Patti Smith: Aging, fandom, and libido

Maud Lavin

School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This essay traces a lifelong fandom of Patti Smith in light of issues of aging, femininity, and libido. It also considers the paucity of transformative images in Western mass culture and its fandoms of aging women. Personal narrative is brought into play, fans' experiences throughout the life cycle are referenced, and gender issues are emphasized.

[0.2] Keywords—Aging women; Androgyny; Fan studies; Gender

Lavin, Maud. 2015. "Patti Smith: Aging, Fandom, and Libido." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 20.

1. Introduction

[1.1] For me, at 60, aging gracefully is both a desire and a resented dictate. Gracefulness sounds so tame, mild. I'm a libidinal person, I enjoy that, and I don't plan on giving that up. I mean libidinal in a broad sense—libidinal as a cultural producer and libidinal as a sexual woman. The cultural standards for older women range from grace to nurturing to invisibility. This range is small and feels constricting. I want to age in ways that rescript, expand, and add on to these representations according to my own desires. What does Western mass culture have to say about possibilities for transforming restrictive older female images? Not nearly enough. If fandoms are cloths from which we can choose to cut and shape different personae for ourselves, what do they have to offer to a woman well along in her life course?

[1.2] The fandom that has brought me out of myself and back to my aging self at different but connected moments in my life cycle is that of Patti Smith. I've had a decades-long imaginary conversation going with punk rocker, poet, artist, and singer Patti Smith—and what a passionate conversation it's been. Heart and mind. Sexuality. 1970s androgyny, with Patti's strong feminine accent. And mine. Aging through plentiful choices and at times limited ones. Changing each decade. Returning to productivity. Different kinds. Enjoying it. Bald-faced stare. Winning smile. From the heart. Flamboyance and privacy. Loose jackets. Frontal stance. Hers. Differently, mine.

[1.3] Just as Nick Stevenson (2009) has written about lifelong fans of David Bowie, I've seen Patti Smith go through life changes, I've seen her age, I've seen her adapt to new stages while retaining her (or so it appears in her public appearances) sense of self. I've seen her negotiate her gender and sexuality. I've used my images of her at times in my own autobiographical storytelling to confirm either my own changes or steadfastnesses. I lose track, I forget about her, then I rediscover her. She excites me. I don't mirror her. I don't even understand all of her public personae. But I recognize glimpses of the ones I do, and how they shift, and how I do, as we meet and remeet over the years.

2. Meeting and desire

[2.1] We first met in the mid- to late 1970s—it must have been sometime after the release of Horses in 1975, when I was still in college. I loved her '70s music: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, not mine"—no guilt, nobody's martyr, no victim. Looking back now, I realize I'd been looking for Patti for a while when I was in my late teens and early 20s. The women rockers and crooners I was listening to then had too many victims among them. No matter how strongly Janis Joplin belted, how forceful, how complex she dared to be on stage with that beautiful mix of strength and vulnerability, she was still pleading and plaintive: "I'd trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday / To be holding Bobby's body next to mine," she sang in 1969's "Me and Bobby McGee." Bonnie Raitt was complaining in 1972 in "Loves Me Like a Man," "I want someone to love me / Don't think I haven't tried; / Tried to find a man to take me home / 'Stead of taking me for a ride." And Joni Mitchell, in her sweet, self-effacing way, was declaring in 1971 in "Blue All I Want," "I want to shine like the one you want to see; / Want to knit you a sweater; / And want to write you a love letter; / Want to make you feel better." I didn't want to stay home knitting anyone a sweater. Only Aretha Franklin was standing her ground, and had been since she covered this song and made it an anthem in 1967: "R E S P E C T / See what it means to me." As for the rest, although they were headliners, they were drippy, weepy.

[2.2] This is not to say that women, like men, can't sing the blues or pine in song, but what drove me mad was it seemed like that's all most of the women I listened to sang. I came of age in the 1970s and was hungry for women who knew who they were and what they desired, with no shame but instead glint—women like I wanted to be. Women like me but a couple of steps bolder, one step older, many steps more a star. Women who rolled out their libidos when and how they felt like it.

