By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
To call Patti Smith the high priestess of punk is to oversimplify her. A poet, musician, mother, composer, widow, visual artist, political activist, androgynous style queen and occasional recluse, Smith has always cast a very wide net. She cites Maria Callas, Jackson Pollock, Johnny Carson, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and Michelangelo as key sources of inspiration. She’s a feminist role model who once declared, ”I don‘t listen to music by people I don’t wanna fuck.“ She‘s an aficionado of French poetry who still hasn’t lost her Jersey accent. And though she never cared for the drugs that permeated Manhattan‘s musical community in the ’70s, where she launched her career, her performing style is best described as a kind of intoxicated incantation.
Smith, the eldest of four children in a blue-collar family, was born in Chicago in 1946 and raised in Deptford, New Jersey. Her mother was a Jehovah‘s Witness who worked as a waitress. Smith’s father, who died in 1983 and is pictured on the cover of her new album, Gung Ho, was a factory worker. Both of Smith‘s parents loved music, and she grew up listening to her father’s jazz records.
As a young girl, Smith was a lanky tomboy with an unfettered imagination, and she spent much of her time as a teenager daydreaming about French poet Arthur Rimbaud. ”If you‘re 15, and you can’t get the boy you want and have to daydream about him all the time, what‘s the difference if he’s a dead poet or a senior?“ she points out.
Moving to New York in 1967, Smith spent the next seven years working a series of odd jobs while developing herself as an artist. She gave her first performance, accompanied by longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye, at St. Mark‘s Church in the Bowery in 1971, and was a local sensation until 1975, when the release of her debut LP, Horses, made her an international star. Smith was an unusual star, however. The closest she came to having a hit record was when ”Because the Night,“ which she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen, went to No. 13 on the Billboard charts in 1978, but the people who were into her music regarded it with something akin to religious devotion. In other words, not everybody got Smith, but the people who did got her in a really big way. Misfits related to her as if she were their patron saint, and her defiant spirit sustained countless adolescents through the identity crises of youth.
Smith released three albums during the latter half of the ’70s; then, in 1979, she fell in love with musician Fred ”Sonic“ Smith, the former guitarist with the seminal Detroit rock band the MC5. The Smiths married, moved to Detroit and had two children, a son, Jackson, who‘s now 18, and a daughter, Jesse, now 13. In 1994, Fred Smith died suddenly of heart failure, at age 45; then, a month later, Smith’s brother, Todd Smith, also passed away, after a brief illness. So Smith packed up her kids and moved back to New York, where she now lives with her boyfriend, Oliver Ray, the guitarist in her band, which also includes Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty and Tony Shanahan. In between music and child-rearing, Smith is writing a memoir about her friend the late Robert Mapplethorpe.
In preparation for the making of her new album, Smith studied the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which she refers to as ”our sacred documents,“ then wrote a cycle of songs that touches on everything from the abolitionist movement and Ho Chi Minh, to Custer‘s wife and Jerry Garcia. She’s 53 now, and still casts a wide net, still spits onstage and still believes in the redemptive power of art.
This weekend, Smith and her band will kick off a national tour, at the Wilshire Theater. She spoke with the Weekly from her home in New York.
Lenny Kaye commented in a recent interview that ”Patti had a really difficult childhood,“ but your childhood sounds kind of cool. Your mother bought you Bob Dylan albums, your father was into jazz, and you were recognized as a leader from the time you were very young. Do you remember your childhood as difficult?
No, I remember it as magical, because I loved my siblings and they respected me. It wasn‘t without difficulty, of course. I was a sickly child with lots of physical problems, high school was hard for me, and my parents had lots of economic troubles. As a teenager my difficulties had to do with the fact that I had drives within me to be an artist, and opportunities to develop that didn’t exist in South Jersey.
As a kid growing up in South Jersey, what was your fantasy of New York City?
I didn‘t really have one, but I wanted to see the paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, and I knew there were jazz clubs where you could see John Coltrane. The first time I saw Manhattan was on a school field trip, and I remember being impressed by the architecture, and by the fact that it was a city where you could get around on foot. The police in South Jersey harassed me when I was young because I looked like a beatnik, and New York seemed like a place where no one bothered you. Back then the [New York] police were nice, and no one made fun of your clothes or your hair, because people were involved in their own concerns.