brushes with greatness: chapter 4

It was Canadian Music Week in Toronto. Toronto Music Week in Canada, if you will. (Or perhaps it was North By Northeast. Same diff.)

I was loitering in the lobby of the conference’s host hotel, plotting my next move — a move that likely involved walking to the nearest record store, or taking the subway north to purchase walnut cakes. The one commitment I had for the afternoon involved catching Patti Smith’s keynote address to the conference, not far from the very lobby in which I was standing. I had seen her perform on more than one occasion in New York, and was anxious to once again experience the warm, glowing glow that is being in the presence of one of America’s greatest living musicians, poets and philosophers.

(Her keynote address, which took the form of an impromptu concert, would find the ever-aware artist encouraging us to keep in perspective that even as she spoke, an individual far more worthy of our time was speaking in the next room: Lech Walesa. I do not recall anyone heading for the door in the hopes of hearing from the Polish nation-builder.)

So there I was, rooted to a spot somewhere near the admissions desk, surveying the day’s events schedule on my handy crumpled piece of paper. And as I uncharacteristically lifted my gaze to what could be considered eye level, I found myself (for I had been lost) face to face with the larger-than-life idol that to me had represented all that was great and important in art since a Treble Clef clerk had first introduced me to an androgynous cover star and an album called Horses. Were to be sufficiently superficial as to claim that a rock and roll record changed my life, I would not hesitate to say that album changed my life.

(In truth, it’s probably fairer to say something like the box set Sun Records: The Blues Years changed my life, as its exorbitant selling-price at HMV in London encouraged me to recognize that it was time to move back to the more affordable Canada before it was too late.)

Patti Smith. Mere inches away. Making eye contact with a rather dumbfounded besotted fan.

“Patti Smith!” I exclaimed not so much to her (for, as I later concluded, she was and is well aware of her identity) as to the gods that had brought us together for this magical moment.

“Yes?” the poetess of poetry replied with modest curiosity, awaiting the profundity that had inspired me to interrupt her journey through the hotel lobby.

“Well…” I began, quickly sifting through thousands of conflicting thoughts to find the ideal words with which to introduce myself to my idol of idols. “Well…

“Y’see… I’m a great admirer of your music and poetry and I have so much respect for your albums and your books…”


Further pause.

“So, I, uh…”

“Yes. I… have to… go to my room now,” she said somewhat coldly if hardly surprisingly. She was, after all, due to speak to us in a few hours.

It was not the response I had dreamed of lo those many years of worshipping at the altar of Patti Smith. Then again, it goes without saying that I had likely not dreamed of being quite so inarticulate when the opportunity presented itself to me.

Wait, yes I did. Come to think of it, my encounter with Patti went almost exactly as I’d imagined it.

Which is probably why I never intended for it to happen. Keep your idols at arm’s length, kids.

Well, tonight will for perhaps the dozenth time be once more in the presence of the great Patti Smith. (If you read the papers, you’ll know her as a “punk icon” or “punk poet” or “punk queen” or some such thing — which she never really was. Patti Smith has always had far too much respect for tradition to have ever truly been a punk.) It will as always be a special occasion and a powerful performance. Better, it will be another opportunity for me to greet my heroine as I was meant to.

From a distance.

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