“wing” – patti smith (1996)

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Rare are the days in life where you are conscious that you are experiencing something truly special. It is during these times that everything seems peaceful and arranged by divine hands. These days are comprised of moments intertwined to create a lasting ethereal presence. A singular moment of perfection happens more frequently, but to have those moments follow one another like marching tin soldiers makes a truly lasting and inspiring impression. A day meant for me. A perfect day.

This past Sunday, Patti Smith was scheduled to speak at Dominican University. She was touring to promote her latest book M Train, a collection of short essays about dreamscapes, wandering, and great coffee. I had read her previous book Just Kids a few years earlier and made it my mission to see her speak. Patti speaks to me in a way no other artist does. She hasn’t had the biggest impact on me as an artist, but she has a singular, unique voice that makes me feel. I’m stunned by her graceful and authentic soul. Though I had seen her perform live twice with her rock band, I had to see a stripped down Patti. An artistically exposed Patti. I bought two tickets. One for a friend and myself.

Five months after purchasing the tickets, I met my friend outside the Sheridan redline stop in Chicago at noon. Patti was speaking in River Forest at 6 PM. We knew we had to get there early so not to be behind a throng of truly devoted fans. Walking to the train, the sun was shining but the air was crisp and earthy. It was an enticing blend. The very best fall had to offer. This gift of a truly beautiful day. Perhaps one of the last before the air chills and winter arrives.

We did not have to wait long for the train. We were to take the redline to the Loop, transfer to the greenline, take a bus at the end of the line in Oak Park, and then walk 15 minutes to the university. This trip was scheduled to take just over an hour and a half. We caught up on recent events. His improve class and blooming talent. My guitar apprenticeship. Sun rays shined through the windows and the passengers stirred the dust to create a dancing microcosm in the air. I could hear the music of life. I tried not to get anxious, so I kept working at staying the moment.

The walk to the university was pleasant. The houses were stunning. Different styles and more ornate than the last. Before we knew it, we had arrived at the campus. It was smaller and more discreet than I had imagined. The performing arts building was close. When we arrived at the main doors, we knew we were in the right place by the signs on the door. To our surprise, no one else was there. We were the first ones to arrive. Shortly, a middle-waged woman who lived nearby joined us in the line. She was nice and was shocked by the lack of people. We had another three and a half hours until the doors opened, so we put our bags on the ground and got settled.

My friend had left to get some food. I had brought a book to pass the time. As I read, I kept looking up and staring into the distance. I was worried that we would be in the sun all day and I forgot sun lotion. Fortunately, we sat in a covered enclosing that was shaded and cool. When I looked ahead, I saw the trees painted with fall’s brush. Sun falling on them and exaggerating their hues. It was beautiful. I stared ahead thinking. Thinking about the book I held. Thinking about friends. Thinking about family. Thinking about lovers. Thinking about freedom. Thinking about anything but Patti. Living in the moment.

No one else had showed up until an hour and a half later. Just a small crowd. It would be four. Just one hour until doors opened, and only a dozen people were here. As time came close for the doors to open, more and more people were arriving. We formed a line by the doors and standing in the sun. The sun was now lower than it had been earlier, so the brightness was subdued and comforting. My friend and I stood at the front of the line anticipating entry. The doors were open soon. I tried to remain unphased. Patience.

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When the doors opened, my ticket was scanned, and I was given a copy of M Train. I picked up my pace to make my way to the auditorium, down the aisle, and into my seat. Success. Front row and center. My patience and early arrival had paid off. My friend sat to my left and we looked through our books. I traced my fingers across the jacket cover, the rough-edged paper stock, and the embossed “M” on the book under the jacket. I was displeased with a slight imperfection on the jacket. A pinhole indentation that nearly went through the paper. However, I figured it was fine. Even at its most precious and amazing, life can never be perfect even if the day appears so. One more hour until Patti was scheduled to come out. I read my library book and not Patti’s.

Just a few minutes shy of 6 PM, I put my book away and the feeling hit me. Anticipation, anxiety, and awe. I would be seeing Patti Smith speak! Running a few minutes behind, the owner of the book store that sponsored the event came out to introduce Patti. She spoke about the album Horses and how it shaped her during her formative years. The owner was older than me, so I can only imagine the impact the album had when the album was younger than it is now. I thought about my love for the album and whether I could ever achieve a true appreciation that could only come from a contemporary experience instead of a look into the past.

When Patti entered the stage, my heart skipped a beat. She strolled casually to the podium, but then moved to a microphone set up to the right. She would not be obstructed by a piece of wood. She welcomed everyone and thanked them for coming. She said she had no agenda for the evening, but she would read and then take questions. She pulled out her copy of M Train adorned it yellow post-it notes. Between a few witty remarks and off-the-cuff comments, she read excerpts. Stories about poetry, coffee, New Year’s Eve, Fred, Michigan, cats. She spoke softly, sweetly, and lost in the reminiscing. Painting a dreamscape for the audience of a life that was very real for her.