[2.3] Patti was androgynous, although that was not a word I used much at the time. But I wore it too. I had in the mid-1970s a maroon velvet man's smoking jacket, found in a thrift store, that hung loose, large, and soft on me. I wore it almost every day over T-shirts or button-down shirts and jeans. My brown hair was straight and layered to above my shoulders in that kind of '70s cut that looked like you cut it yourself in front of a mirror, and sometimes I did. I didn't wear makeup. I loved sex and was very selective in my partners, having no trouble in saying no. I was shy but also blunt. I didn't think I was wearing mannish clothes, just dressing my own way. In retrospect, in addition to loving that jacket, itself an androgynous mix of feminine and masculine signs, I think the looseness helped me declare that my curves were mine and I'd show them, or not, when I felt like it and not for anyone else's parade. My cleavage was private; my clothes, layered.

[2.4] So to me, Patti Smith's look of loose men's shirts over stovepipe pants wasn't so much new as it was recognizable. She was more stylish than me, thinner than anyone, with hair as messy as the rest of us. Large eyes, large mouth, beaked nose. No little Blondie, her. Libido on tap, released through the voice, the command of the stage. Stare straight ahead. No eyeliner. Her androgyny was part of her confidence to rewrite the girl script. At the same time she had lust—she owned it—she decided when to strut and show it. She wore her androgyny as the curtains to a semiprivate, at-will public, female hetero sexuality. Loved. Love.

[2.5] After college I worked full time at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis making videos and doing TV projects. I also taught one night a week at Film in the Cities, part of Inver Hills Community College. I was the youngest staffer at the Walker in 1977–78. I loved my job, but I wanted to hang out with people my own age outside work. I found Jay's Longhorn Bar, at 14 South 5th Street, in downtown Minneapolis, a dark, friendly, wild, innocent, punk bar showcasing bands on the same circuit as CBGB's in New York—Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Suicide Commandos. I went every weekend. Jumped up and down dancing, pogoing. Knew people by first names only. Because Minneapolis was what it was, I ended up swimming in lakes with some of them and barbecuing. But mainly I hung out at the Longhorn, shooting the shit, dancing. And dancing.

[2.6] 1978. Patti Smith came out with Easter, including "Because the Night," cowritten with Bruce Springsteen. She toured with her Patti Smith Group. I heard at the Longhorn she was coming, but I went to get a ticket to her auditorium show by myself. Not about sharing, this. I remember being in the audience, Patti on stage, a packed auditorium. Patti in black, legs astride, hair messy, powerful and straightforward, sexy but revealing nothing. Loose clothes, deep voice, commanding desire. "Because the night belongs to lovers; / Because the night belongs to love… / Love is an angel disguised as lust; / Here in our bed till the morning comes." Here was someone who enjoyed sex and love. Enjoyed her lover (I neither knew nor cared at that moment whom he might be, although it probably mattered to me in an identificatory way that she was hetero and especially that she was hetero and enjoying sex and romance, not whining). Here was someone who took the stage.

[2.7] I was so excited I went back the next night—Patti Smith's last in the Twin Cities for that tour—on my own again to see if there was any chance of a ticket. Sold out. The guys who worked there told me to wait until after he concert started, snuck me in for free to stand at the back. Bliss.

[2.8] Didn't see Patti for a while after that, but kept track. She was married with children, she became a more vocal Christian, neither of these my things. But I saw, through the coverage and my imagination, that she stayed blunt, honest—the rock poet who could bend words and music and who could also claim the stages of her life without apology.

[2.9] In 1994, her husband died. She moved with her son and daughter to New York. Resumed performing live after a 16-year hiatus. A middle-aged artist doing rock on her own terms. Her work showed up in different media in different forms. Not a snob, not a stereotype. Someone who kept producing and creating, I loved that.

[2.10] And then I really did meet her.

[2.11] Remeeting.

[2.12] Briefly, as in got to say hello. In 2011, I was one of the people who'd put Patti Smith's name forward to be our graduation speaker at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I teach. I was 56 then, Patti 64. Our dean, herself a fan, made it happen. Patti came, she sang "Grateful" and "My Blakean Year," she was gracious, and she really let loose when she chanted to the students at the end of her speech, "Don't be afraid! Don't be afraid! Don't be afraid!" I was moved to tears. But it was a misreading of Patti's life—a wrong rumor about John McEnroe and her—that also meant a great deal to me, stirring my pleasure and curiosity, and keeping the libidinal thread spinning.

