Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bats With Their Baby-Veined Faces--Part 1

Patti Smith is on my mind today. My beloved soul-sister Stephen called me yesterday. He's dying of cancer but his inevitable cellular expansion into the unknown has been put off for some months, hopefully some years. It turns out he's of the blood type that can undergo genetic resequencing. There's been a lot of work in this area, much of it experimental and much of it hopeful. He's on some kind of drug--we didn't talk about it in depth because we had too much to say to one another, mostly about what he's going to do with himself, now that he's got all this time. These therapies can be very successful, just not permanently. Yet.

"I feel pretty good these days," he explained to me, even as he was calling because he's going through withdrawals from the fentanyl patch he's been on for a couple years. "I don't know if I should travel the world, see Bali with my husband, fire-walk, or stay here and get out of bed and get breakfast for the kids and take them to school and, you know, just live my life."

Steve and I both survived the 80's AIDS crisis. We were both in New York City when Reagan cut funding for social services while tacitly denying this distinctly American genocide, Steve a robustly sexual gay man and me a intravenous-drug addict. I say "intravenous-drug" because there was a time when I was as addicted to the needle as I was the drug. (Consequently I have injected any number of interesting substances, both purposefully and by accident: cocaine and pastel dust, isopropyl alcohol, and dirty water come to mind.) I watched as my city streets filled with humans, people disgorged into the streets who had been (some for years) in mental wards, treatment centers, and hospitals. Elevators were crowded in a new way even for Manhattan, filled with the collage-phrasings of schizophrenics and the ramblings of dementia, people leaning on sticks and crutches as limbless and lost as people I had seen in Haiti. Little wonder heroin was my drug of choice; it was a soft and comforting euphoria spansule that enveloped and protected me as I roamed through Hell.

It changed everyone who was there. It reminds me of John Shirley's novel "A Splendid Chaos," where people go to this disco and it turns out its some kind of technology that takes them to this "Survivor" like planet where they're forced to figure out how to live on this weird planet with multiple other alien species and diseases. There's this electrical field that travels like a merciless storm cloud, and if you're caught in it, it "twists" you electrically. Some part of you emerges that was always there, but the phenomenon dislodges and even enhances it. So if you went through the 80's in a big city that was devastated by AIDS you've been through that electric event, and some part of you is distorted and enhanced. If you're lucky, it was your compassion.

It seemed to have been so with Steve. He has an incredible generosity and almost unlimited compassion, even and maybe especially as he took care of his partner through his partner's death from AIDS. But I'm waaaay off topic now so I'll get to the point. Steve recently finished reading "Just Us Kids," Patti Smith's homage to her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, which is also kind of a billet doux to New York in the 70's. Steve and I both had a similar experience reading the book, which evoked an unsentimental awe for the decade before the madness. BM. Before Madness.

Extending that device, I could also parse a significant movement in my own life, that being Before and After Patti Smith. Seeing the still stunning Mapplethorpe photo of Patti for her first album at age 15 changed my life. For a burgeoning lesbian and future transperson, the impact of an androgynous, iconic contemporary woman artist was meteoric; I was caved-in and smashed to bits in the kind of wonderful way in which you are then magnetically rearranged into something greater, this particular impact having merged with your molecules. That she existed NOW, in my space/time--unlike Marlene Dietrich or Romaine Brooks, whose photos and biographies I had devoured with a longing I can only now begin to identify--and, that she had agency, was an artist, was enormously important in 1975. I mean, I didn't even particularly like Romaine Brooks, but in a desert of a certain kind of androgyny, one had to make do.

Gertrude Steinian butchness didn't quite capture it, and while I adored the male forays into femininity, like Bowie and even young Robert Plant, I needed to see a woman doing it. At fifteen I was already exhausted by masculinity and its tantalizing yet repulsive allure. I could not have any of it. Those moments in which I allowed it to transmute my body, to "twist" me, were often abruptly halted by someone taking the piss out of me, or by my own hyper-vigilance. Patti offered a way to allow the cells of masculinity to pass through my membrane and infuse me with near luminescence. It was liberating beyond belief to release some of the tension in the reins I had bridled myself with.

Her impact merely began there. Because of Patti and her genius eruptions, her own literary/artistic obsessions, I read Rimbaud, Ginsberg, the Bible; I listened to Coltrane and Ronnie Spector; my eyes slid greedily over Brancusi's "Bird in Space." I probably read about and saw more demanding work during my Patti-era than I did any time in art school. I hope the kids have somebody today, somebody whose presence forces them to confront as much of themselves as they are ready to, not in a "Beautiful" way, or in that way in which people like Pink and Katy Perry have made an industry of, "comforting" us by telling us we're "okay." "You're beautiful the way you are" always rests on the substrate of "you are actually not beautiful." And why do we need so much reassuring? Patti was only reassuring in that I knew there was someone else out there, like me, dying to create, chafing at conventional genders, yearning to roll in a field with Wilhelm Reich, Jane Bowles, and Mick Jagger.

When Stephen asks the wonderful question, "what will I do with my time?" I inevitably ask it to myself. My adolescent obsession with Patti Smith showed me all I need ever know, that I flourish in commune with others, that relationships are everything, and that everything is creating all the time. Stephen offers intention
as the light that moves a life from the prosaic to sublime. My intention then, is to foster and care for my relationships, with my lover, with friends, with animals, with systems, and with objects. And then, turn it into art.


  1. I'd never heard of Patti Smith before! I'm excited to look her up now. I've missed your blog a great deal, by the way, and I'm super excited to see that you're still keeping it up. School has really taken a toll on my ability to keep up in the blogosphere. :(

  2. thanks Dex--School has really taken a toll on my ability to blog! Cyber hugs.