Like a certain kind of Dad tends to ruin Bob Dylan, Julie Burchill almost ruined Patti Smith for me. I only really trust Julie Burchill’s opinion on the need to outlaw asbestos, and my early-teenage reading of her enthusing over Smith made my eyes roll like a pill dropped on the floor of Soho House. A year or so later, I listened to Horses and kicked myself. Her stark and disdainful image on the record sleeve left me as amazed as the music. To realise that not only was it okay to be female, to be queer, to be ungroomed, to read, to write, to have ambition, to want to get out, to let yourself go – it could actually be brilliant.
On Saturday I went to her book-signing at the South Bank. The book itself is interesting, not least for its function as a kind of anti-confessional, a memoir shrouded not in prudishness or desperate self-mythology but content, affectionate dignity. She also played three songs, the second of which was her cover of ‘Because the Night’. She asked the crowd to join in to cover her nerves, and we did, hesitantly and subdued, nearly reverent:
There is something in her recasting of Springsteen’s song, the swooping and quavery way she delivers ‘they can’t hurt you now…’, that perfectly captures for me the certainty of protection afforded by music and its sharing, the sense of at once standing recklessly, defiantly before the world and taking refuge from it with another who understands. Making it so by proclaiming that it is so. On Saturday, collectively participating in its singing felt like something primitive, a basic ward against the elemental world outside my head. (It’s the chorus that does it. Not that the security, trust and defiant resolve embedded in its primal thump is peculiar to this song; I’d think, and frequently have thought, the same when singing drunkenly along to Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’.)
Did you know Patti Smith used to work as a bookseller? She talked a bit about that, about having the permanent mark of the bookseller that means that, when in bookshops these days, she still occasionally gets asked for directions, and about the pre-fame certainty of failure and unappreciation. This led on to her method of getting over this by recalling that William Blake was an unappreciated and ridiculed failure for his entire life. I must admit, my optimism worn down to a stump, that whenever I hear variations on this theme I find it trite at best and depressing at worst, rather than comforting, but I managed to avoid thinking so for the duration of her saying so. It helped that her speaking voice is gorgeous: low, hypnotic, sleepy, vaguely like Dylan’s, chopping off the ends of words and pronouncing ‘cigarette’ without its middle syllable so it sounds like ‘secret’.
Face to face, she was astonishingly old, I thought: nerve-thin, tightly strung, beatific. Smile. Clasp of the hand. I skipped off down the South Bank in the spring drizzle, the book clutched to me like it could stop bullets.