Read this on the plane on my way to New York. What a perfect way to start my trip. The always inspiring Patti Smith shares her experience about living at the Chelsea hotel…
Thanks Vanity Fair!
When I was being born, my mother cried out in pain. My memories of those screams remain deep within me, lurking, lurking. They goad me to this day. Did she not want me to be born? Is that why she refused to let me enter the world—this world, our world, my world—in the deep and mellow silence I so craved?
On my fifth birthday, I took stock.
My mother’s calendar informed me, with all the casual arrogance of calendars, that it was 1951.
In Korea, the U.S. government was waging war on the poor.
In the Pacific Ocean, the first H-bomb had exploded, like a glass shattering into a hundred or more pieces on an unforgiving kitchen floor.
And in New Jersey, I was assessing my life so far. I was an artist, but the world insisted on treating me as though I were just another little girl with a tattoo on her shoulder, a reefer in her mouth, and a Virginia Woolf doll drowning each day in her basin.
Walking into the lobby of the Chelsea hotel, it felt like coming home. Just about any artist who had ever lived was there. By the desk, William Burroughs, gun in hand, taking a piss into somebody else’s upturned umbrella. In the slow-going elevator, Janis Joplin making out with Leonard Cohen, and Leonard busily taking notes. In the center, man-magician Jimi Hendrix setting his Gibson Flying V guitar on fire, the flames ceremoniously licking at the plaintive, dejected, lonely, angry butt of Grace Slick. This was what it must have been like to hang out with Michelangelo in the famous Renaissance Hotel, only with a whole lot more time for self-expression.
Inspiration was in the air, and it smelled a bit like vomit, only sweeter because they used air freshener. I asked the guy at the desk for a staple gun and used it to tattoo an image on my neck of a fallen angel. After I’d finished with that stapler, Bill Burroughs wrenched it from my hand. Said he needed it to seal his wife in her coffin, just in case she was hoping to testify against him.
Over the next two years, I met so many legends as they passed through that magical lobby. Someone introduced me to Freud, only it turned out he’d added that u for effect. Lou Reed sat three seats away from me. An artist, he must have known that 3 was my magic number and made the connection. But we never spoke about it afterward or at any time in the future because in fact we never spoke.
Arthur C. Clarke, the legendary science-fiction writer, was in residence at the Chelsea hotel all the time I was there. Now that he is dead, I am staging a series of Arthur C. Clarke performance events this fall in which I will be reading my prose poem “Arthur and Patti”:
Oh hark, America, Clarke is dark, dark as death, his bark the bark of breath that makes its mark on you, America, with your spark of fury and your park of furry animals all tortured in grief like a shriveled leaf, oh, America, with your stark woe I feel your pain again again again but I speak of Clarke, of him I hark, oh, America!
Some of us are born rebellious. Like Jean Genet or Arthur Rimbaud, I roam these mean streets like a villain, a vagabond, an outcast, scavenging for the scraps that may perchance plummet off humanity’s dirty plates, though oftentimes taking a cab to a restaurant is more convenient.
Yet time makes ravens of us all. And so I pick the memories from the crevices of my brain. Again and over, I find myself returning to that windswept maternity ward in which I arose like a phoenix from my mother’s dimly lit womb ready to greet the world like an archangel with my own set of profoundly soft and bubbling truths with which to mark—permanently and ineradicably—my legendary very first diaper.