Patti Smith is famous in the rock and roll world for the edginess she brought to the New York music scene during the mid-1970s. She not only helped to pioneer American punk music, but she combined it with performance art, poetry, even painting.
Today, as she gets ready to read from her new book of poems, Auguries of Innocence, at New York's historic Cooper Union auditorium, the 57-year old artist says that for her, rock and roll has always been about a lot more than the music.
"I had a very, very idealistic sense of the possibilities of rock and roll," she says. "I really felt this was our unique cultural voice and that because it was a grassroots cultural voice which permeated the realms of art, politics [and] poetry… we could implement change. This was rock and roll as 'the people's art.'"
Patti Smith herself has been the subject of "high art." Richard Mapplethorpe's photograph of her dressed in androgynous garb looking insolently, yet vulnerably, into his lens is one of rock's great iconic images. Monica Shapiro, who was in college when the photo appeared on the cover of Horses, Smith's groundbreaking 1974 album, says she and her female circle were deeply inspired by the album photo and the music.
"I think the way she looked was something that resonated with the way we felt," explains Shapiro, " … that we were smart and sensitive and full of potential and promise and had strong views on things and we also liked the music. She was totally cool."
Smith's fans are among the most loyal in the business, even though she often deals with supposedly "uncool" subjects, like poetry and God.
"I just feel that we all have God within us, whatever one's religion or culture," Smith says, "that there is something within us that we could call God. Whether it's an energy, it's a force within us all that we can animate through being a gardener, a mother, a painter, or a poet. … We all possess this wondrous thing."
Despite her outsized influence on rock music, the 1983 song "Because the Night," which she co-wrote with rock star Bruce Springsteen, has been her only a mainstream hit.
In 1980, Smith married the rock musician Fred "Sonic" Smith and left the New York music scene for the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, where the couple had two kids, Jackson and Jesse. She says she loved becoming a mother, even though her new identity as homemaker was sometimes at odds with the self-absorbed bohemian lifestyle she once defined.
"I had to reinvent my idea of myself as an artist," Smith explains, "and I had to find a way to do my work in the context of my family duties. So instead of sitting around and waiting for the muse (inspiration) to come, I would have to say 'Muse, I have three hours between 5:00 in the morning and 8:00 when the children are awake and I want you there!'"
But Smith's muse continued to talk politics much of the time, resulting in songs like "People Have the Power," a work also inspired by her activist husband.
Whether she is recalling the Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, the 19th century French poet Rimbaud, or those who have died in wars or suffered as slaves, the themes of remembrance and loss are prominent in Smith's work. At her Cooper Union appearance, Smith recited this poem about the Dodo, a large bird that was hunted into extinction.
"… Funny squawks: coracoo, coracoo / swept my mist into the grotto, the sugar plantation. Funny beaks / bobbing the swamp's dreaming pond. Comic bodies washed up on the craggy/ shore. Funny bones, then no more…."
Several poems about her husband, who died of complications from liver and kidney disease in 1994, are also included in Smith's new book Auguries of Innocence. One in particular, called "Eve of All Saints," Smith found difficult to write, but healing to share.
"The writer who did not write moved by feel alone, was eaten by his own words, by drink, his own hand casting a line, drawing empty river. He felt a flow, not his, wrapping around him in the tavern - a silent salute from strangers he loved and who loved him. …"
As a poet, a rocker, a mother, even an American history buff, Patti Smith has always been difficult to categorize or define. Before the end of her Cooper Union performance, Smith offers this quote by poet Walt Whitman to describe herself, actually to describe all of us:
"We contain multitudes. And we really do. So we have to look at all aspects of the human being."