Patti Smith: punk’s fairy godmother

Only Patti Smith should cover a Rolling Stones’ song. Same goes for the Who’s My Generation, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit or Them’s Gloria. No one else can capture the original soul of the sound.PattiSmith1
In 2007, during her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, after dedicating the song to her late husband, Fred (Sonic) Smith, she performed Gimme Shelter.
Patti Smith is one of the most influential artists in the history of rock music. Her first album, Horses (1975) is often cited as one of the greatest recordings in music history. The poet and fairy godmother of punk led a movement. Not intentionally. A magnet doesn’t intend to attract iron.
Smith changed the landscape for the female performer and opened the doors for the likes of Siouxsie Sioux, Nina Hagen and Lady Gaga. After Smith, women could exude passion, frothy sexuality, without being a sex object.
Her first years were spent on Chicago’s south side. Her working-class parents moved to New Jersey in 1956 when Smith was 9 years old.
Smith’s autobiography, Just Kids, is a raw and honest self-exposure.
Patti Smith didn’t follow the usual teenage path. At 16, she discovered French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
“I had found solace in Arthur Rimbaud,” Smith wrote in Just Kids. “Rimbaud held the keys to a mystical language that I devoured even as I could not fully decipher it.”
After high school, she attended Glassboro State Teachers College. I chuckle at the thought. In a world where education too often means teaching children what to think rather than how to think, Smith was doomed. She insisted on discarding traditional curricula in order to focus on obscure and experimental artists. You can guess the spasms that caused for bureaucratic administrators. Smith didn’t graduate.
In July 1967, Smith moved to New York City. That same month, she met a soul mate, Robert Mapplethorpe, who would encouraged her poetry, art, photography and music.
In 1969, Smith spent three months in Paris. She wanted to absorb the land and spirit of Arthur Rimbaud. When she returned to New York, she moved into Hotel Chelsea with Mapplethorpe. The place was affordable and attracted artists. There, Smith found kindred spirits like Sandy Daley, Salvador Dali and Allen Ginsberg.
In February 1971, Patti Smith gave her first public reading of her poetry, with guitar accompaniment by Lenny Kaye, who continued to perform with her for years. There were some detractors. Those who think poetry requires a motionless reciting lines in a boring monotone were aghast. But most were enthralled. Smith put heart, soul and guts into poetry.
Everyone wanted her to do poetry readings. Sam Shepherd wanted to write a play with her. She became New York’s new “it” girl.
She was about to become a rock queen.
Patti Smith preceded the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash. Smith’s guitarist was the first to use the term “garage-punk” to describe a style of music. Smith became a prototype in the emerging punk scene, which in the early days in New York was often a gathering of young poets and performance artists.
In the spring of 1971, Patti Smith performed in a one-off show at CBGB music club (which would soon become the epicenter of the punk scene). The reaction to her performance was intense. She was immediately booked for a seven week residency. Word spread. Members of New York’s influential art scene descended on the club. The likes of William Burroughs, Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg came to pay homage to this poet/musician extraordinaire.
Patti Smith saw that rock bands had become business ventures with the audience as spectators. Commercial bands like Aerosmith strutted above the crowd. They were mere spectacles, separate from the people. Rock and Roll was becoming a dead art form. Patti Smith re-lit the spark. She wanted to “put rock ‘n’ roll back in the hands of the people.”
Smith had everything that other rock musicians of her era lacked. Former Velvet Underground front man Lou Reed took notice and brought Smith to the attention of Clive Davis who signed Smith to Arista Records with a $750,000 advance.
Smith was hugely successful, despite almost no commercial radio airplay. Her biggest hit, Because the Night, co-written with Bruce Springsteen, was an exception to the rule.
As fast as Patti Smith had hit the New York music scene, she disappeared in 1979. Patti Smith wasn’t going to become a caricature. She moved to Detroit with Fred Smith (of the band MC5). They married in 1980 and, aside from one album in 1988, Patti Smith immersed herself in domestic life to raise two children, Jackson (b. 1982) and Jesse (b. 1987). Tragedy struck like dominos, starting with Robert Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989 and culminating with the death of Smith’s husband and brother within weeks of each other in 1994.
As a teen, art and music had been Smith’s salvation. She turned back to them and returned to New York City where she worked with the likes of John Cale and Jeff Buckley, the ethereal singer who made Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah famous.
A new and mature Patti Smith was back on the music scene.
I saw Smith perform a couple of years ago at the Beacon Theatre in New York, in a tribute concert to John Lennon, two blocks from where the ex-Beatle was murdered. Pure brilliance, yet humble. No pretense. Smith walked on stage and, before doing some Lennon songs, read from Jack Kerouac, then, on hands and knees, crawled to the audience. At 66, Smith can still do performance art with the best of them.
We sometimes forget that Patti Smith was an artist and photographer long before she became a rock musician. These days she’s returned to what she calls pure photography, i.e., photography using only available light, no flash.
An upcoming Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit, “Patti Smith: Camera Solo,” is the first showing of Smith’s work in Canada. The presentation highlights the connections between Smith’s photography and her interest in poetry and literature.
The AGO exhibit includes more than 70 of Smith’s photographic works, objets and film. The objets include a stone from the river where Virginia Woolf drowned and Pope Benedict XV’s slippers. Her black and white photos, shot on her vintage Polaroid Land 250 camera (also on exhibit) include images of her children, Victor Hugo’s bed, Rudolf Nureyev’s slippers and her father’s tea cup.
As for the pope’s slippers, AGO assistant curator of photography, Sophie Hackett, said Smith bought them at a monastery. Benedict XV was called “The Pope of Peace” prior to the First World War and that’s why Smith, a pacifist, wanted the slippers. Smith also finds great inspiration in Joan of Arc’s story. Benedict XV canonized Joan of Arc as a saint in 1920.
Patti Smith’s life and work is a spiritual quest. This current exhibit reflects that journey.
Not only is her work coming to Canada, so is Patti Smith will perform music and read her poetry at the Art Gallery of Ontario on March 7 with shows at 7:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m.
Patti Smith: Camera Solo runs through May 19.
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About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
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