I saw Patti Smith on stage supporting Bob Dylan in 1995. Her presence was electric. Long, long hands flailing in front of her and flowing hair that looked like God as drawn by William Blake. Her locks were threaded silver in that way that New York people let their hair go completely grey: bristling with intelligence, decades of urbane grit and possibly gallons of black coffee. New York grey is its own entity: hair the colour of cigarette ash, Hudson River dawns and cold tap water. Like Susan Sontag’s raccoon stripe, Lou Reed’s spikes and even Andy Warhol’s all-white wig, every strand is a bohemian badge of honour.
I peered through the crowd at Patti on stage when I was 29 years old and thought, “That looks all right, platinum and proud”. Patti made the future look silvery bright.
Twenty winters later and posters for Patti Smith and her band are again plastered all over town for her April concerts at the Enmore Theatre. I’m still using supermarket hair colour and Patti is staring me down. Her hair, a mercury shroud now, covers her relaxed glare. “You there,” she seems to murmur fiercely. “Didn’t you say THIS is what you wanted? Aren’t you using L’Oreal Iced Chocolate every six weeks in the shower? That shit will kill you…”
She’s right. I’m a weakling. And I’m not sure if it’s still smart to mask what is with the cosmetic illusion of what was. Maybe I’m just not guru enough. You know that Confucius vibe; there is a daring and the gravitas of grey locks, a scholarly aura. With age comes wisdom and bravery and…stuff. But psychologically I am still Kung Fu Panda, not yet Master Shifu. And I readily admit that I do have a single white hair that sprouts right beneath my chin. It is incredibly Shifu, this single hair goatee. Yet with it, no enlightenment has come. If going grey is not a spiritual awakening, then is it simply a bleaching of your soul? I don’t feel cleansed like a seashell. I feel muted, like a printer that has run out of ink. Hair, bare of colour, feels like nudity. Or worse, flesh-coloured underpants. There is no tide line between face and follicle; I can forgo makeup and heels and even a bra but when it comes to the hair, I conform.