“I would rather smell the way boys smell,
Oh those schoolboys, the way their legs flap under the desks in study hall,
That odour rising, roses and ammonia,
And way their dicks droop like lilacs…”
Sure, it could be the new Kylie single, but probably only in an alternate universe where gay icon means something more than over-the-counter culture. Patti Smith’s Piss Factory came out in the mid-seventies and set the tone that colours her art these last thirty-odd years, be it through music, poetry, imagery, or just mouthing off.
Smith’s influence is everywhere in music, from the sublime to the ridiculous – or from Michael Stipe to Madonna, depending on how you slice your icons, gay or otherwise.
Dragging her best mate Robert Mapplethorpe, and his still confronting art, close to the mainstream when its light first hovered near her, was close enough to a revolutionary gesture at the time. It unarguably helped shift the mainstream. As Smith herself once noted “I was privileged to evolve during an inspired period of spiritual and cultural revolution, and the music was a revolution where all had a voice and through this voice we united…”
Smith has since spent a half-life ensuring disenfranchised and marginalised voices are given room in and alongside her art, at least. Her work is often ugly, sometimes even pretentious. But it’s never less than interesting and brave, so her success isn’t of the type that rolls from town to town playing one night stands at Enormo-domes.
When Patti Smith comes to town, as she is for the Melbourne International Arts Festival from this weekend, she really comes to town, singing, speaking, presenting a documentary on a chunk of her life and two art exhibitions, one of which includes Mapplethorpe’s ashes.
Get to know this amazing artist at these Melbourne International Arts Festival events:
Dream of Life, ACMI, October 9th to 12th (Q&A with Smith and director Stephen Sebring, October 12th).
Objects of Life by Stephen Sebring, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy, until October 25th.
Patti Smith and Philip Glass, Dedication to Alllen Ginsberg, Playhouse, October 13th.
Patti Smith: Photography & Installation, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, until October 25th.