Her artistic and literary journey began in earnest 50 years ago, when in the summer of 1967, she left rural New Jersey with just enough money for a 1-way ticket to New York City. She brought in her small red and yellow plaid suitcase only some pencils, a sketchbook, a stolen yet beloved copy of Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud, and an untethered but serious goal of becoming an artist of some sort. She had no place to stay, no money, and no specific plan except to never look back as she pursued her not yet fully formed dream.
So, how did the gaunt, androgynous unattractive by traditional standards Patti Smith, sporting frizzy chopped hair the color of smudge (with bushy underarm hair to match) (Rolling Stone) known as a wild-child poet admired by freaks, outliers and outsiders, become the kind of literary artist she was unable to define? She was and is an enigma – a reader, thinker, philosopher, photographer, speaker, singer, poet, truth-teller, visual artist, author. She became the Patti Smith. But how, exactly?
She began simply – with words. She read the works of others voraciously – from the comic books of her youth, to early inspirations like Oscar Wilde and Baudelaire. She studied them fiercely – how these writings fit into the meaning of life, and her life. She wrestled with words in her mind, scribbled them out on paper, rearranged them, and through her ardent efforts, slowly learned to transmit power through them. After a few years of becoming, existing more on artful words than food, she felt ready to perform her poetry accompanied by an electric guitar as a type of avant-garde performance. Though she was not performing as a singer per se, (her goal that night was to “infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll”) her performance was met with immediate and passionate acclaim; something shifted, she was suddenly in demand and known, and the celebrity Patti Smith was born, leading, for one, to her groundbreaking album release Horses.
Skipping ahead to 1992, Patti Smith had moved out of the rock idol limelight and into the Detroit suburbs with a husband, raising 2 children and living a quiet family life in semi-retirement. It was then that she suffered the sudden loss of her spouse, musician Fred “Sonic” Smith, who died at age 45 of heart failure.
Shortly after his death, Smith moved back to New York City, and began to readjust, recalibrate and re-emerge as she grieved and crawled forward with her art and her life. She continued to write as she always had, but as she has said many times, almost the entirety of her writing is unread and destined only for obscurity. She toured, recorded albums, and began to be honored for her artistic output – she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
But something was shifting. Previously adored by mostly oddballs and outcasts, she was beginning to be appreciated by the masses, and acclaimed among the literary set as an important literary figure. In 2005, Smith was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.
She had published several slim volumes by then, mostly consisting of poetry, ethereal musings, and lyrics.
But in 2010, Smith published a memoir which fulfilled a promise she had made 20 years earlier to photographer Robert Mapplethorpe on his death bed – that she would tell their story. They met randomly on her first day in New York, immediately bonded, and became themselves together – they were each other’s muse, they were lovers, they were poor and obscure together, and then each unexpectedly became famous for their work within a short period of time. Their togetherness had been the artistically defining event of both their lives. She titled the book Just Kids, and in 2010, it was awarded the National Book Award.
In 2015, she followed up with another memoir, titled M Train, which is written more loosely and dreamily, as she ruminates on life and love and coffee and age, random occurrences and meaningful experiences, and where she has been and where she hopes to go. The book was released in paperback in Summer 2016.
In the last decade or so, the punk princess of a few has become the wise sage for many, and her work and appearances reflect this. She has become so knowledgeable in so many directions that her output has reached out and into a myriad of minds and hearts, with little to no promotional effort on her part.
But she has branched out – Smith recently participated in a new edition of Poems by William Blake, choosing the poems herself. She performed in 2017 at the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm, accepting the award for Literature on behalf of winner Bob Dylan. (Start at appx 1:03.09) She wrote a Golden Globe nominated soundtrack song for the film Noah. She now is a sought-after talk show and academic program guest, where tickets are often sold out immediately upon their release. She has received an honorary degree from Wesleyan and Pratt Institute, where she has also given the commencement ceremony address.
In one of her most famous early songs, Gloria, released in 1975, she begins by professing that “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine!” Yet, some 40 years later, she has sung twice at the Vatican’s Christmas Concert, by personal invitation of Pope Francis.
So, we come to realize that one of the reasons why the young Patti was so unclear on her artistic future path was because she hadn’t yet invented herself.
“Oh, to be reborn within the pages of a book,” she writes in M Train. Yet, during her 70 years of life off the page, she has crafted and established herself as the heroine of her own story to different groups of admirers, over and over again. And isn’t that what an artistic masterpiece is all about?