|Helena Fitzgerald||Aug 3, 2017|
Buddy is a great word. One of its primary forms it is a vicious “bless your heart” burn, a jovially cruel backslap. It is the natural father of the newer and endlessly cruel appellative “my dude.” "Buddy" is that asshole in line in front of you, that guy who won’t go back to his own conversation, my dude who thinks he needs to explain your own joke to you.
However, when applied to an animal, buddy is the tenderest word in this language. Calling an animal "buddy" means that I would give up my entire life to keep them safe. Years ago, I once heard one half of a couple call the other “buddy,” and my heart banged out of my chest and went scrambling across the floor like a small, spooked bird looking for shelter. I was in a relationship at the time and I nearly broke up with him right there because I knew we would never call each other buddy. It was a fully cohesive shorthand limited to only two people, one slow clicking minute together piled on the next and piled and piled again, love as triumph of continued proximity. "Buddy" is often non-sexual and non-romantic, but it makes the knowledge of another person outside of these supposedly privileged relationships just as big, just as important, just as precious and as hard-won as any romantic nickname.
What I am saying is that you should go read this essay that Patti Smith wrote about Sam Shepard after he passed away earlier this week. The piece is titled “My Buddy,” and it is an extraordinarily simple expression of a truly big love, a love as large as the dome of the sky out in the part of the country where nobody lives anywhere for miles. It's a love that feels like getting out of the car in this empty landscape and laying your body down against the warm pavement on the silent highway, and watching the bleached-out stars appear overhead in the daytime. Smith and Shepard were a couple, briefly, in New York in the 1970s. They tore through a wildfire affair like the relentless kick-in in one of Smith’s own songs. But for far, far longer after that they were friends. After their romance was long over, their names still went together. They were still famous for knowing and loving one another, still part of the other’s story. Smith’s essay lets us into this love, two buddies, silently growing old together with all their memories easy between them.
The year before last I saw Patti play Horses from start to finish at a festival in London. Before the set began, she stood on stage wearing dark glasses and looked out across the assembled bodies crowding the park. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m not wearing these glasses because I’m trying to be cool. They’re prescription, but that means I can see really well, and I can see that there are some really cute guysback there.” I thought that maybe no one had ever managed to be as alive as she was. Then she played “Gloria,” and ripped out all our hearts. I was standing next to a group who might have been some of the guys she was talking about, jovial fratty types much younger than me. “Who’s this old lady?” one of them asked one of the others. By the end of the title track on Horses, they were openly weeping, screaming and jumping up and down.
My first few years in New York, I walked around with Horses screaming in my headphones. It made me feel like I had blood in my mouth; it made me feel like I could tear someone apart. It made me feel ten feet tall. I was sometimes embarrassed to listen to it in public, but I always did, and on winter days it kept off the cold better than any down-stuffed coat. Listening to Patti Smith was a means by which I found my way into the city; her vision of New York, imposed over the real place, gave me a foothold and persuaded me I could stay here, that I could try to make a life that felt like the way she said I'm gonna be so big at the end of “Piss Factory,” hungry, capacious, without limit.
I basically think that all art is escapism, and I question any art that isn’t or doesn’t want to be an escape. Escapism sounds irresponsible, burying one’s head in the sand. But what I mean by escapism is an enlargement of experience, a hope of a better world. Art at its best teaches us that there is something beyond our own meager experience, some option other than the limited and repetitive events of our own lives, some possible future other than the one dictated by our circumstance. It pulls us out of learned choreography and lock-step patterns. It tells us that the world is larger than ourselves. Reading Sam Shepard as a teen, and listening to Smith as a young adult, I was looking for art that put blood into the world, that would urge me to usefully endanger myself. Their language gave a shape to my desire to go away from the soft edges, to find the things that hurt, to live like a giant against the landscape.
I was a weird kid, like everybody who was ever a kid. I spent a lot of time isolated and had trouble delineating myself in terms of the people around me. It was very, very hard for me to see other people as people, and for a long time everything that happened out loud felt like a second language. It took me well into my twenties to learn how to just sit down with someone, how to listen, how to dull the panic that the presence of another human engendered. The first time I caught any awareness of my own capacity for desire, not even sex but just the body’s impulse toward it, was overwhelming and uncontrollable, like the deafening noise of putting one’s head underwater in a strong current. Even then it was clear that what was good about this great animal genius of our bodies’ ability to respond to other bodies was the fact that it felt like a disaster, the pure thrill of scene in the movie where the alien ship destroys the city. It was going and standing in the middle of a burning room. I wasn’t ready to face the part of myself that wanted to go and stand in the middle of burning rooms, so I confined it to fictional worlds and secondhand stories, accumulating unshared and unspeakable material.
This is how I ended up a suburban teenager who obsessively read everything Sam Shepard had ever written, who knew all of the words and the stage directions in Fool for Love and Cowboy Mouth from memory. In everything I read I was looking for a way back to myself through the opposite of myself. I wanted to know that things between people could be large and loud and impolite and bloody. Shepard’s vision of love, of America, of family, of how we accumulate wrongs and unspoken things, about the ways people fester and calcify and the nail-scratching-at-the-door attempts we make to evade those calcifications, was one of the texts with which I built my idea of a future adulthood, awful and huge-hearted, swaggeringly compassionate. I read his plays over and over again, the language threading through my skin, becoming part of the foundations, settling into my understandings of the things people made and did together.
