"Writing has always been the most important form of expression to me to create space for others. I think that is an artist's duty." Patti Smith
Punk rock poet Patti Smith was influential in spawning the New York punk rock scene with her debut album “Horses” (1975). She released ten studio albums between the mid 1970s and 2008 and is most widely known for the 1978 surprise hit single "Because the Night," which was co-written with fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen and rose to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The Grammy Award-nominated singer-songwriter, poet, and artist was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture in 2005 and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. She ranked #15 on VH1's “100 Greatest Women of Rock N Roll” and was voted the 47th “Greatest Artist in Rock 'n' Roll” by Rolling Stone.
On a more personal note, this poet and punk musician is a former girlfriend of controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and is the widow of MC5 guitarist Fred 'Sonic' Smith.
Childhood and Family:
Born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 30, 1946, Patricia Lee Smith grew up in Woodbury, New Jersey. Her mother, Beverly, was a jazz singer and her father, Grant, worked at the Honeywell plant. The eldest of four children, Patti has a brother named Todd Smith who died in 1994 of a heart attack.
Patti graduated from Deptford Township High School in 1964. She won an art scholarship to Glassboro State Teachers College, in Glassboro, New Jersey, but dropped out in 1967 because of an unplanned pregnancy. She then worked on an assembly line in a local factory.
After giving up the baby for adoption, Patti moved to New York City where she worked in a bookstore and met art student/future photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (born on November 4, 1946; died on March 9, 1989, of AIDS). She was romantically linked to Blue Oyster Cult member Allen Lanier (born on June 25, 1946) before marrying Fred 'Sonic' Smith (born on September 13, 1949), a former guitar player for Detroit rock band MC5 and Sonic's Rendezvous Band. They have one son, Jackson Smith (Detroit-based freelance writer; born in 1982), and one daughter, Jessie Smith (born in 1987).
Fred and Patti lived in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, an eastern suburb of Detroit, during their married years. Fred died of heart failure on November 4, 1994, and Patti move back to New York.
At the 2008 Rowan Commencement ceremony, Smith received an honorary doctorate degree for her contribution to the pop culture.
Because the Night
Arriving in New York City in 1967, Patti Smith went to Paris in 1969 with her sister. Returning to New York City, she became involved with underground theater and costarred in Sam Shepard's autobiographical play "Cowboy Mouth" (1971). As a member of the St. Mark's Poetry Project, she also spent the early '70s painting, writing, and performing. Additionally, she wrote for several rock magazines, published two volumes of her poems, and began contributing songs to the heavy metal music pioneer band “Blue Oyster Cult.”
In 1974, Smith formed a band with guitarist Lenny Kaye, bassist Ivan Kral, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, and pianist Richard Sohl. The group recorded a groundbreaking independent single called "Hey Joe/Piss Factory" that same year.
After Patti Smith Group was signed by Clive Davis of Arista Records, they released the debut album "Horses" in November 1975. It produced the famous track "Gloria," a radical retake on the “Them” garage rock classic. The album ranked number 44 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in 2003 and named number 1 on NME's list "20 Near-as-Damn-It Perfect Initial Efforts.” It was also one of Time magazine's "All-Time 100 Greatest Albums" (2006). The follow-up album, "Radio Ethiopia," was released in October 1976. It spun off the singles "Pissing in a River," "Pumping (My Heart)," and "Ask the Angels." The following year, she wrote a book of poetry titled “Babel.”
“Easter,” Patti Smith Group's third studio album, hit the music stores on March 3, 1978. It was a commercial breakthrough thanks to the success of the single "Because the Night" (co-written by Bruce Springsteen and Smith), which rose to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #5 in the U.K. The album listed number 14 in The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critics' poll of the “Best Albums of 1978” and 46th on NME magazine's “Best of the Year.”
On May 17, 1979, the album "Wave" was released. It was less successful than its predecessor, but spawned the singles "Frederick," "Dancing Barefoot," and "So You Want to Be (A Rock 'n' Roll Star)." After the album was released, the group broke up and Smith spent many years in semi-retirement following her marriage in 1980 and the birth of her children in 1982 and 1987.
Smith released her comeback album, "Dream of Life," in June 1988. It yielded the singles "People Have the Power" (later revived by Bruce Springsteen as a theme song for the 2004 Vote for Change concerts), "Looking for You (I Was)," and "Up There Down There." The album, whose songs she co-wrote with husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, ranked number 49 on Sounds magazine list of the “Best Albums of the Year.”
Following the death of many of Smith's close friends and peers, including her husband, her brother, friend and former lover Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith Group pianist Richard Sohl, and musician Kurt Cobain, Smith released the album "Gone Again" on June 18, 1996. The album produced the single "Summer Cannibals" and was placed in Rolling Stone magazine's list of "The Essential Recordings of the '90s" in 1999.
"Peace and Noise," Smith's seventh studio album, was released on September 30, 1997. It spawned the single "1959," which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance in 1998. The album was number 21 on ”Best of the Year” by Uncut magazine.
The new millennium saw the release of Smith's next album, "Gung Ho," which produced the single "Glitter in Their Eyes" that was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance in 2001. The record was included in Rolling Stone's "Top 50 Albums of 2000."
"Trampin'," the first album Smith released on the Columbia Records label, was released on April 27, 2004. The album that delivered the single "Jubilee" was one of Rolling Stone magazine's "The Top 50 Albums of 2004." The following year, on July 10, 2005, Smith was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. She released a live CD titled "Horses" on November 8, 2005, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 12, 2007.
On April 17, 2007, Smith released a cover album titled "Twelve," and on July 11, 2008, she released a double live album with Kevin Shields called "The Coral Sea," which covered their performances from 2005 and 2006.
Smith is the subject of a 2008 documentary film titled "Patti Smith: Dream of Life." Directed by Steven Sebring, the film was presented at the Berlin International Film Festival and won the "Excellence in Cinematography Award: Documentary" at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: 2007