Interesting Facts About Patti Smith: The Punk Rock Poet With A Purpose

Scott Croker | October 31, 2019 1:18 pm

Not everyone in life finds their calling but Patti Smith knew that she was destined to be a voice for other “weird people” like her. She began with poetry, merged it with punk rock, and ended up becoming a rock ‘n’ roll legend by accident, as she says. Smith has never seen herself as a singer, a fashion inspiration, or a beautiful woman, but to fans of rock ‘n’ roll and the written word, she is all of those things and more. Now 72-years-old, Smith has realized that she can never truly hang up her hat and retire from rock ‘n’ roll and writing. She’s still got a whole lot more to say.

Robert Mapplethorpe Influenced Patti Smith To Pursue Writing

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Instagram/katesimon
Instagram/katesimon

Once Smith made the move to Manhattan, she met photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The two had an intense connection and a relationship filled with ups and downs. They were both young and broke, yet determined to follow their artistic passions while trying to make ends meet living in New York City.

Mapplethorpe inspired Smith to hone her writing talent and take it seriously. Both of them had a strong work ethic, and together they plugged away to make things happen in the late ’60s and early ’70s as roommates and lovers.

Merging Poetry and Rock ‘n’ Roll to Reach the Right Audience

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Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Smith identified as a writer, a poet, a performer, but not a singer. If she was going to join any kind of band, she’d want it to be a rock band. But women weren’t fronting rock bands at the time. Then, Grace Slick broke the mold singing with Jefferson Airplane.

But Smith didn’t think her voice was comparable to Slick’s. By 1974, she decided to “merge poetry and rock ‘n’ roll” and start a band, Patti Smith Group. By taking this route, she was also able to connect with the audience that she truly identified with, which was hugely important to her.

She Fought To Maintain Control Of Her Image

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Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

When it comes to personality and style, Patti Smith is unlike anyone else. She does things her way, and that’s always been the case. When the record company urged her to brush her hair and look pretty for the camera, Smith refused.

“My hair was messy… it was just- it was a little incomprehensible to them, at the time. But I fought for it, and they did try to airbrush my hair, But I made sure that was fixed,” she told NPR, “People were very upset constantly about my appearance when I was young. I don’t know what it was… But I’ve always had that problem.”

Smith Was A Resident of Hotel Chelsea

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Tom Hill/WireImage
Tom Hill/WireImage

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe moved into the iconic Hotel Chelsea and lived there during the early ’70s. The building was home to many writers, artists, and musicians, and inspired Smith to write. In her memoir Just Kids, Smith wrote, “The hotel is an energetic, desperate haven for scores of gifted hustling children from every rung of the ladder… Everybody passing through here is somebody, if not in the outside world.”

While it wasn’t easy living, Smith placed herself right where she needed to be– in the middle of a cultural hub of artists just like her, in New York City.

She Loves a Good Protest Song

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Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Part of Patti’s legacy is her political involvement as an activist with her protest songs. Along with her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, Patti wrote, “People Have The Power” which became the lead single on her 1988 album Dream of Life.

She describes her protest songs as a duty to the people with the creative process being more of a feeling of urgency, something that she needs to find release for, and communicate to the people. Patti has repeatedly stated that she never creates a song for a hit, but for service.

Smith Injured Her Neck and Back After Falling 15 Feet

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Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In 1977, while performing in Tampa, Florida, Patti Smith experienced a frightening accident. She was dancing on stage when she slipped and fell 15 feet down onto the concrete. Smith fell into the orchestra pit below and ended up with a fractured spine and several broken vertebrae in her neck.

Although Smith says that she still feels the pain today, the accident allowed her to take a step back to reflect on her career trajectory and organize new music for her albums Easter and Wave.

Inspiring Fans Of Hendrix and Morrison After They Passed On

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Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

The early ’70s was a groundbreaking era for rock ‘n’ roll music. The Beatles broke up in 1970 which made room for psychedelic rock, which disrupted record labels. Musicians were moving to San Francisco, while Andy Warhol and other artists were keeping the scene alive and well in New York City. Then tragically, major artists who were leading the cultural movement suddenly passed away.

