Here’s the classic Patti Smith image: a slip of a woman wearing a white shirt and slim suspenders, a jacket slung over her shoulder, looking at the camera with her lips like they’re about to part, like she knows us, like she has just said something or is about to. Her hair is cut around her face and across her brow in a dark, messy frame. She looks like a boy. She looks like a Modigliani. She does not look, in this photograph, like a godmother of punk, though that is what, decades later, she will come to be called.
In this photograph, taken by her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith is not quite thirty. She has come up from South Jersey, where she was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. She’s left her mother’s religion and her family’s blue-collar neighborhood for the city. She busked in Paris with her sister, and returned to New York with poetry and songs “about freedom and sex, rapture and rebellion and God.” In the early 1970s she sings these songs at CBGB with her band, The Patti Smith Group. She lives with and loves Robert, collaborates with Sam Shepard, records and releases the album Horses (1975), then Radio Ethiopia (1976). She co-writes “Because the Night” with Bruce Springsteen and releases the album Easter (1978), then Wave (1979). She dissolves the band because she’s in love with Fred “Sonic” Smith, the guitar player for the Detroit rock band MC5. She moves to Detroit with him and they set up house in St. Clair Shores and have two kids. She writes poetry and novels; they write songs. She releases the album Dream of Life (1988) with the song “People Have the Power;” the song is a collaboration with her husband.
In 1994, Fred Smith dies of a heart attack. Her brother Todd dies. Her original keyboard player Richard Sohl dies. She lost Robert years ago. Her friends Michael Stipe and Allen Ginsberg urged her to go back out on the road. She tours in 1995 with Bob Dylan, then releases Gone Again (1996) and a book of prose poems for Mapplethorpe, The Coral Sea. Several albums follow, including Peace and Noise (1997), Gung Ho (2000), and Land (2002). Her work, her reviewers write, “offered a way out of the dark.” People say she has made a “comeback.” She insists she never went away.
She has been called the “one of the most influential figures in rock n’ roll,” and “a provocative and mesmerizing mix of symbolist poet and dramatic rocker.” Her voice, some kind of smokey metallic thunder, is a piece of that. Her look is another. From those first Mapplethorpe cover images to now: combat boots, split ends, a sort of punk-boy thing. “I’m disinterested,” she says by way of explanation. She never wanted to deal with having a look, so that became her look. And then there is her performance. “I’m a strong performer,” she says in an interview with Deborah Solomon for the New York Times Magazine. “I’m not an evolved musician. I’m an intuitive musician. I have no real technical skills. I can only play six chords on the guitar.” Six chords accompanied by fathoms of emotion.
She listens to Coltrane, Hendrix, R.E.M., and Radiohead, but mostly to Glenn Gould and opera. “That’s the only singing ambition I ever had,” she says to the New York Times. “I dreamed about being an opera singer. Of course, I was such a skinny little thing and had no voice, no chest—no future in opera.” But art, for Smith, is a necessity—the visual, the lyrical. She loves the poetry of William Blake who, she says, reminds her “of how elegantly he lived through personal strife and poverty, how he kept his personal vision”—that art makes us better people.
Smith lives in New York City. Her books include Witt, Babel, Woolgathering, The Coral Sea, Complete Lyrics, and the newly released memoir Just Kids. In 2008, a retrospective of her visual artwork opened at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris. On March 12, 2007, Patti Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Excerpt from Just Kids (2010)I drew, I danced, and I wrote poems. I was not gifted but I was imaginative and my teachers encouraged me. When I won a competition sponsored by the local Sherwin-Williams paint store, my work was displayed in the shop window and I had enough money to buy a wooden art box and a set of oils. I raided libraries and church bazaars for art books. It was possible then to find beautiful volumes for next to nothing and I happily dwelt in the world of Modigliani, Dubuffet, Picasso, Fra Angelico, and Albert Ryder.
My mother gave me The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera for my sixteenth birthday. I was transported by the scope of his murals, descriptions of his travels and tribulations, his loves and labor. That summer I got a job in a nonunion factory, inspecting handlebars for tricycles. It was a wretched place to work. I escaped into daydreams as I did my piecework. I longed to enter the fraternity of the artist: the hunger, their manner of dress, their process and prayers. I’d brag that I was going to be an artist’s mistress one day. Nothing seemed more romantic to my young mind. I imagined myself as Frida to Diego, both muse and maker. I dreamed of meeting an artist to love and support and work with side by side.
Selected WorkBooksJust Kids (2009)Auguries of Innocence (2005)Strange Messenger (2003)Patti Smith Complete (1998)The Coral Sea (1996)Early Work (1994)Woolgathering (1992)Babel (1978)Witt (1973)Ha! Ha! Houdini (1977)Early Morning Dream (1972)Seventh Heaven (1972)DiscographyThe Coral Sea (2008)Twelve (2007)Trampin’ (2004)Gung Ho (2000)Peace and Noise (1997)Gone Again (1996)Dream of Life (1988)Wave (1979)Easter (1978)Radio Ethiopia (1976)Horses (1975)LinksThe speaker’s website Music and video