Patti Smith, rock star, artist, mother, and poet, turns 67 today. Since her first album Horses in 1975, Smith has produced 10 more albums (including Banga in 2012), several books of poetry, and a National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids.
It’s fitting that an artist who wrote so eloquently of death, endings, and creative aspiration should have her birthday fall so close to the end of one year and the beginning of another. What can creative professionals learn from the Godmother of Punk?
Smith tells the story of her childhood and early inspirations in Just Kids. It’s one of those beautiful, rare books you can tell comes from the pen of a lifelong poet. Listen to her describe her first experience visiting an art museum:
“Secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”
Even at an early age, Smith knew she was destined for something great. “I wasn't anything that showed the world I was something special, but I had this tremendous hope all the time. I had this tremendous spirit that kept me going... I was a happy child, because I had this feeling that I was going to go beyond my body physical... I just knew it."
Smith moved to New York to become an artist. For the early part of her time in NYC, she was poor and homeless, sleeping in subway cars and the bathroom of her workplace.
It wasn’t until many years of city life and poetry-writing that she told a friend, “I want to put blood into poetry….Kick poetry in the ass.” Her friend advised her to get a guitarist to play while she recited poetry. Of course, as these things normally work, she happened to meet now-legendary guitarist Lenny Kaye (in a bookstore), and they began jamming and improvising.
The Patti Smith Group released their first album, Horses, in 1975. Horses is consistently listed as one of the greatest albums of all time.
At the top of her career, Smith dropped out of the music scene suddenly in 1980, and would not put out another album until 1988.
She decided that it was more important to raise her two children. However, she continued her creative life privately. She wrote “four or five books” during that period, which remain unpublished.
Patti’s son Jackson is a guitarist (left in blue shirt, below), and they frequently play together, as here in Bowery Ballroom:
Despite commercial success, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a very loyal fanbase, Patti Smith is still humble about her abilities. She’s quick to say that she hardly considers herself a musician -- that she only knows a handful of guitar chords, and is sceptical about claims that she made original contributions to music.
“I am obviously an amateur,” Smith says. “I know I’m a strong performer. I’m not an evolved musician.”
Smith is also still charmingly excited about being in the spotlight. In 1999, Patti Smith “begged” to be on Conan O’Brien’s late night show. Here’s the result:
“I’ve been wanting to be on television for like two decades now and I’ve been fantasizing it since I was in high school,” she tells Conan, before getting into his chair.
Obviously, Freelancers Union appreciates a good “power to the people” manifesto. Smith’s is all sorts of awesome:
Here’s part of the last verse:
“I believe everything we dream
can come to pass through our union
we can turn the world around
we can turn the earth's revolution
we have the power
People have the power …”
Rock on, Patti.
Perhaps it makes sense that she’d be a huge fan of The Hunger Games. She even wrote a song, "Capital Letters", included on Catching Fire’s OST.
Happy Birthday, Patti Smith.