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After the reading, Patti took questions from the audience. Now, I have always disliked Q&A sessions. What I dislike about it the most are the inane questions from the audience. The standard ones with no meaning or relevancy. Questions like “Who, living or dead, would you want to have dinner with?” With these questions, Patti would try to answer but she would she didn’t know or couldn’t answer. She obviously did not like the openness and expansive possibilities. It is easy to struggle with an impromptu question like that. What also made the Q&A a little awkward was that people would raise their hands and wait to be called upon, but someone would just yell a question. Patti answered the yellers because they caught her attention. My hand was raised for some time, but she eventually pointed me out. I had asked about what music she was listening to lately. Not a remarkable question, but she gave me a well-thought out answer. The woman I waited with for several hours would later tell me that was a great question.

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Life can surprise you. Like the imperfection of my book, beautiful moments can come out of nowhere. Patti announced she would take one more question. To my right a few rows back, a woman yelled louder than anyone. I thought, Great. Let’s get the Q&A over with and back to the stories. Patti called on her and the woman said she had something that belonged to Patti. Clothes from forty years ago. Patti was confused, but curious. She asked the woman to approach the stage. Patti walked up to the woman, knelt down, and rummaged through the bag. She pulled items out and inspected them with a detective’s intensity. Concentrating on the garments. Shirts. A bra. Cloth.

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When Patti pulled out a red handkerchief that was tied into a bandana, her eyes widened. She asked the woman off mic how she got these items and requested that she stay afterwards so she can get something special from Patti. Patti went back to the mic and her eyes were swelling. She was fighting back the tears. She told a story about a show in Chicago in 1978. The band’s truck was stolen. In it were instruments, clothes, poetry, and other personal items. She pulled out a shirt and held it up. It was white, with a picture of Keith Richards, and she told us it was the shirt she wore when she met Bob Dylan. Next was a blouse that she wore on the cover of Rolling Stone. When she pulled out the next item, the red bandana, she choked up and held it close to her breasts. This bandana was worn by her brother when he saw Hendrix in the 60s and had given it to Patti. Patti would wear it around her neck during her performances. She attempted to put it on to demonstrate, but she couldn’t. All of the other items were placed on the podium, but the bandana was put into her coat pocket; safe and close. You can tell if there was one item she could have retrieved, that would have been it. Patti started the Q&A again, but everyone wanted to know where this woman got the clothes. Each person sounded more accusatory than the last. Patti told the crowd that it didn’t matter and that we should move on.

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Patti then introduced a special guest; her son Jackson. The son she had with her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith. Jackson came out with a guitar and settled into a chair. Patti introduced a song she had written for he daughter. The song was called “Wing” and was a slow, intimate tune. Patti swayed her arms, closed her eyes, and got lost in the song. The crowd was silent and transfixed on Patti. I watched stunned and lost in the words and guitar melody. Like in the song, she sang “it was beautiful.” Yes, Patti, it was. Jackson stayed on stage while Patti read a final excerpt. He played a soft, melancholy tune under his mother speaking.

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The event was then running late, but Patti had time to surprise the audience with one more song. She didn’t say the name, but said she had collaborated with another man on it. Jackson then played the opening to “Because the Night.” Patti’s most famous song and written by Bruce Springsteen. I had heard this song performed live twice with a full, rocking band. But, this was special. Coming off the reunion Patti had with her missing items, this performance of “Because the Night” was intimate, deep, and stripped down. The audience sang along to the chorus and the energy was electric. I felt connected to everything. It was beautiful, and my eyes were watering. I had waited months for this. I waited in line for hours and it was more wonderful than I had imagined.

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After the song, the book store owner came out and gave out instructions for the signing. We were to go on stage row by row to get out book signed. Fortunately, we were in the first row. We lined up along the wall of the auditorium. When I met Patti, I told her she had an authentic soul and she thanked me. It only lasted for a few seconds but it was magic. My friend took pictures and I did the same. By the time we had lined up, we were out the door within ten minutes. Another reason why this day was worth the effort and utterly perfect. I wanted to get there early and wait outside than inside. There were trees, bird, and sunshine outside. Inside was dust and human noise.

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Outside, we had met the mystery woman with the missing clothes. She was smoking a cigarette and said she had wanted to give it back for almost forty years, but tonight was the only night she could. I wouldn’t know it until I read it in the Chicago Tribune the next day, but the items were given to the woman by her roommate’s friend. After nearly forty years, they were returned. A remarkable story.

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My friend and I walked back to the bus. It was dark and we were still high from the experience. I was happy. We ate at a noodles restaurant and made the train ride home. I read.

This was my first time hearing “Wing.” I don’t have much to say about the song itself other than what Patti sings; it was beautiful. There are no other words for the song or the experience of hearing it in that 1,100 seat auditorium.

Everything was beautiful.

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