I’ve always preferred Patti Smith’s book M Train to Just Kids, her memoir about the years she with photographer and artist Robert Mapplethorpe. M Train, episodic rather than a linear narrative, gives readers a different portrait of Smith. In it, she’s separate from the famous scene she circled in the 70s, the monumental music she made in her 40 year career ( Horses, Easter, etc.), often journeying alone. A constant scene in M Train is Smith sitting in her neighbourhood coffee shop, drinking black coffee and writing, simply existing.
Smith often takes photos of her coffee and posts them to her Instagram page, very ordinary and seemingly mundane. Smith, turning 72 this month, joined Instagram earlier in the year in March. She’s taken to the medium, posting homages to old friends, current, devastating events. She even had ghost cupcakes for Hallowe’en. Smith emphasizes a childlike awe the abundance of charm around us. The beauty in her life without trying to act as marketer. Her re-chronicling of histories and new experiences is a relief; a comfort among what we’re sold or told every time we log into the app. Smith is a legend but her Instagram page looks like ours; a composite of coffee cups, books, moments, and people she cherishes. She is a keen observer of a world one could be so disappointed by.
Paying tribute to a famous person’s Instagram account is perhaps very unnecessary. Forgive me, for this year has been a heinous hellscape and this has been a sliver of enjoyment. One could reasonably argue every year is a heinous hellscape if you see it as such. But this year especially, the further along we move into a place we may not be able to come back from (climate change/destruction, capitalism, fascism, etc.) the more urgent it is to both fight back and find reprieve and beauty in the spaces available to us, even on app owned by Mark Zuckerberg that is populated by overzealous and completely dull influencers.
Smith’s love of reading, of beloved authors, is a well-worn fact. Her Instagram tributes range from celebrations of their birth, like Japanese writer Osamu Dazai, to respect, visiting physical resting places. In France, she visited Susan Sontag’s grave, and it is almost impossible to not think of Sontag’s On Photography in relation to any of this.
Birthday Appreciation Posts About Idris
No birthday post feels as good as Smith’s about Idris Elba. A massive fan of Luther, Smith wrote of Elba: “Happy Birthday… you gave us the mighty Luther, a man who cries real tears.”
May we never refer to selfies as such ever again, only calling them self-pictures or self-portraits. Smith’s self-pictures are not meticulously posed; they are often action-based (a cat in the face!) She exists, she’s there and no glamour or illusion can be found. Here is an immediate portrait of such.
It’s easy to fall in love with Paris. It’s even easier to fall in love with Smith’s love of Paris. A constant presence at the iconic Café de Flore, Smith journeyed back and forth to France often this year, giving small glimpses of what makes the city special to her. She even congratulated the country for winning the World Cup.
Instagram was meant to be another piece in the self-revealing puzzle that social media inherently is. The people we know, the food we eat, books we’ve read, they all contribute to a larger portrait of us. That’s still all there, if even it feels co-opted by those seeking profit because nothing free could ever be sustained for long without someone trying to make money off of it. Smith shares her books, the new visual edition of Just Kids for example, or gives updates, notes, that she is working on a new, unnamed book. Absent are hashtags and tags for products being sold.
The authenticity of Smith’s life is a projection; we could never truly know how it unfolds. Should the day ever come that her social media activities become less refuge and more opportunistic, I redact everything said here. Until then, Smith’s Instagram bio serves as an important reminder: we are all alive together. The ordinariness of a life lived without a glossy sheen is beautiful, it’s fine. It is really fine.