“All I’ve ever wanted, since I was a child, was to do something wonderful.”
Hailed as the high priestess of punk and a celebrated poet, filmmaker and photographer, as well as musician. Patti calls herself a writer.
Bookish: Born in Chicago in 1946, the first of four children. Her mother, Beverly, was a waitress; her father, Grant, worked in a factory assembling thermostats. The household was religious and the kids were raised Jehovah’s Witness. Money was short but there were always books, music, and as much art as they could afford. Her father “would take Socrates to the factory with him” and read Plato aloud over dinner, while her mother made meatball sandwiches; her mother had sung in nightclubs in the 30s, and loved opera, and the emerging glimmerings of rock’n’roll.
‘From very early on in my childhood – four, five years old – I felt alien to the human race. I felt very comfortable with thinking I was from another planet, because I felt disconnected – I was very tall and skinny, and I didn’t look like anybody else, I didn’t even look like any member of my family.’
But ‘I had a really happy childhood – my siblings were great, my mother was very fanciful (she would make lists of thing she’d buy with a Lottery win but never bought a ticket), and I loved to read.”
“I was completely smitten by the book. I longed to read them all, and the things I read of produced new yearnings.”
Sickly: Sick with bronchitis, tuberculosis, ‘three different kinds of measles’ and scarlet fever, which gave her hallucinations and double vision – Patti was sick for much of her childhood, confined to bed, with books, records and her imagination. She daydreamed about becoming an opera singer (the boy parts mainly). Or she wanted to travel to the Great Wall of China or join the Foreign Legion; she was unimpressed to discover she was expected to be a girl, and especially a girl in 50s America, where you became a hairdresser or a housewife, “and the boys went to Vietnam or became policemen. A girl had these few choices, and the boys had these few choices. And I wasn’t interested in any of their choices. I was interested in the whole world, that was not even spoken about. I had more communication with my dog than I had with my surroundings.”
“In grade school I was often scolded for not paying attention. I suppose I was busy thinking about such things or attempting to untangle the mystery of an expanding network of seemingly unanswerable questions. The hill-of-beans equation, for example, occupied a fair portion of second grade. I was contemplating a problematic phrase in The Story of Davy Crockett by Enid Meadowcroft. I wasn’t supposed to be reading it as it was in the bookcase for third graders, but drawn to it I slipped it into my schoolbag and read it in secret. I instantly identified with young Davy, who was tall and gangly, telling equally tall tales, getting into scrapes, and forgetting his chores. His pa reckoned that Davy wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans. I was only seven and these words stopped me in my tracks. What could his pa have meant by that? I lay awake at night thinking about it. What was a hill of beans worth? Would a hill of anything be worth a boy like Davy Crockett?”
Fantasy friends: As a teenager she dreamed of becoming an artist and muse, became obsessed with Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, and lost herself in the visionary literature of William Blake and Charles Baudelaire. She famously stole a copy of Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations’ from a second-hand book stall when she was a teenager, and whose incantatory poetry and rackety life have compelled her ever since; “Rimbaud was like my boyfriend. If you’re fifteen or sixteen and you can’t get the boy you want, and you have to daydream about him all the time, what’s the difference if he’s a dead poet or a senior? At least (with) Bob Dylan … it was a relief to daydream about somebody who was alive,” she said.
A scurrying girl braving a lush and often difficult wonderland, seeking to be asked and to discover: who are you?
A fork in the road: She finished school, started teachers’ college and worked summers in a factory on a tricycle construction line (later inspiring her song, Piss Factory) And then she fell pregnant at 20; the father, who she has never named, was 17. Realising that neither of them was capable of raising a child, Smith decided to give the baby up for adoption. ‘For a brief moment I felt as if I might die; and just as quickly I knew everything would be all right. An overwhelming sense of mission eclipsed my fears. I would be an artist. I would prove my worth.’ She was dismissed from college; when she went into labour the nurses called her Dracula’s Daughter and, almost fatally, as the child was in a breech position, ignored her. She will not say whether or not they have since been in touch.
“Well, it’s, you know – that’s a huge decision for any person, especially a young person. It was not a sacrifice, and it was not a decision I took lightly, and I didn’t have the emotional or financial stability, or even the motive – or even what it took to raise a child. I had a good upbringing, and a strong understanding of the value of human life, but it still was … I just did the best I could, that’s all. Who can say?”
A trip to Paris with her sister inspired her to begin working as a performing artist and busker and she quickly became part of the Hotel Chelsea set, hanging out at Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs which became home to New York’s burgeoning punk scene.
Hopes and Dreams: Three months after the birth, in July 1967, she arrived in New York, carrying only a few pieces of clothing, some pencils for drawing and a book of Rimbaud’s poetry.