Cowboy Mouth, the semi-autobiographical performed text he and Smith created about, or out of the material of, their relationship, is, like so much of the art I love, a very long subtweet. It feels like something we should not quite be watching, that we may be the literal audience but we aren’t the intended one, that we are secondary to what these two people are trying to say to each other. That relationship was an unknown place, somewhere to fling myself beyond the limits of my own experience. What I loved about it was that it was inaccessible. It was for them; it wasn't for me. As I guess it did for a lot of people, Sam and Patti’s relationship symbolized to me the possibility that love might not have to cancel out cool. These two people had found each other, just the way any two people might find each other, like any other small and unimportant couple, seeing each other on the street, following each other home. And at the same time, nothing like it, a glimpse of love as enacted by some unreachable alien species.
We like power couples because we want some proof that love will make us large rather than small, apparent rather than invisible. For many of us, in our parents’ relationships, in our own relationships, in a million bleakly comic cultural depictions, we’ve seen how love dwindles to the size of a soft couch in a room where the blinds are closed. Love makes it unnecessary to declare oneself to the world, and therefore makes it easy for the world to pass one by. If this is the mercy of love, its refusal of ambition, then it is also its terror, that burrowing into another person is a way to be forgotten. To pledge forever with someone reminds us how close we are to the end of the story, how little time we have left, that all that really stands between us and the void is a brief half-conscious nap, and we might as well spend it curled up with our head on the chest of someone who smells good and feels like home.
Through the celebrity couple, or the power couple, love instead becomes an exponential equation, each person increased by the power of the other. It becomes an underline rather than a highlight. It’s not that Shepard and Smith – old friends and former lovers and collaborators, high-billing characters in the great collective dream of New York in the black and white photograph 1970s, that time that exists most vividly in the minds of a bunch of people who weren't there – represented the past. It’s that they seemed like the past’s continuance into the future, its ability dwell in reality rather than in myth and HBO retellings. They were colossuses, but better than that, they were just two aging, softening people who called each other “buddy,” who who carried enough between them that they could sit silent, buoyed by a worn-smooth vocabulary. To spend that long loving someone else is to have invented the world together. Their friendship seems even more unlikely than their romance. It hints that the feeling you get when an old friend calls you “buddy” might carry you all way across your life.
I’d always imagined growing old not with a spouse but with the people I used to fuck. This kind of friendship was for as long as I can remember my favorite way of imagining old love. I imagined friendships, in particular those where the friendship had started with romance or sex or both, as the thing that would still be there at the end of the line, in the long sunset of our incapacitated bodies. My fantasy about almost everyone I have ever had any kind of relationship with has rarely been one of lifelong romance, marriage, or homemaking. Instead it has been one of friendship, that we would break past romance, and somehow still know each other. If sex or romance was an ocean, long friendship was the unknown land one reached on its other side. This sort of enduring, post-sex, post-romance friendship defeats the idea that sex or love is the be-all or end-all of human knowledge. A long friendship drains these more obvious ways of knowing of their power, allowing them to be just one more type of experience, just one more phase of changing love. Romance says we will always be in the storm; old love friendship says we might eventually sail through it and survive, that the things we accumulate might make us better rather than tearing us down, that we do not have to be mysteries to one another in order to love one another.
Last night I stayed up late trying to find a particular paragraph somewhere in all the long emails that I used to send with one of my best friends. I never found the paragraph, but I ended up reading back through years of our correspondence. In these emails, we relentlessly mythologize each other. One running joke, which we clearly do not think of as a joke at all, is the idea that one day we will be famous, and someone will read these emails because they are studying our lives. We frame ourselves, all the stupid little dumb and dirty and dishonest and hopeful and nerdy and totally banal little events of our lives, in terms of what these future scholars will think when they read what we're writing, far in the future, in a well-known published volume.
Very few of us will ever be famous, and even fewer of us will ever be so well-known that our personal correspondence becomes widely read. But fame is a word we use to talk about our desire for permanence. It's the way that old-love friendship makes us feel larger than ourselves, and how one way to love someone is to become their archive. It's a love that argues against our smallness in the universe, against our basic factual insignificance. Patti and Sam’s long friendship means so much to a bunch of strangers because they carried around each other's past, proof of one another in the world, their presence in the same place a form of time travel.
Drawing a line from the blood and teeth and steel boots of Cowboy Mouth to the quiet tenderness of "My Buddy" is perfectly simple, and yet overwhelms me with some feeling so large I can barely stand, like a soft and all-encompassing punch to the gut. These people made each other enormous, the size of cities, and at the same time they allowed each other to be small, a love that could feel endless because it was unimportant, just friendship. It made me want to love the people in my life in a way that might make us all feel famous, constantly eulogized and wholly known, our specificity lit up like a skyline, our old ugly loves splashed onto billboards and high school syllabi. In our ridiculous emails, my old buddy and I were hoping we might be what Sam and Patti really are, a model for the next people looking for how to do this, how to live gigantic, and how to sit silent together in all the soft archive of that gigantic living.
hi, friends. you really should read that patti smith essay if you haven't yet. you can, as always, support or tip this tinyletter here, or through my venmo if we're venmo buddies already. as always, it's equally ok to not do that. before all this happened I was planning to write something about Lana, and Lorde, and girl music for girls, and I might still do that next week. xo