Patti Smith: accidental rock star, all-round Renaissance woman and the original punk poet. We look back at the life of the music industry’s most enduring female icon.A skinny woman with a tangle of dark hair and a hacked-in fringe stands before a plain white wall. She wears a man’s white shirt and holds her black jacket slung across a shoulder. Gazing at the man behind the camera, her hooded eyes are unreadable. This is Patti Smith – poet-priestess, artist, soon-to-be icon – and the photographer is Robert Mapplethorpe, her former lover and lifelong friend who will become famous for his beautiful, erotic images.
This portrait will become one of the most famous album covers of all time. The album itself, Horses, will combine the energy of punk with the poetry of Rimbaud. And Patti Smith will redefine music, performance and style forever.
‘Interviewing her was one of the highlights of my life,’ explains author Geoff Dyer, who hosted an on-stage conversation with Smith two years ago. ‘She tells great jokes and has a great capacity to charm an audience. When I saw her play with her band, it was obvious that we were in the presence of a great performer.’
Smith clearly had artistic vision from a young age. ‘All I ever wanted, since I was a child, was to do something wonderful,’ she says.
She was born in Chicago in 1946, the first of four children. Her mother, Beverly, was a waitress; her father, Grant, worked in a factory. Frequent illnesses – including scarlet fever, which gave Smith hallucinations – meant she spent days confined to bed, her only entertainment being books, records and her imagination. She daydreamed about becoming an artist and muse, became obsessed with Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, and lost herself in the visionary literature of William Blake and Charles Baudelaire.
But real life was more mundane. She finished school, started teachers’ college and worked summers in a tricycle construction line. It would inspire one of her greatest songs – Piss Factory – but, at the time, it was just a dead-end job in a depressed town. And then she fell pregnant.
Smith was 20; the father, who she has never named, was 17. Realising that neither of them was capable of raising a child, Smith decided to give the baby up for adoption. ‘For a brief moment I felt as if I might die; and just as quickly I knew everything would be all right,’ she recalled in her 2010 memoir, Just Kids. ‘An overwhelming sense of mission eclipsed my fears. I would be an artist. I would prove my worth.’
Three months after the birth, in July 1967, she arrived in New York, carrying only a few pieces of clothing, some pencils for drawing and a book of Rimbaud’s poetry.
On her very first day in the city, Smith met the man she later called ‘the artist of my life’. Robert Mapplethorpe lived a hand-to-mouth existence as an artist. Within weeks, they were living together as lovers, dreamers and co-workers, sharing ideas and inspiration as Mapplethorpe sketched, and Smith concentrated on her drawings and poetry.
Their relationship – and the work it produced – has become legendary. It was Smith who prompted Mapplethorpe to pick up a camera. And it was Mapplethorpe who encouraged Smith to turn her poems into lyrics. Their intimate relationship ended as Mapplethorpe accepted he was gay, but their bond could never be broken.
The New York years were pivotal. Smith progressed from giving solo poetry readings to forming the Patti Smith Group. In 1975, they released Horses, their seminal first album, and went on to produce three more records: Radio Ethiopia, Easter and Wave. Yet, in 1979, despite the success of the single Because the Night, co-written with Bruce Springsteen, Smith quietly broke up the band and disappeared.
There were rumours she had a drug problem (Smith smoked marijuana when she was writing); also that her new lover, guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, was too possessive to let her tour and perform. But Smith simply says of the time: ‘I had done what I set out to do.’
She and Fred moved to a suburb of Detroit and were married in 1980. ‘We had no possessions save his guitars and my most precious books and clarinet. Thus, I was living as I did with my first love,’ she says. They had a son, Jackson, who is now married to The White Stripes’ Meg White, and a daughter, Jesse; both are musicians.
In 1989, Mapplethorpe died of an Aids-related illness; Smith was bereft. Then, in 1994, her husband died of a heart attack. She was still grieving when her brother, who was also her tour manager, died of a stroke.
Her mentors and disciples helped her to rebuild her life: Bob Dylan asked her to play live with him, REM’s Michael Stipe found her a house in New York, fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester dressed her. It was the start of a creative renaissance and her discovery by a whole new generation of artists, including designer Hedi Slimane, who is an admirer of her androgynous style.
Now in her 60s, Smith’s style is still striking – wild grey hair, biker boots, men’s blazers and beanie hats. She continues to make music and has also written an award-winning book, Just Kids, about her and Robert Mapplethorpe (£8.99, Bloomsbury). And, like her first love, she is passionate about photography.
Dr Wendy Hitchmough curated an exhibition of Smith’s work at Charleston, the farmhouse owned by Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell (charleston.org.uk) in East Sussex. ‘Her photographs have a haunting beauty that reveals the poetry and absolute seriousness of Patti Smith’s work as an artist,’ says Hitchmough. The awkward, gangly girl who dressed like a boy escaped her humdrum life because she wanted to do something ‘wonderful’.
And she still is.