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Something Of Worth


Bath, February 8th, 2011. First vertical shot taken with Polaroid 250 Land Camera.

This past Monday, while following a white rabbit down some wayward hole in the vast landscape of the internet, I found out that Patti Smith and I have the same camera. A Polaroid 250 Land Camera, compact until its bellows are released, instant as long as you have the patience to wait sixty seconds for development.

I stumbled across mine at the Valley Thrift in southwestern Ohio this past Thanksgiving, tucked away on a bottom shelf with the other discarded film cameras, a grease pencil marking $3.99 on an orange paper tag stapled to the strap of the camera bag. This was months before I knew that Patti Smith had this model, that she’d been photographing with it for years, that she’d had an exhibit of her Polaroids in Paris.

But now, suddenly, whenever I lift the camera to my eye, I think of Patti Smith’s photographs. Like this: slightly blurry, the camera turned on its side.

How can you tell the difference between emulation and imitation?

* * *

Whenever anyone does something of worth, including myself, it just makes me happy to be alive.
- Patti Smith, in a recent interview in the Guardian

The "something of worth" in question is the new PJ Harvey album, an album Patti Smith has been listening to and has been inspired by. After reading the interview, I watched the video for "The Words That Maketh Murder" on YouTube. In it, Polly clutches an autoharp to her chest, singing in what I remember her once describing in an interview as her "church voice." On the subway ride home, I played Patti Smith's "Hymn" and heard an echo: Patti, autoharp, church voice. I dig deeper and start to see little hot copper wires of emulation suspended all over the place: Patti admits to once stealing Rimbaud’s Illuminations, admits to loving the gold hues found in Blake’s paintings. Patti/Polly and their autoharps and church voices. A photograph, slightly blurry, a camera turned on its side.

We give and we take. We cast things out and rein them back in, like the nets of fishermen gathering sustenance. A rhythm of influence circulating like currents. Blake to Rimbaud to Patti to Polly and back to Patti again.

Throw out the net and drag it back.

* * *

"You know who you remind me of? Patti Smith." Someone said to me once. Once.

I am not Patti Smith. I look nothing like Patti Smith. Brown hair, sure. But the rest? She had edge. She stood out from the crowd. I blend in so hard I'm hardly there. Still, I swallowed that compliment whole and spat it out again to others: "I've been told Patti Smith..." (To which I invariably hear in response "No, not Patti Smith at all..." )

I am not Patti Smith. The Patti Smith who slept on park benches. Who worked at Brentano's. Who cut her own hair. Who had a sandwich bought for her by Allen Ginsberg, and then she saw the best minds of her generation destroyed by madness and AIDS. Patti was there, back then, in her time, and I am here in mine. 

I am not Patti Smith. None of us is Patti Smith but Patti Smith.

And yet: I raise my camera to my eye and try to see the world the way she sees it. Borrowing her eyes for the fraction of a second it takes to release the shutter.

Is this imitation or emulation? Is it simply curiosity? Is there worth in what I do? Am I happy to be alive?

* * *

It's easy to drive yourself crazy thinking about these things: about what came before, about what comes next. I'm looking for solace in turbulent waters.

* * *

Je suis un inventeur bien autrement méritant que tous ceux qui m'ont précédé ; un musicien même, qui ai trouvé quelque chose comme la clef de l'amour.*
- Rimbaud

Where would we be without emulation? Without all those who came before us? Why is there ever shame in acknowledging that something was created out of an attempt to aspire to be like something else? Especially when that new something is of worth to this world? Aren’t we all just different versions of each other? 

I'm getting too good at asking all the questions. The answers are the tricky part.

This morning, as I exited the subway station, passing a homeless man curled up next to a copy of Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle**, Patti Smith’s cover of The Byrds' "So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star" came on. A song itself about imitation. I tripped out onto 57th street, saw the golden hues of the morning light hit the buildings and construction cranes, the traffic lights and traffic, pulled out my camera, and turned it on its side. Blake to Rimbaud to Patti to Polly to 57th street and back again.

We give and we take. We cast out nets. We emulate, and occasionally imitate, trying to see the world the way someone else sees it. Most of us, in the end, are trying our best to come close to something of worth, because it just makes us happy to be alive.

* "I am an inventor far more deserving than all those who came before me; a musician, even, who has discovered something like the key of love." Yes I pretentiously left this quote in French. I feel it lends to the mystery.
** "Death is this huge, bright thing, and the bigger and brighter it is, the more we have to drive ourselves crazy thinking about things." (pg. 260)

(Patti Smith appears at the 92nd Street Y next Wednesday, February 16th. PJ Harvey’s new album, Let England Shake, is out the day before, February 15th. You can listen to it now at NPR. It’s amazing. I am not currently appearing anywhere, nor am I releasing any albums. Which, if I did, would surely be full of nonsensical, poorly edited ramblings like this one. You probably wouldn't be able to listen to any of them at NPR. Maybe one day they'll invite me to the Y.)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

Reader Comments (4)

Gosh, but I love the way you write.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Elizabeth, you are timely. I was just contemplating the point of this, wondering why I posted such a brambly ramble; your comment was a necessary bolster.

February 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterZan McQuade

i agree. i also have a theory though, that we are drawn to emulate people in whom we find our own hidden qualities and desires expressed. they have the bravery we struggle to summon.

everyone chooses different heroes.... if you buy my theory, perhaps you are not so far from being patti smith as you think.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersam

"they have the bravery we struggle to summon." Wow, Sam. You said it; I totally buy that.

Maybe the next step beyond that is summoning enough bravery to just be ourselves?

February 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterZan McQuade

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