Accessibility links

From Punk Pioneer to Mother and Poet

The wild black mane of hair Patti Smith's fans knew in the mid-1970s is streaked with gray now, but the free-spirited intensity that made her 1975 Horses album a groundbreaking work is still clearly evident in all she says, does, and sings.

There is even a hint of Smith's spirit in a lot of the music Americans revere today. Indeed, some rock connoisseurs claim that the vitality of today's indie rock was made possible in part by Horses, whose earthy power contrasted sharply with the shallow slickness she felt was then becoming the norm in the mid 1970s.

Patti Smith was born in 1946 in Chicago and grew up in southern New Jersey, where she worked in a factory. In 1967, she realized her dream of moving to New York City. There, she blended quickly and gratefully into the bohemian world of Greenwich Village, where art, poetry and music were merging in new ways for young people.

Smith says that then and now, rock-'n'-roll was a vehicle for expressing the idealism many associate with youth. "I really felt that this was our unique cultural voice," she says, "and that because it was a grassroots cultural voice, we could implement change. It was rock-'n'-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 defiantly, yet vulnerably, into his lens, is one of rock's iconic images.

Despite Patti Smith's outsized influence on rock music, the 1983 song "Because the Night," which she co-wrote with rock star Bruce Springsteen, has been her only mainstream hit. Perhaps that is because Smith often deals with supposedly "uncool" subjects, like God, especially in her poetry, which has been praised by famous poets such as her late friend, Alan Ginsberg.

"I just feel that we all have God within us, whatever one's religion or culture," she muses. "It's a force within us all and we can animate it. We all possess this wondrous thing."

In 1980, Smith married the rock musician Fred "Sonic" Smith and left the New York music scene for the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. There, the couple had two children. She says she loved motherhood, even though her new identity as homemaker was sometimes at odds with the self-defining bohemian lifestyle she once defined.

"Instead of sitting around and waiting for the muse [inspiration]) to come, I would have to say 'Muse, I have three hours between five in the morning and eight before the children are awake and I want you there.'"

Whether she is recalling the Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, or those who have died in wars or suffered as slaves, the themes of remembrance and loss are prominent in Patti Smith's work.

At a 2006 appearance in connection with the publication of her poetry collection Auguries of Innocence, Smith recited a poem, "Eve of All Saints," about her husband, who died of liver disease in 1994:

"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."

As a poet, a rocker, a mother – even an American history buff – Patti Smith has always been difficult to neatly categorize. Before her ode to President Abraham Lincoln near the end of a poetry performance, Smith quoted Walt Whitman: "'We contain multitudes'" she said, "And we really do. So we have to look at all aspects of the human being."

Patti Smith revealed yet another side of her artistic expression with the opening of an exhibit of her photography and artwork on March 28 in Paris.

Previous American Profiles