3. Sexuality and aging

[3.1] Tonya Anderson (2012), writing about long-term female fans of Duran Duran, analyzes the sexual attraction for the band that many felt in their early teens, as they entered into a cognizance of their own sexuality, and how, for those continuing or rediscovering their love of the band in middle age, there was a nostalgia for that kind of initial self-empowerment of desiring. What might seem a relatively mild thing—an expression through accepted fan behaviors like screaming of a sexually tinged crush in public—was actually powerful, especially for girls, who were then often tightly regulated in claiming their own (in this instance, heterosexual) desires. Anderson is persuasive. For me, though, as an ardent 20-something fan of Patti Smith and a hetero woman—and knowing that Patti Smith was a hetero woman—my younger self loved the performer for having agency in general—with words, with her gender persona, with rock, with the spotlight—and in particular for celebrating herself as a sexual subject. Celebrating it with no mewling. I was for that—in her, in myself.

[3.2] Rediscovering Patti at different times in my life has been about celebrating her continuing and varying ownership of sexual agency at different ages, as well as and as tied to her changing and often renewed dedication and exploration of expressing herself creatively. Anderson (2012) talks about nostalgia, and surely there must be a shade of that in my lifelong fan attachment to Patti. But much more it's an attachment to my own renewal and changing while also continuing to embrace the intensity of my sexual desire and my creative, multiform production as a writer—all qualities written large in Patti Smith's art and performance.

[3.3] When in 2011 I heard that Patti Smith was definitely coming as graduation speaker at SAIC, I went around telling friends at work the gossip someone had told me—that she was then married to John McEnroe. I found out much later that it wasn't true; another singer with a similar name, Patty Smyth, is married to the former tennis star. Patti's biographer, Dave Thompson (2011), says that after her husband's death, she had a 10-year relationship with a much younger male musician. Younger men don't interest me—I like same-age men myself. But the fact that Patti has continued to do what she wants—what she desires—interests me a lot. I want her to have a lover or lovers at 68 too, even though politically I feel it's up to women at any age to decide when or even if they have sex. But at my current age of 60, I love sex, and I want Patti as my self-appointed older sister/ego ideal to lead the way, shining a light on libido at all her ages. This seems a bit unfair; Patti publishes poems, tours, does benefits, sings at the Vatican, sings on a Hunger Games movie soundtrack, does TV appearances, sings, sings, sings. Do I want to reduce her to a sex object? Maybe. At moments. But much more, I want her—need her—to keep representing as a sexual subject.

[3.4] Leni Marshall and Aagje Swinnen signal the potential for film to expand "visual representations of possibilities for aged, gendered sexuality" (2014, 168). Yes, please, that would be a welcome change. Meanwhile, in private, the explorations go on. In the cultural public, we try to represent outside the arena of plastic surgery and Chanel-like jackets we 60-something women have been assigned to inhabit. We invent ways to glint. One of many ways is to elect, fantasize, enact a bond with Patti Smith.

[3.5] So I saw her in concert recently—November 2, 2014, in the evening performance at Chicago's Old Town School of Music. I loved the concert. I yelled. I cried. I saw it with my lover, who loved it too. It brought up so many emotions. During the concert, I intently studied Patti to see how she was dealing with her aging. She jokes about forgetting some lyrics but is unashamed, she spits on stage like she always did, she wears her hair shoulder length and messy like she always did—now it's gray, she laughs at her own jokes, she swears, she glints, she tells stories, she commemorates the dead, among them one of her lifelong loves, Robert Mapplethorpe (she's straight but not that straight), she wears the loose jacket (now created by a designer friend), she sings, she sings, she sings. I don't know who she's fucking. I know her libido is alive.

4. Works cited

Anderson, Tonya. 2012. "Still Kissing Their Posters Goodnight: Lifelong Pop Music Fandom." PhD thesis, University of Sunderland.

Marshall, Leni, and Aagje Swinnen. 2014. "'Let's Do It Like Grown-ups': A Filmic Ménage of Age, Gender, and Sexuality." In Aging, Media, and Culture, edited by C. Lee Harrington, Denise D. Bielby, and Anthony Bardo, 157–68. London: Lexington.

Stevenson, Nick. 2009. "Talking to Bowie fans: Masculinity, ambivalence and cultural citizenship." European Journal of Cultural Studies 12 (1): 79–98.

Thompson, Dave. 2011. Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2011.