She ranks among the most influential musicians of all time, with her unique fusion of poetry, performance and political activism. Forty years on from her debut album, ANDRÉA CHILDS explores the extraordinary legacy built by Patti Smith
AWOMAN WITH A tangle of dark hair stands against a white wall. She wears a man’s white shirt and holds a black jacket slung across her shoulder, the ngers of her right hand touching a long ribbon draped around her neck. Her eyes are hooded, her expression unreadable. She is gazing at a man in front of her, taking her picture. This is Patti Smith – poet-priestess, artist, would-be icon – and the photographer is Robert Mapplethorpe, her former lover and lifelong friend who will soon become known for his beautiful, erotic images. This portrait will become one of the most famous album covers of all time. The album itself, Horses – which marks its 40th anniversary this year – will combine the energy of punk with the in uence of 1 th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. And Patti Smith will redefine music, performance and style forever. With the music and that voice, her poetry was transformed. When I saw her play with her band, it was obvious that we were in the presence of a truly great performer,’ remembers author eo Dyer.
All I ever wanted, since I was a child, was to do something wonderful,’ says Patti. She was born in Chicago in 1 4 , the rst of four children. Her mother, Beverly, was a waiter; her father, Grant, worked in a factory. The family struggled with poverty and moved to Philadelphia and then New Jersey to nd work. Patti was an awkward child, who wore an eye patch because her parents couldn’t afford surgery to correct her squint. Frequent illnesses – including scarlet fever, which gave her hallucinations – meant she spent days confined to bed, her only entertainment being books, records and her imagination. She daydreamed about becoming an artist and muse, like Frida Kahlo; became obsessed with Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison and lost herself in the literature of William Blake and Charles Baudelaire. But real life was more mundane. She nished high school in 1 4, started teachers college and worked summers in a factory, inspecting the handlebars of tricycles. It would inspire one of her greatest songs – Piss Factory’ – but at the time it was just a dead-end job in a depressed town. And then she got pregnant.
Patti was 1 ; the father, whom she has never named, was 1 . Realising that neither of them was capable of raising a child, Patti decided to give the baby up for adoption. She sat in the family laundry room, which doubled as her bedroom, preparing to tell her parents the news. For a brief moment, I felt as if I might die; and just as uickly I knew everything would be all right,’ she recalls in her memoir, Just Kids (R1 , Bloomsbury). An overwhelming sense of mission eclipsed my fears. I would not return to the factory or to teachers college. I would be an artist. I would prove my worth.’
The birth was traumatic. As an unmarried mother, Patti was treated callously by the nurses who called her Dracula’s daughter’ and left her alone for hours while she struggled through labour. Eventually, a doctor realised the baby was breech and she had an emergency caesarean. Patti had already found a childless couple to raise her daughter. Though I never questioned my decision to give my child up for adoption, I learned that to give life and to walk away was not so easy,’ she says. But three months later, in July 1 , she arrived in New York, carrying only a few pieces of clothing, some drawing pencils and a book of Rimbaud’s poetry.
On her very rst day in the city, Patti would meet the man she later called the artist of my life’. After venturing to Brooklyn looking for some friends, Patti was directed to a young man within the building. She found him asleep in a room. He was a slender boy and sleeping peacefully,’ she recalled in a 2012 interview. And he woke up and I was standing there and he smiled at me. From that moment it just seemed like we were destined to know each other.’
Robert Mapplethorpe existed hand-to-mouth working in a downtown bookshop as he tried to make his mark on New York’s art scene. Within weeks, he and Patti were living together as lovers, dreamers and co-workers, sharing ideas and inspiration as he sketched and made collages and she concentrated on her poetry. It was Patti who prompted Robert to pick up a camera. And it was Robert who encouraged Patti to turn her poems into lyrics; her stanzas into songs.
