close encounters

     by michael bowen

I was going to the Kevin Salem show at Maxwell's in Hoboken this summer directly from work, so I had a few hours to fill up. I wandered here, I wandered there, but as is my wont I ended up down in the Village looking for record stores. I stopped into Revolver Records, a little basement store in Cornelia Street. I was flipping through the CD's, amazed at the arcane stuff that I was finding (a Nick Drake bootleg! A dozen different bootleg Richard Thompson CD's!) when a couple of women accompanied by children (boys 10 - 14) came in. I didn't see them really; just sort of sensed them in the way that New York-types can ignore strangers standing on their insteps on the D train. After they'd been in the store for a few minutes I turn and glance at the one talking to guy at the counter: kinda skinny, 5'3" or 4", longish mouse-brown hair turning gray with a braid on one side, orange overshirt over t-shirt and gray jeans, late 40's, sharp nose like the Indian on an old nickel, south Jersey honk in the voice....Great Googley-Moogley! I'm in a 20x10 basement record store with the Goddess! And her kids! She's standing 4 feet away from me!

Let me tell you a little about how I feel about Patti. I'm an old dog now. I'm 37 years old. I have a wife and a mortgage and a dog and a cat and I commute into work every day just like the guys Mad magazine made fun of when I was little. I've hung out with rock stars, even; drunk their beer and swapped lies. (Haven't slept with any, though; missed my chance with Debbie from the Bangles and haven't met any female rocker types since marriage.) I've been a full-fledged punk partisan ever since the fall of '77. I'm no longer of an age or of a station where I fall down and drool at the sight of a rock'n'roll star.

Except Patti.

I don't even listen to her records that often any more. I guess I've internalized them. But there was something so special about her; she could make magic with words and attitude even when she was full of shit. She could make me join the Patti Smith Army even when I wouldn't bother to cross the street at a green light. She was a skinny kid from some pesthole in South Jersey who could through the power of her own belief put herself in the company of her heroes and in some ways become their equals (Jagger) or their superiors in every way (J. Morrison). She wanted to be the biggest star in rock'n'roll at the time, and she had too much heart to get there. To put it simply, unlike any other living musician or writer, I revere her. I treasure her. Even when she was spouting stupid crap that she picked up back when she was trying to catch up with the cool folks from the big city (all the fake Rimbaud/Artaud/Genet junk) she still exuded a sort of awkward compassion for all of us who wanted to be cool but didn't have the money or the looks or the drug habits or the lack of scruples to get really downtown, man. Her performance in Central Park two summers ago was enough to make me cry. Really.

Back to the record store. Like I said, I wasn't looking at this group of people who came in, but I was sort of eavesdropping. At one point one of the kids said "Hey, Mom, here's a Rolling Stones you don't have". Cool, I thought, not only that a kid would browse for records for his mom, but that he'd know which Stones records his mom had and wouldn't make fun of her for having them..."No, honey, I have that one on tape" was the reply. Then the younger one pulled out a record (not a CD but an album) and said something like "Cool! Green Day! Can I get this one, Mom?" and I heard the Ultimate Mom Answer: "We'll see". That's when I turned and saw Her.

I tried to be cool while inside I was having paroxysms of fanboy ecstasy. I couldn't do anything real dumb like ask for an autograph, partly because I didn't want to embarrass her kids. The guy behind the counter went back and pulled out some bootleg CD's of Patti Smith Group stuff that had come in. I started edging over a little (hell, we were only a couple of feet apart in that place) and looking over her shoulder. She was just looking at these bootlegs and saying, "wow, wouldja look at that", and I had to throw in that I'd seen others at a different store. She looked up at me with her sweet, spacy green-hazel eyes and smiled. She didn't say anything, but that was cool. She'd already been talking to me since I first started listening in '77.

So now you know. Her kids listen to Green Day, and probably the Stones & Jimi, too. They look like above-average kids; just like they came from Lake Wobegon or Rochambeau or whatever normal place above-average kids come from. But unlike normal kids, they hear stuff like what I heard as they were leaving: "C'mon guys, we gotta go get dinner, then mommy's gotta go practice..."

Copyright © Michael Bowen 1995

back to babelogue