Patti Smith

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

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - @an­dreaschilds

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.



Patti Smith per­forms with her chil­dren, Jesse and Jackson,

FAR in 2013


She won the Na­tional Book Award for her 2010 mem­oir,

Just Kids

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