The sheer joy of being a Patti Smith Substack subscriber
In closing on three decades of writing about music I’ve experienced many extraordinary moments; times when I’ve felt elevated, exhilarated, energised at a song I was hearing, by the person I was speaking to, through the performance I was witnessing or, on a few life-changing occasions, at the moment in history I was living through.
A quick rifling through my memory brings to the surface watching BCUC unfurl the collective’s visceral 21st century spirituals in downtown Joburg for the first time, relishing the rush of post-94 euphoria embedded in TKZee’s 4-track Take It Eazy, listening to the great Dorothy Masuka describe being “possessed” by songwriting to me, experiencing the sonic force of Felix Laband’s genius in his home studio and anytime I was in the company of the late iconoclast, Hugh Masekela.
There are hundreds — possibly thousands — more gratifying moments in 30 years of writing about South African, African and international music and musicians. But few of these have been as deeply and consistently joyful as being a subscriber to Patti Smith’s Substack.
Clicking on my receipts tab on the platform, I can see that I first signed up on April 6th 2021, less than a week after Patti wrote her first entry, the title of which — “The reader is my notebook” — describes exactly how it feels to be part of her Substack community.
Through a steady flow of poems, readings, recollections, messages, musings, songs and her first-ever serial, The Melting, we, Patti’s dear readers, are her notebook.
We read and listen and also comment on her work — most of us, I’m sure, hoping that she will select our words for further commentary but also not caring too much about that because we feel so intimately connected to her in this space in which the boundaries between artist and community are dissolved as easily as a pill in water.
We make suggestions — songs, books, poems — when she asks. We think deeply about what we proffer as ideas for her to undertake for projects she’s been invited to be part of — these small offerings never ceasing to take into account all that we love about Patti the artist, not our warm, considerate, most generous of companions whose emails, when they arrive, make us feel light and happy in anticipation of what they will bring. We take seriously her book recommendations and put in our orders — for her beloved guitarist and friend, Lenny Kaye’s Lightning Striking, for W.G. Sebald’s After Nature — to share in the world of literature that she’s surrounded herself with since she was 12; to have something of Patti in the three or four books we are also reading simultaneously, piled up and waiting, without pressure, on our bedside tables.
We love her, even more, when we get an email informing us that she knows there is a problem with the audio for the latest The Melting and it will be put right just as soon as she’s back from visiting the Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Flowers, Poetry, and Light exhibition in Sarasota, snapshots of which she shares with us a few days later. Honestly, a glitch like this is never a problem because the written words are always there in her postings, and we can just as easily read the rich details and experiences of her pandemic years as hear her speak them.
Time pressure means that I sometimes let a few postings arrive and then catch up with the serial whilst cycling in the cold or taking a train past green fields or doing my Sunday chores. No matter when I listen, it never ceases to feel wondrous hearing Patti read the instalments — part the mundane moments and fluctuating emotions of the day-to-day that we all share from these past two years; mostly, though, made up of the singular prose we’ve come to adore in books like Year of the Monkey, Woolgathering, M Train and Just Kids — stories of portents, symbols, freshly found or old and beloved artefacts, coffee, walks through New York City or Rockaway Beach, glimpses of the moon, a description of standing under a sky in Namibia that made me weep for the nightly canvas of my own African homeland, unlike any other on earth.
On February 2nd, we also became her audience when, accompanied by Lenny Kaye and Tony Shanahan, she livestreamed a show for her subscribers from Electric Lady Studios. It contained music, readings from books at her side and retrieved from her coat pocket and conversation — and was available for us to watch in our different time zones for 24 hours afterwards. Leading up to the show, Patti had taken care to ensure we all had the access we needed in a number of quick emails before she headed for the studio, ever concerned that we didn’t miss out. The show was a remarkable, deeply connected experience, full of the generosity that we’ve come to know over the past 10 months. But, as Patti played her music, as she stood in the studio where she recorded Horses — now coming up on 50 years ago — and breathed life into songs like Grateful, Free Money, Redondo Beach, Kimberly, and, among my most beloved, We Three, we were reminded that the person who created our community is one of the most extraordinary artists of the past 100 years.
Being part of Patti Smith’s Substack reminds me of something else too; about why I devoted so many years to writing about music in the first place. I’d grown up with a dad who was a music journalist and who also, for a time, ran the Durban Folk Club, so music — and its appreciation — was woven into my childhood. But from the moment, around 1976, that I used my hard-won savings to buy Richard O’Brien’s single, “Time Warp/Science Fiction/Double Feature”, I became a fan, a devotee, a follower of an aspect of our human existence that has always provided, for me at least, proof of something beyond, something spiritual, something intrinsic to who we are. It’s this that propelled the teenage me into the punk clubs of Durban and into all those music experiences since, and what still has me asking my partner if we should book to see The Lemonheads play It’s a Shame About Ray in full in a few months.
But the truth is, of all the musicians I’ve listened to, watched, interviewed or written about, none so humanly inhabits the spectacle of their creativity and radiates its life force quite like Patti. Her late-night poetry and book readings, with her cat Cairo in her arms, hair messy (a recurring theme with a recent entry titled “Talking Continental Drift Club (hair is really messy)”), reveal an artist who is divorced from, is wonderfully alien — oblivious almost — to career and the industry of music. Through her Substack, we share in the life of an artist who breathes her calling like oxygen, like shoes that need tying, like good coffee that comes from an entire process of organic and artisanal germination, preparation, filtration before being savoured in a cup before you. DM/ ML
Diane Coetzer is an award-winning South African journalist and writer distinguished for her years covering the music scene. She was editor of Music Africa, feature writer for the Sunday Times Magazine, SA correspondent for Billboard Magazine and music editor at Rolling Stone South Africa (and a former contributor to Maverick magazine). Diane currently works for the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations at Erasmus University in Rotterdam and still gets great pleasure out of writing about music as a freelancer.