For a while, they lived in the now legendary Hotel Chelsea, where singer Janis Joplin would hold court in her room, while writers William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg hung out in the lobby. Their intimate relationship ended as Robert nally accepted he was gay but their bond could never be broken. ‘The connection between Patti and Robert was one of those relationships which is mutually inspiring,’ says rock writer Nick Johnstone, author of Patti Smith: A Biography (R235, Omnibus Press). ‘Aside from the artistic encouragement they inspired in one another, they simply gave each other permission to be who they truly were and that emboldened each of them to take off confidently on their unique individual journeys.’
Patti had several other relationships during these New York years – with musicians Todd Rundgren, Tom Verlaine and Allen Lanier, and with actor and playwright Sam Shepard – but, more importantly, it was a pivotal time for her creatively. She progressed from giving solo poetry readings to having a single guitar as backup to forming with the Patti Smith Group. In 1974, the band recorded their rst single, with ‘Piss Factory’ on the B-side.
A year later, they released Horses, their seminal rst album (still lauded as one of the best rock’n’roll debuts of all time) and later, three more records: Radio Ethiopia, Easter and Wave. ‘Patti’s roots in poetry mean she knows how to divine the power of the word – whether spoken or sung – when performing, and that spells a mastery of phrasing and timing,’ says Nick. ‘That, along with the raw and rugged music itself and her blues-leaning wail of a voice.’ Musicians as diverse as Madonna and Bono have all cited Patti as an in uence, both for her music and her stage presence; at a concert in Florida in 1977, she whirled around the stage in such a frenzy that she tripped and fell four metres into the audience. Two years later, despite worldwide acclaim and the success of her single ‘Because the Night’, Patti uietly broke up the band and disappeared. Her reasoning was simple: ‘I had done what I set out to do.’
Naturally, rumours swirled: she had collapsed with a drug problem (in fact, she smoked marijuana when she was writing), or her new lover, guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of the rock group MC5, was too possessive to let her tour. In reality, she and Fred moved to Detroit, where he was from, and were married in 1980. ‘Once love came into the picture with Fred, she was ready to be at home and start a family with this man who understood her,’ says Nick. They had a son, Jackson, and daughter, Jesse; both are musicians who now play in their mother’s band.
‘Growing up, I didn’t actually know what my parents did for a living, or their impact in music,’ says Jesse. ‘It was only years later when she returned to performing that I realised what was going on. My mother is a true renaissance woman. She was following a path to be an artist, poet and writer and becoming a rock star was fate.’
Patti would write poetry before the kids woke, and she and Fred recorded an album. Robert died of an Aids-related illness in 1989 and Patti was bereft. Then, in 1994, her husband died of a heart attack. ‘That was a very difficult time in my life, when I had to decide what I was going to do without him,’ she says. She was still grieving when her brother, Todd, who had also been her tour manager, died of a stroke.
Her mentors and disciples helped her to rebuild her life: Bob Dylan asked her to play live with him; REM’s Michael Stipe found her a house in New York; fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester gave her clothes. It was the start of a creative renaissance and her discovery by a new generation of artists, including Hedi Slimane, creative director of Saint Laurent Paris. ‘Much of the impact of Patti’s later career has been driven by her status as a fashion and style icon,’ says Nick. ‘The fashion world rates her alongside Jane Birkin as an inspiration and muse.’
Today, Patti still makes music. She recorded the song ‘Mercy Is’ for the 2014 lm Noah and embarked on a world tour this year to mark the 40th anniversary of Horses. And like her rst love, Robert Mapplethorpe, she is now passionate about photography.
‘My mother has never stopped learning,’ says Jesse. ‘She loves to be busy, to work and create. She’s a true performer; her stage presence, confidence and energy are remarkable.’ The awkward, gangly girl escaped her humdrum life because she wanted to do something ‘wonderful’. And she still is.
‘ALL I EVER WANTED, SINCE I WAS A CHILD, WAS TO DO SOMETHING WONDERFUL’
Patti Smith performs with her children, Jesse and Jackson,
FAR in 2013
She won the National Book Award for her 2010 memoir,