‘I still live by it’: The ‘good’ advice that impacted Patti Smith’s career
Patti Smith. Occupation Musician. Age 73. Relationship status Widowed. Best known for Being the godmother of punk. Currently Preparing to tour Australia.
Patti Smith at her local coffee shop in SoHo, New York.Credit: Andre D. Wagner/The New York Times
My father, Grant Smith, had a difficult experience serving in World War II. He was sent to Australia, the Philippines and New Guinea. By the time he got back to the US, he had malaria and was quite ill. He had a terrible time fighting in the jungle. He was very different to my mother, Beverley. She had a difficult life but was very resilient.
I was born in Chicago right after World War II and came from a lower-middle-class family. I was one of four children. Dad was a machinist at a factory. He was the more intellectual one of my parents, and somewhat more melancholy. Mom, who worked as a waitress, was always high-spirited.
Neither of my parents had things easy in their life, but there was always love in our household with lots of laughter, lots of books to read, but sometimes not enough to eat.
Our family moved to New Jersey when I was nine. I went to Deptford High School and wasn’t that popular with the boys. I was very skinny and stuck to myself. My teenage years were awkward; I never felt that I fitted in.
I was very involved in reading books and writing poetry. My young life at school centred on the books that influenced me, such as Little Women and The Catcher in the Rye. Art and the magic that is the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud also inspired me. I had a big imagination and used it to escape and daydream.
I loved rock’n’roll and the opera. I was a little girl when rock’n’roll was born; I saw the whole evolution unfold before me. The first album I bought was Bob Dylan’s self-titled release in 1962. I’d also listen to Giacomo Puccini’s operas – their serenity would bring me a lot of joy. I could dance
for hours listening to them.
I was 20 when I left my family home for New York City in 1967. I had no money, no job. Times were tough but I was free. I don’t know if my father approved of that, but I had to do what I had to do.
I daydreamed about boys a lot. Arthur Rimbaud and Bob Dylan were always on my mind until I had my first real boyfriend of my own, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. He’s the first boy I ever lived with; we did everything together.
I met my husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith [guitarist with Detroit band MC5] in 1976. My band mate Lenny Kaye introduced us and that was it – that moment changed my life. We have two beautiful children together [son Jackson, 38, and daughter Jesse, 33]. Sadly, his life was cut short by a heart attack in 1994.
I had a succession of significant men in my life die within the space of a few years. First was my lover and friend Robert Mapplethorpe [who died of AIDS in 1989], then my pianist, Richard Sohl, in 1990, my beloved husband Fred in 1994, then my brother Todd [who was also her road manager] died a few months after that. Losing these four men was the most difficult thing I’ve had to navigate in life.
I was left with two small children. I had responsibilities and a generally optimistic drive to get through it. I couldn’t give up. I had to find a way.
I met writer William Burroughs when I was 22 at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. I was very taken by him. He became a mentor when I was very young, then my best friend when my husband died. He was very loving towards my children. I cherish those moments we had together.
William gave me very good advice as a young girl: “Make choices and keep your name clean.” He said we all make mistakes in life and relationships, but when it comes to work, make sure you make choices that you can live with your whole life. I still live by that today.
I met Bob Dylan at one of my concerts in 1975. This was a big deal at the time because he wasn’t usually spotted going to see new bands in New York. It caused quite the commotion. We hit it off and had a great chemistry. We’ve been friendly ever since.
After Fred died, Bob invited me to go on the road with him in 1995. He told me I could pick any song from his catalogue and sing it with him every night. I chose Dark Eyes and we did that together, sharing a microphone – a moment I will cherish forever. Bob helped me get back into public life after such a dark period in mine.
Patti Smith’s will play Byron Bay Bluesfest on April 9-13, followed by shows in Sydney and Melbourne.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale March 8.
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