On December 30, 1946, Patti Smith was born in Chicago, Illinois. She grew up to become a punk rock music pioneer, poet and bestselling author. As an influential figure in the 1970s New York punk rock movement, her pivotal 1975 debut album, “Horses,” revolutionized the role of women in music. In a previously male-dominated space, Smith opened up doors for other female artists and musicians to speak their minds and rock out. As the “punk poet laureate” ushers in her 71st birthday today, she continues to share her individualistic spirit and artistic gifts with the world.
Born Patricia Lee Smith to a jazz singer-turned-waitress mother and a machinist father, she spent most of her childhood in Philadelphia, PA and Woodbury, NJ. Until high school, she struggled with her gender and appearance. Of her youth, Smith once said, “Even as a child, I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to wear red lipstick.” Smith learned to embrace her tomboy nature and “masculine” figure in high school. She also fell in love with the music of John Coltrane, Little Richard and the Rolling Stones, and the artwork of Picasso and Modigliani. Although she attended college in 1964 with the goal of becoming an art teacher, Smith struggled with the rigid academic structure. Instead, she dropped out and moved to New York City in 1967.
Upon moving to NYC, Smith took a job at a bookstore where she met the young photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. Although the two started out as lovers, as Mapplethorpe struggled with his own sexuality, the two became lifelong platonic friends. She chronicled their long-term friendship in her bestselling 2010 book, for which she won the National Book Award, “Just Kids.” In the book, she calls Mapplethorpe “the artist of my life.”
She emerged as a prominent poet in the early 1970s downtown scene. She gave her first public poetry reading at St. Marks Church on February 10, 1971, to an impressed crowd. Also in 1971, she co-wrote and co-starred in the play, “Cowboy Mouth.” In that time, Smith released various collections of her poetry and contributed articles to Rolling Stone magazine.
By 1974, Smith began performing her poetry to rock music. Her band, The Patti Smith Group, gained popular and critical attention. As a result, music producer Clive Davis signed them to Arista Records. In 1975, they released their now classic debut album, “Horses.” Celebrating its 42nd anniversary this month, the album was a fusion of punk rock and spoken poetry. It included their iconic cover of the Van Morrison classic, “Gloria.” Their third album in 1978 generated the breakthrough hit, “Because The Night.” Co-written with Bruce Springsteen, it reached number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
When she married guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith in 1980, Patti mostly dropped out of the public eye. She raised their two children and released only one album, “Dream of Life” (1988), in that time period. However, after her husband died of a heart attack in 1994, she fully re-entered music world, starting with her comeback album in 1996. Since her return to the music scene, Smith has put out multiple albums. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As a punk rock trailblazer and talented poet, Smith made it easier for today’s female artists to share their talent. The world is a more inclusive and exciting place thanks to Smith’s brave voice and artistry.