On her very first day in the city, Smith met ‘the artist of my life’, Robert Mapplethorpe. Within weeks, they were living together as lovers, dreamers and co-workers, sharing ideas and inspiration as Mapplethorpe sketched, and Smith concentrated on her drawings and poetry. Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer, her boyfriend at the time, refused to “listen to me falter, question myself, question my abilities”; who held her fast to the idea that her art and her dreams mattered, and if she only could only hang on to them, they would win out.
Always True (to herself):
(Later working in a bookshop in the 60s and 70s)… “I dreamed of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf”;
Increasingly, books became her world, and by extension, wanting to write them. “Everything else grew out of that. More than anything that’s been the thread through my life – the desire to write, the impulse to write. I mean, it’s taken me other places, but it was the impulse to write that led me to singing. I’m not a musician. I never thought of performing in a rock’n’roll band. I was just drawn in. It was like being called to duty – I was called to duty, and I did my duty as best as I could.”
“If somebody said I’ll give you a million dollars, but you have to go against your own grain, you just have to do what I say – it would take me one second. I’ve never been tortured by something like that. Tormented more about what line to use in a poem, or the right word to use in a sentence. All I’ve ever wanted, since I was a child, was to do something wonderful.”
Reluctant Performer: Patti worked on collaborations with Wayne County, Sam Shepherd and wrote and performed with Blue Oyster Cult. In 1974 she formed the Patti Smith Group and soon after the release of their first single, Hey Joe, the band was signed to Arista Records which went on to release her iconic album Horses in 1975.
“I’ve always, for some reason, been comfortable talking in front of people or performing in front of people. And I guess I got a lot of guts, but I never really had that great a voice. I think it’s basically guts.”
Horses, is generally considered not just one of the most startling debuts in rock history but the spark that ignited the punk explosion.
“Because as a teenager I was the worst wallflower weirdo. So I knew what it felt like to be an outsider, and like Walt Whitman saying “young poet standing there, I am reaching out to you through time”, I wanted Horses to say “if you feel like you don’t belong anywhere, hopefully this will inspire you or give you some respite.”‘
Presence over looks: “My style says look at me, don’t look at me”
“People were very upset constantly about my appearance when I was young. I don’t know what it was. You know, they just – it was very hard for them to factor. But I’ve always had that problem. Even as a child, you know, I used to go to the beach when I was a little kid and just want to wear my dungarees and my flannel shirt. And the whole time, people would be, why are you wearing that? Why don’t you get a bathing suit, you know, why are – it’s like, leave me alone. (Laughter). It’s just, like, I’m not bothering you. Why are you worried about, you know, what I look like, you know? It’s just – I’m not trying to bother anybody.”
” I look like a bum, but I have very nice (designer) clothes”
“It was the voice of somebody who perhaps had felt unattractive all their lives, in every way. Yet here they were, singing about it, and seemed to know a way to make the misfortune of their lives become attractive. ” Morrissey on Patti
Keep on, keeping on: Patti writes and writes and writes – poetry, songs, memoirs, novels. During her married years she wrote from 5-8am before the kids got up. These days she prefers cafes, like her French idols of bygone eras, for the noise and company.
When you hit a wall” – of your own imagined limitations – “just kick it in.”
Her beloved husband, Fred Sonic Smith died in 1994 , leaving her with 2 small children, “That was a very difficult time in my life, when I had to decide what I was going to do, without him. But you know, when I have these moments, I just go all the way back to being 11 years old, when I knew who I was. Seven, 11 – I go all the way back there and then begin again, in my mind.”
Reverential: These days Patti is just as likely to be receiving an award as performing. In 2011 she received the Polar Music Prize – “By devoting her life to art in all its forms, Patti Smith has demonstrated how much rock’n’roll there is in poetry and how much poetry there is in rock’n’roll. Patti Smith is a Rimbaud with Marshall amps. She has transformed the way an entire generation looks, thinks and dreams. With her inimitable soul of an artist, Patti Smith proves over and over again that people have the power.”
Be happy… “Because when you’re happy, you ignite that little flame that tells you and reminds you who you are. And it will ignite, it will animate your enthusiasm for things — it will enforce your work.”
Always let your conscience be your guide… “We might ask ourselves, what tools do we have? What can we count on? You can count on yourself. Believe me, your self is your best ally. You know who you are, even when sometimes it becomes a little blurry and you make mistakes or seem to be veering off, just go deeper. You know who you are. You know the right thing to do. And when you make a mistake, it’s alright — just as the song goes, pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start all over again.”
Take care of your teeth!