Within a short period of time, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix all passed away. Smith didn’t want to see the culture die and stepped up as a voice of the community. Her band recorded Horses, for what Smith says, “to connect with these people, you know… just to create some bridge between our great artists that we had just lost… and to create space for what I felt would be the new guard.”

She Became A Poet By Pioneering An Alternative Path

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Pete Still/Redferns
Pete Still/Redferns

Although Smith wrote plenty of poetry, she didn’t feel like she fit into that world. “You know, I wasn’t really accepted in the poet clique,” she told NPR. “The more academic way of breaking into the poetry circle, it wasn’t interesting to me.”

So she went to open mics that weren’t poetry readings, often opening for a local rock or blues band instead. Smith recalls, “They weren’t interested in hearing poetry or, you know, they wanted to hear music and they were half drunk. But… that was my stage and I was going to fight for it.”

Working In A Factory Inspired Her To Break Free

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Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

The eldest of four children, Smith’s family didn’t have a lot of money while she was growing up. As a 16-year-old high school student in Deptford Township, New Jersey, Smith took a job at a factory that made mattresses and children’s buggies.

In a 1996 interview, Smith told The Guardian, “People were happy just to have this crappy job and live under the worst conditions– and that probably produced the most rebellion in me.” Others working alongside Smith would go on to work at the factory their entire life, but she knew she had to get out.

She Lost Her Husband Too Soon

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Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Patti Smith met guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith” in the early ’80s. The two shared a love of music and poetry and often collaborated, including Patti’s album, Dream of Life. They were soon married and welcomed two children, their son Jackson in 1982 and a daughter, Jesse, in 1987.

Sadly, after fourteen years of marriage, Fred Smith suffered a heart attack and died in 1994. After his death, Smith decided that she would move back to New York City from where they had been living in Michigan.

Her Debut Album Horses Reached the Billboard Top 50

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Richard McCaffrey/ Michael Ochs Archive/ Getty Images
Richard McCaffrey/ Michael Ochs Archive/ Getty Images

Although it received limited airplay, Patti Smith’s debut album Horses climbed to the top 50 on the US Billboard 200. A cross-up of rock ‘n’ roll and poetry, fans of both psychedelic and punk rock could relate to Smith’s messaging and her band’s sound. Smith said she created the album with the intention “to make a record that would make a certain type of person not feel alone. People who were like me, different.”

The album featured guitarist Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daughterly on the drums, Ivan Kral on the bass, guitar, and vocals, and Richard Sohl on the keyboard. The album featured a photo taken by Robert Mapplethorpe on the cover. Today, Horses is recognized as one of the greatest and most influential albums of all time.

Clive Davis Helped Patti Get Her Start

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Patrick McMullan/Getty Images
Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

“Clive really has a weakness for artists,” Patti Smith said in the 2019 documentary about Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives. “It all stems from that authentic love of music.” Davis was proving himself as a top music producer when he met Smith. He had just started his own record company, Arista, and signed on Smith to produce her first album, Horses.

Davis was attracted to Smith’s unique style and personality and instinctively knew that she had genius potential when it came to songwriting and performing.

She Has A Tattoo of A Lightning Bolt On Her Knee

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Pinterest
Pinterest

When Patti Smith and Sam Shepard got together, everyone needed to look out. The two were like hell on wheels together and saw every night as an opportunity to paint the town red. They’d go to Max’s Kansas City, a nightclub that was the hot spot for musicians, poets, and artists in the ’60s and ’70s.

There, they would get liquored up and cause a scene. During one of their charades, Smith commissioned an Italian gypsy named Vali to give Shepard and her tattoos. She got a tattoo of a lightning bolt on her knee and he got a hawk moon. Fans of Patti Smith have gotten their own lightning bolt tattoos on their knees as a tribute.

