This month Patti Smith will celebrate her seventieth birthday by performing her 1975 debut album Horses in her home city of Chicago, Illinois, giving no signs of winding down her music career. Playing in Hyde park earlier this year with the familiar snarling, robust energy of her youth, Smith raged against Brexit, hollering at her audience to ‘shake out the ghost’ and ‘feel your freedom’ in typical unabashed political agitation. I witnessed a similar scene a year before, when the singer’s rebellious enthusiasm caused her to trip over a mic wire and sprawl out on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage. Staggering to her feet, she declared: ‘I’m a fucking animal’, before ripping a guitar to pieces to demonstrate her point. Make-up-free, she looked gorgeously folk-punk cool in her signature androgynous black suit, with only gravelly vocals betraying the senior years of the ‘godmother of punk’.
Smith writes in her memoir Just Kids that watching her mother perform her traditional role appalled her, edging her closer toward dreams of travel and the art world. Raised in a stifling Jehovah’s Witness community, sexually naïve Patricia Lee Smith fell pregnant at nineteen. Dismissed from teacher’s college, savagely judged by her family’s neighbours and bullied by nurses during her labour, her experience gave birth to the famous lines ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine’. Alienated, and ambitious for a new life, Smith gave her child up for adoption and left her minimum wage factory job to board a bus to New York, where she met her lover and best friend Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith’s early experiences afforded her an open-minded acceptance of others, and she unquestioningly devoted herself to Mapplethorpe, supporting him through his drug addictions and homosexual awakening. Smith writes of his prostitution and contraction of STIs candidly and without judgement. She seems rather to lionise Mapplethorpe, while her reader might imagine him as a selfish and immature careerist. Smith doesn’t sugar-coat her personal anecdotes, but seeks art in everything, engaging all her senses in exploring the poetic narrative of everyday life.
Smith’s readers are presented with thrilling insight into the cliquey New York art elite of the 60s and 70s, with stories of the voyeuristically fascinating Chelsea Hotel and the exclusive shallowness of Warhol’s Factory. Disappointingly, the presence of other women is felt very thinly. In fairness, Smith resists filling the role of feminist spokesperson, maintaining: ‘as far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag’. Even so, unapologetically spiky and androgynous at a time when grotesque feminine performance meant entry into the in-circles, and serious self-expression was left to the men, Smith inserted herself in the punk scene with unruffled integrity. Curiously, despite her passion and sensuality, and her frank nod to the underground S&M scene surrounding her life in New York, there is a distinct lack of sex in her work.
Her second book, M Train, shifts away from the eager name-dropping of Just Kids, as Smith writes of her many personal losses following the deaths of her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, her brother Todd and her beloved Mapplethorpe. In fairness, Smith is adept at mourning, having a curious inclination for frequenting the gravesides of her many literary heroes, weeping at Rimbaud’s tomb and reverentially washing the headstone of Gene Genet. Sometimes her solemnity can be tedious, her sense of humour lacklustre, but her prose is as decorated and heart-achingly sentimental as her poetry. Read both with a sceptical eye. Inclined towards nostalgia, Smith might own up to contracting lice and having appalling table manners, but takes equal pains to present herself in a flatteringly intellectual, creative light.
Smith’s latest project is a collaboration with experimental art and music group Soundwalk Collective. Killer Road is a concept album far removed from the delicious bawling profanity of Horses, but consistent with Smith’s fluid artistic endeavours, offering an eerie, whispering tribute to the Velvet Underground’s Nico. Die-hard Patti Smith fans will love whatever Church-infused social commentary she puts out there. A natural maverick, the woman once dubbed ‘the female Lou Reed’ has flung herself at music, visual art, literature, and motherhood. Whether we admire or squirm at her affectations, we can acknowledge that the self-proclaimed ‘skinny loser’ helped pave the way for all of us misfits, party-avoiders and bookworms to be cool.
Written by Gemma Waldron