By Vish KhannaThe life and work of Patti Smith is marked by artistic innovation and personal tragedy. A key figure in the development of New York’s influential punk scene in the mid-‘70s, Smith’s high-minded poetry and ferocious stage presence deeply affected how women were perceived in the music biz. Leaving the limelight in 1980 to raise a family, Smith’s return to public performance was precipitated by the deaths of her closest friends and muses. A creative renaissance over the past ten years, however, has left Patti Smith confident about her role and purpose. "I don’t feel at this point that I’m going to change the world or the landscape of music,” she admits. "Perhaps I made my youthful contribution in that pursuit but I can keep working and be a good example, if that’s possible, for taking care of one’s self or survival. I’m just gonna keep working.”
1946 to 1959 Patricia Lee Smith is born in Chicago, IL on December 30, 1946 and is raised in Philadelphia, PA until she’s nine years old, when her family moves to nearby Woodbury, New Jersey. Her mother Beverly is a waitress with a passion for jazz singers, while her father Grant works in an industrial plant. Patti is the eldest of four children; two sisters, Linda and Kimberly, and a brother, Todd. She is tremendously close to her family. (kaapeli.fi) Though she is thin and sickly, Smith feels destined for greatness from an early age. An avid reader with a vivid imagination as a child, Smith’s life changes when she overhears "Tutti Fruitti” by Little Richard on her way to Bible school. (Smith, Patti. Complete 1975-2006; Lyrics, Reflections, & Notes for the Future, New York: Harper Perennial, 2006, p.19) A tomboy, Smith doesn’t identify with feminine images of the 1950s and is confused about her gender. She overcomes this insecurity after visiting a museum with her father and discovering depictions of women by Modigliani and Picasso. (Bockris, Victor, and Roberta Bayley. Patti Smith, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999, pp. 26-27) Smith becomes engaged with visual art, opera and jazz singers, as well as the character Jo March, an actress/writer, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Grant is an atheist and Beverly is a Jehovah’s Witness; Patti comes to reject organized religion and dogma. By 1959, Smith is infatuated with the plight of Tibet, its people, Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama. (Bockris, p.28)
1960 to 1965 Smith attends Deptford High School, which is racially integrated and readily befriends (and dates) her African-American classmates. Her mother buys her jazz records and Smith attends a concert by John Coltrane before being kicked out for being too young. (Bockris, p.32) She soon becomes involved in extra-curricular activities during high school, acting and singing in plays and leading social activities before graduating in the summer of 1964. Smith begins working at a toy factory soon after, a horrible experience that would later inspire her to write the poem/song "Piss Factory.” On a lunch break, she visits a nearby bookstore and buys a copy of Illuminations by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Smith becomes obsessed with Rimbaud, later calling him the first "punk poet.” (Bockris, p.36) Beverly buys her daughter a used copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan, and Smith soon has another hero to emulate. "When I was a teenager, rock’n’roll was more sexual, it was dance music,” Smith says. "As the ‘60s evolved, [rock ‘n’ roll] started evolving. Lyrically, poetically it started to reflect things we weren’t happy about, things we were rebelling against and questioning, like the Vietnam War, the lack of civil rights, and people’s experimentation with drugs. Rock’n’roll started to deeply reflect the culture in every way, not just physically, but actually spiritually, politically, and poetically. So they were a very important time, not just for myself, but to the history of rock’n’roll and its evolutionary process.” Smith attends Glassboro State Teachers College that fall, with the idea of becoming an art teacher. Smith rebels against the prescribed curriculum, guiding her students through unrelated material and using every opportunity to learn about obscure artists and experiment with her own poetry. Her academic record at Glassboro is poor at best. Smith hooks up with a writing group in Jersey and forms a lasting bond with fellow student Janet Hamill. (Bockris, p.39) Despite her father’s objections, Smith falls in love with the Rolling Stones after seeing their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Bockris, p.40; www.beatzenith.com/the_rolling_stones/leftover.htm). Dylan’s "Like a Rolling Stone” and his emerging electric sound soon captivate Smith as a well, but she continues to see herself as a visual artist.