Patti Smith Defined Cool in Lesbian Bars of the ’80s
I pinballed between circles of lesbians but settled nowhere. Gorgeous women were everywhere but always out of reach in San Francisco’s mesmerizing haze.
All questions about what sort of lesbian I’d be in this new place were settled one Saturday afternoon when I was getting high and drinking beer with a law student from Missouri and her roommate put on a record.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.”
The first words of Patti Smith’s “Gloria” hit me like God’s index finger to Virginia Woolf’s. Smith’s heart was thick and made of stone, she declared, and her sins were her own. People warned her to beware, but she didn’t care—such admonitions were just rules and regulations and she was meant to break them. I recognized the rapturous “G-L-O-R-I-A” chorus as a remnant of ’60s radio, but Smith’s story was new.
At a party, she’s bored until she looks out the window and sees a sweet young girl making suggestive movements with a parking meter. Smith gets a crazy feeling that she’s going to make this girl her own. Her gaze through the window draws the woman up the stairs, into her room, and onto her couch, where Smith takes “the big plunge.” The song climaxes in a fury of bells in towers chiming and Smith spelling out this lover’s name.
It didn’t matter that we weren’t sure whether Patti Smith was a lesbian (she wasn’t); what mattered was that Arista Records had put this six-minute story on vinyl. It became my new story. I was a hick from a place Bruce Springsteen used as a synonym for bleakness on his latest album cover, but I imagined myself as cool as the character in Smith’s song, so powerful that hot women would flow toward my irresistible magnetism.
On the album cover, Smith posed in black jeans and a white button-down with the collar partly up, a ribbon evoking suspenders and a black jacket slung over her shoulder. This was the look I needed to feel the way Smith’s character felt. I procured a black men’s suit jacket at a Telegraph Avenue thrift store. White button-downs were easy to find, and skinny ties cascaded from a rack near the cash register at Tower Records.
Smith’s Horses had been out for eight years by this time, and her photo on the cover was already iconic. By the time I started wearing the outfit it was everywhere and unrecognizable as inspired by Patti Smith. Levi’s had commodified the look in a black-and-white poster that would eventually adorn the wall above my bed: a woman in a white button-down, her sleeves rolled up and her arms resting on her thighs as she squatted in her 501s and low-heeled black boots, her expression hidden behind Ray-Bans. The Levi’s Woman looked like she was trying to be Patti Smith but could only manage The Go-Go’s Belinda Carlisle.
This did, however, qualify as lesbian fashion at Clementina’s every Saturday night. Chemical courage bolstered my fantasy that the Patti Smith look would get me a Gloria as I submitted my ID to the woman wearing white plastic pants at the door. I would walk third, behind my two friends, in a lesbian-bar-entering strategy that required looking directly ahead as (I imagined) everyone’s eyes turned toward me. Keeping the focus on the back of my friend’s head made it impossible to scan for possibilities among the women standing around this front room, with its high tables and fern bar vibe, as we moved toward the back passageway to another room where waves of heat and cigarette smoke barreled toward us while music reinforced the point that Billie Jean was not our lover.
As far as who could be our lover, it was easier to scout in this room because every wall was a mirror. Amid the dark refractions, some women were dancing, some were just swaying in groups of friends, some were standing still. Sometimes, in one corner, the Cal Berkeley women’s basketball team would be there in its blazer and tie and pink vest. One time I tried to talk to it but it didn’t talk back.
The friends I went with to Clementina’s were the ones who’d helped me discover Patti Smith, and they were antiauthoritarian like me. One was a student of modern dance, tall and powerful, and I was tall, too, so we had a tendency to clear a space on the floor whenever the DJ played something we deemed worthy. If the night was really good, the DJ would play more than one song by Prince. “Delirious” was my gateway, since I aspired to achieve that existential state every time I went to Clementina’s.
Outside Clementina’s, a plague was descending like the nightly fog.
I sucked down a joint in the car on the way across the bay and drained Miller Lites all night. But it wasn’t substances that made Prince feel this way; it was being so hot for someone that you embarrass yourself—“wheels get locked in place, stupid look on my face”—which I understood. Even in my Patti Smith outfit, I secretly felt like I failed at my only real goal, which was to be cool, but here was Prince celebrating his lack of ability to do the same thing.
All of which would have earned scoffs from the protagonist of “Gloria,” if she even would have bothered to pay attention to me. But the Clementina’s DJ didn’t play Patti Smith, and Smith’s Gloria would never have bothered with a place like Clementina’s. I’d swiped just enough of the character’s bravado and the singer’s cover photo to get me in the door of a short-lived lesbian bar, where it was enough to dance my life away, since, as Prince warned, everybody had a bomb and we could all die any day.
It would be a few more years before Smith’s album-cover photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, became famous in his own right for images of sadomasochistic gay sex that inflamed the American Family Association, sent Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina into a fury against the National Endowment for the Arts, and put Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center through an obscenity trial (not guilty).
Outside Clementina’s, a plague was descending like the nightly fog; by the end of the decade a hundred thousand Americans would be dead, our quilted memorial to them lying silently across the National Mall. Robert Mapplethorpe would be among those who did not survive.
I watched as the United States Supreme Court ruled that we had no constitutional right to have consensual sex in our own bedrooms and, three decades later, decided we could get married. I also witnessed the countervailing rise of the so-called Moral Majority, more potent than whatever freedom we might have felt dancing in the delirious lights of dark bars. Prince did dance his life away, a casualty of our collective addiction to whatever numbed us out. While we were getting Ellen and RuPaul and a Black man’s White House awash in rainbow colors, white nationalism steadily infected the country, its own kind of plague.
I’m old and gray now. So is Patti Smith. She still puts out albums but also writes books, a punk elder and best-selling sage. LGBTQ celebrities are everywhere, so queer kids don’t have to look so hard for styles to copy. But maybe young people will always doubt themselves. Maybe we’ll always have to grow older to understand what I learned from Patti Smith: The outfit fuels the attitude, but the work is everything.
C.J. Janovy is a Kansas City-based journalist and the author of "No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas," winner of the 2019 Stubbendieck Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize and a 2019 Lambda Literary Award finalist in LGBTQ nonfiction.