The Night Belongs to Us
As Bryn Mawr’s Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center prepares to present the 2013 Katharine Hepburn Medal to Patti Smith, a generation of Mawrters recalls their discovery of the inspirational rocker/poet/artist.
By Elizabeth Mosier ’84
Janis Joplin called her “The Poet.” She’s known as the Godmother of Punk. Patti Smith blurred boundaries between poetry and music, high and low culture—reading what she called “dirty poems” to electric guitar accompaniment at Manhattan’s St. Mark’s Church, and making rock music from the canonical texts of 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. She “mediated Rimbaud for a popular audience,” writes Carrie Jaurès Noland, professor of French at U.C. Irvine, in her gilt-edged invitation into the academy, From Rimbaud and Patti Smith: Style as Social Deviance. But critical theory isn’t necessary to understand the alchemy Smith practiced to transform Rimbaud’s work into her own.
“Smith’s fierce intelligence that speaks to the gut seems to me to be real progress toward the integration of elements that have too long been treated as separate, even incompatible,” says poet Moira Egan ’84, whose work appears with Smith’s in Best American Poetry 2008. “And yet, at PoetryFoundation.org, alongside praise of her ‘lithe works unsettling in their spiritual inquiry, archetypal imagery, and dissonant juxtapositions,’ I found a link to John Ashbery’s poem, ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons.’ This struck me: when will those old dualities—head/heart, body/soul—stop being seen as paradoxical, oxymoronic constructs?”
Head versus heart, soul versus body: Which Mawrter among us (artists, athletes, work-study scholars) didn’t moderate this argument within herself? We passed through the same Gothic arches, seeking to be changed by knowledge; we synchronized to an academic calendar bookended, if not balanced, by Athena and Dionysus, Lantern Night and May Day. And many of us were drawn to the artist who embodied this internal dissonance.
“I remember sitting in my Radnor slit sophomore year playing Smith’s albums over and over on the stereo (a real one, with vinyl records),” says Liz Nutting ’84, who studied feminist theology before embarking on a career in the banking industry. “I’d been introduced to her by other Mawrters—Kellie Allen ’84, Kelly Kuwabara ’84, Catherine Searle ’84—and she was perfect for my mellow but defiant moods. After college when I was living in Ardmore, I remember going out in Philly and exhausting myself on the dance floor to ‘Gloria.’ (But my favorite is still ‘Because the Night.’)”
Back then, Bryn Mawr’s academic boundaries were set, quite literally, in stone. The scholar might study Smith’s most famous album cover (Horses, 1975) and theorize, as Noland does, that she “mixes and transgresses a series of hierarchical codes established in order to distinguish popular from high culture.” The artist would look at the same image and describe the sensory process of creating it, as Smith does in her memoir, Just Kids. She recalls rising late, eating an anchovy sandwich without splashing olive oil on the white shirt she’d bought at Salvation Army, and posing for hours while Robert Mapplethorpe waited for just the right light. “We never talked about what we would do, or what it would look like,” Smith writes of the man she called “the artist of my life” and of the iconic photo he took. “When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.”
Some of us saw ourselves in Smith, too.
Editor and artist Jan Trembley ’75 says, “Even though the refrain ‘because the night’ … was in my head for much of 1978, what I took to be Patti Smith’s despair put me off until I read one of her comments in the 1982 biography of Edie Sedgwick. Smith was about 17 when she first saw Edie featured as a ‘Youthquaker’ in Vogue magazine, holding an arabesque in front of a horse she had drawn on her bedroom wall. The photograph ‘represented everything to me,’ Smith said, ‘radiating intelligence, speed, and being in the moment.’ For me, this was an aperture into Smith’s yearning for joy and the rapture of images that has found form in her photography, drawings, and writing over the years.”
“I’m still discovering Patti Smith,” says attorney Ingrid Leverett ’84. “At Bryn Mawr, I had only a glimmering of awareness. I thought she was bold and shocking to permit her armpit hair and man-clad self to appear on her album covers. My reaction, I remember realizing, showed me the limits of my unconventionality and feminist sensibility, and that bothered me. At some point, I heard ‘Gloria’ wafting from someone’s room and understood that this was real, unproduced, core rock and roll. I liked its purity—I still do.”
Harpist Gillian Grassie ’09 heard Smith perform in 2005, at WXPN’s summer music festival on the Camden Waterfront. “I’d only recently abandoned a Classical path to figure out what it might mean to be a singer/songwriter,” she recalls, “and Smith’s performance was an eye-opening and robust example of real mastery and craftsmanship in that field. Towards the end of the set, she led her band in a song composed on the spot (the lyrics went something like ‘We buy designer clothes at the thrift stores in Camden.’). What struck me was how good the improv was, and also how at home she seemed on stage—the degree of comfort and confidence that enabled her to do such a thing so well and with such ease. Here was an artist well into her career refusing to rest on her laurels or fade into complacency, but still experimenting and pushing her own creative boundaries—and letting us watch the process. She continues to set a very high bar.”
Writer and editor Roz Cummins ’82 speaks of Smith’s resonance with those of us who came of age to her soundtrack and rediscovered her in middle age through her memoir. “I sat in my car in a parking lot weeping uncontrollably while hearing her talk on ‘Fresh Air’ about the deaths of her loved ones,” she says. “I love the way that she is earthy and practical but also intellectual and ethereal.”
Bryn Mawr has changed, is changing; the border between classroom and culture is more permeable now. Smith’s broad influence extends across classes, across disciplines, and across the world. But for each of these women, there was (as Jan Trembley put it) a personal “aperture,” a moment when Smith’s art, music, or writing opened a shutter to something unknown. And so we welcome Patti Smith back to Bryn Mawr, through the doors of Goodhart Hall, where she’ll receive the 2013 Katharine Hepburn Medal—because this night belongs to us.
2013 Katharine Hepburn Medal
The Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center at Bryn Mawr College will present the 2013 Katharine Hepburn Medal to Patti Smith at a gala event in Goodhart Hall on February 7, 2013. The center memorializes Hepburn and her mother, an early feminist activist who was also named Katharine Houghton Hepburn, and the Katharine Hepburn Medal recognizes women who change their worlds. Award recipients are chosen on the basis of their commitment and contributions to the Hepburn women’s greatest passions—the arts, civic engagement, and women’s health.
“It is an honor to announce Patti Smith as this year’s Hepburn Medal recipient,” said Hepburn Center Director Katherine Rowe. “Her boldness and independence resonate deeply with the history of the two Hepburns and the unique community of a women’s college. Her creativity across many media strikes a deep chord among Bryn Mawr alumnae and among our students now, as they head into richly multi-mediated lives.”
Blazing onto the music scene in the mid-’70s, Smith forged a reputation as one of the decade’s first visionary artists—merging poetry and rock in vital new ways. Her 1975 debut album, Horses, is routinely ranked as one of the greatest albums of all time. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame. Her accomplishments also include accolades for her poetry and her memoir, Just Kids, which won the 2010 National Book Award for Non-Fiction.
“When Bryn Mawr College and the Hepburn Center approached me about receiving this award, I enthusiastically accepted without hesitation,” said Smith. “Bryn Mawr is helping shape the futures of young women and providing them with the tools to be dominant forces in our society. The Hepburn Center commemorates two women who had this same passion to make a difference and always blazed their own path, so to be recognized by Bryn Mawr College’s Hepburn Center and to receive the Hepburn Medal is truly an honor.”
Join the Patti Smith Just Kids book club, and discuss Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir with Bryn Mawr faculty, students, staff, alumnae/i!