My portraits have only one subject: Patti Smith. She is almost unbelievable. Or rather, her talent is. I have charcoal Patties, graphite Patties, Posca Patties, Copic Patties, watercolour Patties, oil Patties, acrylic Patties, whole books of Patti.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not attempting to create a living fossil, I’m well aware that there’s nothing fossil-like about Patti Smith, I just have trouble believing a human like Smith actually exists in flesh and blood. For me, she is pure poetry.
At Easter this year, my ex-girlfriend, Hannah and I watched Patti Smith perform at Byron Bay Bluesfest. Quite possibly, it was the happiest ninety minutes of my life, an experience I can only describe as diabolical wonderment, although, I fear, even this description is lacking.
Even during the painful months following our breakup, there was one thing that Hannah and I shared, one thing that held us together, and that one thing was love. Absolute love in the shape of a dog.
I was seventeen when I got Disco or — should I say — when Disco got me. An adorable shining-black-eyed bullet of white fluff exploded into my life. And, six months later Disco and I, in an old Mazda Bongo van, set off around Australia. Cat Stevens’ ‘I Love my Dog’ was our theme song, although I changed the lyrics to ‘I love my dog more than I love you.’
Disco was eight when Hannah and I got together, but they treasured each other immediately. Until then, I had never before doubted Disco’s unwavering loyalty. They formed a bond so strong that I became insecure and paranoid, thinking that Disco had found her one true soulmate, and it wasn’t me.
Instantly, I knew this was irrational. But jealousy is the epitome of irrationality. Of course, Disco found a soulmate in Hannah. Since then, I’ve come to believe — when lucky enough — we find multiple soulmates in this life.
I often wonder what I am trying to achieve with these portraits of Patti. What am I attempting to capture or learn through these lines? Is it that I see Patti Smith as living art and believe, that somehow, my little renditions will enable me to live art, or is this act of depicting, in itself, a form of living art?
I know that when approaching these portraits, I am enamoured with Patti’s distinctive features, dark-unruly hair, big ruminating eyes, lips with attitude.
‘Make maps,’ wrote Deleuze and Guattari, ‘not photos or drawings.’
In linguistics, distinctive features are considered the building blocks of speech and sound.
I like to consider Patti’s distinctive features as maps of language.
Early on, my brother discovered that Disco had a certain interest, a certain proclivity. One afternoon, he caught her — green-pawed — stealing buds from where he was drying his plants. He watched Disco, a small ball of puppy fuzziness, waltz in, circle each screen, return to the corner with the biggest bud, snatch it and scurry away. He followed her until she disappeared under Mum’s bed. We found an impressive collection of stripped stems under there.
For a short time, we called her Space Dog, but the nickname didn’t stick.
I always end up with an earworm after listening to ‘Space Monkey’. But, long after the earworm fades, it’s the images the song produces that stay with me: little astronaut monkeys, wrapped in space suits, being launched into the abyss, sacrificing their lives in the name of science, while — back on planet Earth — amongst an explosion of street orgies, French actors snort cocaine.
‘Space Monkey’ reminds me of a podcast I once heard about the 16 million animals deployed during World War One. There were groups of canine corps with different duties, such as: messenger dogs, mercy dogs, cadaver dogs, cigarette dogs and demolition dogs (aka suicide-bomber dogs).
Although she was a good dog, Disco had a mind of her own and wasn’t cut out for astronautics or war. She would have made a terrible suicide bomber. I can picture her, explosives strapped to her little body, paws dug in, stopping dead in her tracks, defiantly refusing to budge (just as she would whenever she sensed an upcoming bindi patch), demanding to be carried to her destination and, ultimately, quashing the mission.
Despite lacking the tenacity to become a doggy bomb, Disco was an eager traveller. She saw more of Australia, and sniffed more beaches, than most people will in their lifetime. We always got around in old vans until one day, when Disco was ten, she decided no more.
She refused to get in the van. Suddenly a car snob, Disco would no longer ride in rickety old cars. When forced to do so, she would have panty panic attacks that were so distressing — for us both — that eventually I gave in, applied for a personal loan, and purchased a smooth-rolling Hyundai wagon. She loved that car, especially the electric windows, which she immediately mastered.
When Disco was twelve, I went on exchange to the University of Massachusetts. I won some money (for a poem I wrote about an obsession that I had at the time), which enabled me to travel down the West Coast before returning home.
In Oregon, after accidently eating the equivalent of forty-four joints, I experienced imminent death and hallucinations for three days. I had agreed to a radio interview but, instead, stayed in the carpark, horizontal on the backseat, hiding under a duvet.
In San Francisco I found a tawdry hostel close to City Lights bookstore and maxed out my credit card. I gave away two coats and three pairs of boots to accommodate my new collection of books which, I reassured myself, were almost impossible to find in Australia.
