Last year on this day I was getting ready to travel to Windsor and then on to Detroit to see Patti Smith. OMG. I can’t believe tickets were only $20.00/-! She was touring to promote Devotion, a small, lucid, beautiful book that I devoured in a couple of hours. Waiting in the well-used holding pen/bus station in ‘South Detroit’ (if you believe the Journey story about their song “Don’t Stop Believing”) en route to ‘the tunnel’ to the US made me nervous. It wasn’t the people or the environment, it was being so close to the US that threw me off. This is America, Childish and I’m Afraid of Americans, David…
I had one of my most profound experiences of culture shock in Toledo, Ohio- the hometown of the Gloria Steinem, Anita Baker, and Katie Holmes. I figured it out during that trip, at around 6 am in the train station (which is a beautiful example of art deco design): Americans look like us, but most know nothing about us and don’t care to, and they’ve been granted such power. They are not our kin. In that moment of distress, I threw my hat into the ring with the quiet group of Amish gathered near where I was sitting. I observed their austere clothing made from solid coloured cloth and subdued patterns, looked at the round thoughtful faces and felt comfortable around them as they ate their own food and spoke their own language. I was on my way to Chicago, which I journeyed through three states to arrive at later that day. The young-ish man beside me was out of work and talked about the fading resource industry as we passed rusted out hulks of farm and industrial machinery, so many blanched bones. Arriving in the windy city was a relief, civilization in the Midwest, refuge.
Although some Americans and some American places make me nervous, I have also felt very cared for south of the border. Maybe that’s privilege, I’m not sure. But I do know that when I hopped off the bus in Detroit last February 14th and wandered into a hotel in search of transportation I was immediately scooped up by a large woman who got me a taxi in seconds. I liked her immensely. Off I went in my carriage to a wicked 1920s apartment building across from the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), where Patti was performing that night. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera stayed in this building in 1932-33, when he was completing his mammoth murals in the DIA that depict industry and work at the Ford Motor Plant. She didn’t care for the city and the painting ‘The Henry Ford Hospital’ shows Frida in a bed after a miscarriage in July 1933. A huge tear slides down her left cheek and she’s tethered to symbols of reproduction and production- the lost baby, a car motor, a lifeless flower, her battered pelvis- while the skyline of Detroit looms in the distance.
With little time to spare, I scurried about my small but immensely cool abode, getting ready to see Patti. OMG. I found the theatre at the back of the DIA and wondered about the others gathered to see her. What were their favourite songs were and how did they feel when they listened to them? Patti makes me feel strong as a woman, confident in my brain and sensuality, and free to think whatever the FUCK I want to. Art. I salute her, as did the others in the theatre that night. I spotted a free seat not too close to an older man, some solace in case he was gross. This man turned out to be an ideal companion for the night- united as we were in our love for and of Patti. He was a retired physicist from Ann Arbour University and his wife was at a basketball game that night, which he seemed to delight in: “She does the sports stuff, and I’m into the arts.” As we waited in the lush confines of our squishy seats, he told me about his career, family, and at the end of the night he invited me to stay with them should I happen to be in that part of the woods. HILARIOUS and lovely.
We cried when she led us in Because the Night, her swansong that glided through each of us, lifting us up in true Patti fashion. It was magical to see her with messy witch hair, thin body in black clothes, shy and apologetic, then fierce, loving- to us and her son and daughter who were on stage. They’re her children with Fred Sonic, who passed away in 1996 and to whom she dedicated our version of Because the Night to. After the show I huddled near a small door to the right of my seat, a passage to the woman herself, with the hopes of delivering a poem I wrote for her. I wasn’t alone and the other woman with high fan hopes said she was a waitress in a bar that Patti and Fred used to frequent in Detroit. How cool. I was able to get the poem through and screamed over the fact that at the bottom I included my phone number. I used a fat gold marker and those digits came out so naturally, it’s weird. “Patti, call me.” HA HA HA. After all, “love is a ring on the telephone.” On that issue, she berated the women in the audience for freaking out when or if their guy doesn’t get back to them right away. “I used to get a call once a week…do something useful, creative with your time.” Very sage advice, on this day and all others.