—
a woman was expected still
to convert her man; and hadn’t Patti
read that Rimbaud regretted never finding
the perfect woman! –-but she remained
ever faithful to their soulful bond,
returning to NYC (though newly married)
to nurse Robert, stricken with AIDS,
holding him in her arms unafraid
when there was everything to fear
Jesus died for somebody’s sins
But not mine—

She married guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith,
band mate and muse, not on the rebound
but so she didn’t have to change her name,
she joked, choosing a life of relative seclusion
in his native Detroit where they worked
on their own music and in tandem
raised two children, performed locally
until she returned thirteen years later
to a jam packed Central Park SummerStage
to read from The Coral Reef, her mystical
prose poems about Robert, a tribute
to his art four years after his passing,
with the support and musical backing
of her self-made, selfless husband
Jesus died for somebody’s sins
But not mine—

Fred died suddenly of heart failure
the following year and then shockingly,
not six months later, her beloved brother
(and road manager) Todd’s heart gave out
but somehow Patti’s remained strong,
dedicated as she was to her children,
Jackson and Jesse, holding them together
with an unbroken faith in love and music
and the gift of life she kept in motion;
in the wake of her unthinkable losses,
Bob Dylan, old friend from their Village days,
asked her to join him on the road—
a short stint to decompress, exercising
her voice until “magnified,” she later wrote,
by the loved ones she’d lost
Jesus died for somebody’s sins
But not mine—

Patti and Dylan sang his “Dark Eyes,”
their first duet reprised on occasion
over the twenty years she regained her voice
as a prime mover of humanitarian causes
on the international stage; so no surprise
when Dylan asked her to stand in for him
at the Nobel Laureate’s ceremony
where she sang “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”
(her selection) winning over the strait-laced
audience with a poignant interpretation
and pregnant pause over a lost lyric—
the moment of silence capturing it seemed
her dear ones missing— the rising applause
befitting a woman who was a minder
of her fellow man, and as fate would have it,
soon after bound for Kentucky to care for
and work alone with Sam Shepard,
the signature playwright of her generation,
Pulitzer Prize winner of Buried Child, Off-
Broadway icon, poet, songwriter, musician
chronicler of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review,
virile screen actor and Patti’s former lover
who remained her friend for fifty years
now suffering the crippling and devastating
symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS)
robbed of the ability to write in his preferred
longhand or type drafts of his final novel;
Patti visited Sam’s ranch faithfully
to help transcribe his recordings,
to work out scenes and revisions orally
to help guide the novel to completion
never letting Sam believe, she responded
in a recent interview, that they were working
as if there were no tomorrow
Jesus died for somebody’s sins
But not mine— 

John Azrak lives in New York and has published fiction and poetry in a wide variety of literary journals and anthologies.