One thing I bought in San Francisco was a postcard of the Horses album cover. I’ve drawn that image countless times. I bow down to the photography of Maplethorpe and Smith. Constructed rawness, defined and fluid.
‘I am drawing lines, lines of writing, and life passes between the lines.’
~ Deleuze and Guattari.
Disco, a hunter of crabs, lover of jazz and scrutiniser of all things putrid, never weighed more than five kilograms and never lost her taste for weed. Wherever we went, she would sniff it out. At parties, she would position herself in the centre of smoking circles and follow the spliff around, as it was passed from person to person. If someone was rolling a joint she would sit at their feet, somewhat indignantly, growling and whimpering. When I had a market stall, Disco would wander off, disappear for a while, then return stoned.
I knew when she was baked, all bulgy eyed and thirsty. It worried me. Personally, I don’t like weed. I fold inwards and become dumb. Not once, but twice, have I burnt my face on a kettle after smoking marijuana. The first time, on one of those whistling stovetops, I was trying to take a photo of my spherical reflection taking a photo of my non-spherical self when my cheek pressed against the stainless steel. I forgot the kettle was freshly boiled (I was alone, I had boiled it). The second time, on an electric kettle, because I believed, if I got close enough, the sound of boiling resembled African trance music.
When Disco was cockeyed high, I would offer her food and water. If it was hot, I’d take her for a swim or wet her paws and head. If it was cold, I would put her jumper on, make her a hot water bottle and let her sleep it off.
I have three versions of Just Kids: the book, the Kindle edition and the audio recording. There is something undeniably powerful about that story, the way Smith portrays Mapplethorpe with such deep admiration and respect, as though if you wholeheartedly love someone they can never truly die.
‘Grief starts to become indulgent, and it doesn’t serve anyone, and it’s painful. But if you transform it into remembrance, then you’re magnifying the person you lost and also giving something of that person to other people, so they can experience something of that person.’
~ Patti Smith
One book that I have repeatedly returned to over the past five years is Carolyn Shine’s Single White Female in Hanoi. Carolyn died only months after launching this book.
I read the words and I hear her voice. I laugh at comical scenes and feel her laugh with me. I smile at her creative wit and see her smile back. I pick up that book and remember her mosaicked-blue eyes. Carolyn Shine was a soulmate to many, and when I say that I miss her deeply, I know that I am not alone.
Being a dog is a precarious business and Disco had many close encounters with death. She died on the veterinarian’s operating table. A simple dental extraction, but Disco had a reaction to the anaesthetic and flat lined. They had to shock her little heart back into beating.
Eighteen months later another vet, Richard, informed me that, for a dog of fourteen, Disco had an extremely strong heart and was in fine health.
‘Geriatric anaesthetic is slightly more expensive,’ he said. ‘But I can almost guarantee that Disco will survive this operation.’ He then pried her jaw open, to show me just how painful her back tooth looked.
I fainted. To say that was the first time I had passed out at the vet would be a lie. Disco was never good with vets and neither was I.
‘It’s extremely cruel to leave the tooth in,’ said Richard, after bringing me a glass of water and propping me up on a chair.
He was right, it was cruel.
But on the morning of Disco’s planned operation, I awoke riddled with fear and doubt.
‘You eat raw chicken wings every day, don’t you?’ I asked Disco.
Her floppy little ears stood to attention as she cocked her head to the side.
‘You still run and play every day, don’t you girl? You have a good life, don’t you?’
Disco responded with a series of short, happy, punctuated barks.
‘Sometimes fear is an instinct,’ I told Disco as I switched my phone off.
Perhaps you are a cruel, self-serving bitch, I told myself as we got in the car.
Disco and I spent that day at the beach. The next day she was hit by a car.
‘I am I,’ wrote Gertrude Stein, ‘because my little dog knows me.’
When we found her, it was as if she was sleeping. I remember pulling up at the corner and seeing her little body on the side of the road, just beyond the eighty sign. I remember the pain was in my head. It’s hard to remember what happened next but my girlfriend, Carol, says that I too was almost hit by a car. That I fell into a heap and that she had great trouble dragging me off the road. I remember the soft gurgling sound Disco’s body made when I picked her up. I remember wrapping her in a beach towel, placing her on the backseat and driving to the vet. It was 6am, Sunday morning, and Disco was dead.
Without thinking, I drove to the highway and headed north. I remember Carol telling me to pull over, that I was too upset to drive, to let her drive. I remember feeling as though I needed to drive, needed to concentrate. At some point, I realised I also needed to call Hannah.
At Crabbes Creek, on a friend’s peaceful property, we buried Disco. With a red blanket for a coffin, Hannah and I lowered her into the ground together. Her small body was terribly silent as we dropped handfuls of dirt into her grave.
A mulberry tree grows there now.
Stevi-Lee Alver is an Australian writer and tattoo artist. She lives in the middle of Brazil with her wife. She loves bush walks and waterfalls but misses the ocean.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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