Smith Fell In Love With Sam Shepard, Who Was Married

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CARRIE SHALTZ/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
CARRIE SHALTZ/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Smith met Sam Shepard when he was already a successful playwright at twenty-six years old. He was newly married with a young son, but that didn’t stop Shepard and Smith from having an affair. Smith said, “Me and his wife still even liked each other. I mean, it wasn’t like committing adultery in the suburbs or something.

Together they caused trouble, staying out late, drinking, talking about their favorite writers and even getting tattoos. He became an important person in her life. They even wrote a play together about a woman who seduces a married man to leave his wife and baby for a new life.

She Chose Adoption For Her First Child

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Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Smith became pregnant in 1966 when she was twenty years old. She had little money and was living with a hippie couple in New Jersey at the time. Knowing that she couldn’t provide for her child at that time in her life, Smith made the tough decision to give her daughter up for adoption once she was born.

On choosing adoption, Smith told NPR, “…It would have been difficult for everyone I think. And the child would have had no father. I felt that I just wasn’t ready as a human being. I wasn’t prepared and that- although I knew that I would be responsible and loving- that I just was not equipped to embark on that path.”

She’s Experienced a Lot of Death in Her Life

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Jonas Vandall Ortvig/AFP via Getty Images
Jonas Vandall Ortvig/AFP via Getty Images

As Patti Smith acknowledged in her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech, she’s lost many loved ones in her life. Until the end, she’s stuck by their side. As Robert Mapplethorpe was dying of HIV/AIDS on March 9, 1989, Smith spoke to him on the phone during his last hour he could speak.

She also sat alongside Allen Ginsberg when he died in 1997, and with her husband and parents as they died. Of her experiences, Smith told NPR, “I think that each of us, you know, our energy leaves in a different way, according to the person… the energy of the person, the way the spirit manifests. Each of us die differently.”

She Was Inducted Into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame

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Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images
Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

In 2007, Patti Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She tearfully accepted the award and mentioned all of her loved ones who had passed on. “My mom and my dad and my brother and Fred, and so many people that I love are with us,” she said.

After she thanked everyone who helped her build her career, she stepped on stage to perform The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” where her son accompanied her on the guitar.

She Recommends Detroit for Young Creative People

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Tom Hill/WireImage
Tom Hill/WireImage

Seemingly uncharacteristic of Smith, and against her formative beliefs, Smith, her husband, and her two children moved to the suburbs of Detriot. It wasn’t until 1988, that Smith reemerged. As she describes it, “In my mind, I think of my contribution to rock ‘n’ roll has always been for me like military duty. Being called back to duty. I have always felt like that.” She released her fifth studio album Dream of Life, co-written with her husband, reappearing in the rock scene.

While she may have moved back to the Big City now, Smith encourages young creative people who can’t afford to live in NYC to take a look at Detroit as a place to grow their craft. “New York City has been taken away from you… So my advice is: Find a new city,” she said.

Patti Smith Has Inspired Other Legends

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Ian Dickson/Redferns
Ian Dickson/Redferns

Countless artists, poets, and musicians have been inspired by Patti Smith’s work and persona. Madonna has noted Smith as an inspiration to her, calling her “a renaissance woman” and “revolutionary in her work.”

The band R.E.M. has pointed to Smith as a major influence. They were over the moon when the band found out they’d be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same night as Smith. The Go-Betweens dedicated a track to her, “When She sang About Angels”. Other artists who cite Smith as a major influence include Shirley Manson of Garbage, and The Smiths members Morrissey and Johnny Marr.

Her Memoir Won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction

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Andy Sheppard/Redferns via Getty Images
Andy Sheppard/Redferns via Getty Images

Before he passed, Patti Smith made a promise to Robert Mapplethorpe that she would write a memoir about their life and memories together. Published on January 19, 2010, the book Just Kids became a New York Times bestseller and won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Smith commented, “I didn’t write it to be cathartic. I wrote it because Robert asked me to… Our relationship was such that I knew what he would want and the quality of what he deserved. I wrote it to fulfill my vow to him, which was on his deathbed. In finishing, I did feel that I’d fulfilled my promise.”