Patti Smith became a pioneer of the punk rock movement in New York City during the 1970s, known for her androgynous style and poetic lyrics.
In a 1971 interview with the BBC, she recited:
“New York is the thing that seduced me
New York is the thing that formed me
New York is the thing that deformed me
New York is the thing that perverted me
New York is the thing that converted me
And New York is the thing that I love too”
Smith developed her interest in writing while she lived at the Chelsea Hotel with already acclaimed authors like Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, who served as mentors and supported her work. She first gained recognition in literary circles through regular poetry readings at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, where she notably used the electric guitar to enhance her performances.
But she was perhaps best known for being one of the first artists to perform in the legendary Lower East Side punk venue CBGB with her band, the Patti Smith Group, among other artists such as the Ramones, Blondie, and Television.
She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 for her influence in rock music, but she is just as active in the poetry world. Smith has published numerous poetry collections, including Babel and Auguries of Innocence. She has also written two memoirs, Just Kids and The M Train, the former earning the National Book Award for nonfiction.
Smith was born in Chicago on December 30, 1946 into a religious family, with whom she moved around Pennsylvania and New Jersey until her early 20s. After dropping out of Glassboro State Teachers College in 1967, she moved to New York to follow in the footsteps of her idols such as Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol, where she would eventually make her own mark on the city.
Smith grew up with a love of books and all things artistic. She writes in Just Kids that she was inspired by author Louisa May Alcott’s depiction of Jo March in Little Women, Picasso’s harlequins and Cubism, and the social commentary in the songs of folk singer Bob Dylan and the writing of French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
After arriving in New York in 1967, Smith got a job at Scribner’s Bookstore at 597 Fifth Avenue through her friend Janet Hamill. She was inspired by the beauty of the Beaux-Arts style building and the prominence of Scribner’s writers, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. She would often write poetry on Scribner stationary and cardboard boxes in her free time.
Then, in 1969, Smith moved to Paris with her sister Linda and began drawing and performing with a group of street musicians. Later that year, Smith returned to New York and resumed her job at Scribner’s, where she worked as a book clerk until 1972. It was through her job at Scribner’s, which payed $70 per week, that Smith was able to afford a room at the famed Chelsea Hotel, home to many great authors over the years, including Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, and Arthur C. Clarke.
Smith lived in the hotel at 222 West 23rd Street with her close friend and lover Robert Mapplethorpe from 1969 until 1972. There she learned from the older artists who also lived there and took inspiration from its eccentric residents. During this time, Smith was galvanized by the atmosphere of New York in the 1970s: the political climate, growing wealth disparity, and the energy of the antiwar movement.
With such an abundance of material in her reach, she further developed her love of writing, experimenting with different poems under the guidance of other Chelsea Hotel residents. Of her experience living at the hotel, Smith writes:
Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs were all my teachers, each one passing through the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, my new university.
Smith had her first experience performing after beat poet Gregory Corso brought her to St. Mark’s Poetry Project. The Poetry Project took place at St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery on Tenth Street and Second Avenue, the oldest continuously religious site in Manhattan, originally established in 1795. The Project was frequented by poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Ted Berrigan, and Paul Blackburn.
As Smith watched various poets perform at St. Mark’s, she writes in Just Kids:
I made a mental note to make certain I was never boring if I read my own poems one day.
When that day finally came on February 10, 1971, Smith used guitarist Lenny Kaye to accompany her after asking him if he could “play a car crash with an electric guitar.” She described the performance for NME as “a bit controversial because we had sort of desecrated the hall of poetry with an electric guitar.” This controversial mix of poetry and rock ‘n’ roll would soon become Smith’s trademark style and her path to recognition.
For her first performance, she read a poem called Oath which begins, “Christ died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” This line, with “Christ” changed to “Jesus,” would become the opening of her most famous album Horses four years later on the track Gloria. Smith continued to read occasionally at St. Mark’s Poetry Project while she established herself in the music world.
After permanently teaming up with guitarist Lenny Kaye the two began a residency at CBGB at 315 Bowery, a very new venue at the time, where they would establish a formidable rock band and receive a record deal from Arista Records. Known as the Patti Smith Group, they shared a residency with another emerging experimental rock band, Television. The two bands would perform two sets a night, four days a week, through March and April of 1975.
Many of the songs that Patti Smith performed at CBGB would be used on Horses, the album she produced later that year at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine following the closing of CBGB in 2006, Smith said:
Even though I wrote the poem at the beginning of Gloria in 1970, it took all those years to evolve, to merge into Gloria. And that was pretty much done at CBGB. We recorded Horses in 1975, and did all the groundwork at CBGB.
Following the success of Horses and the growing popularity of punk rock, the Patti Smith Group began touring the world. She moved from New York to Detroit in 1979 right before marrying the lead singer of rock band, MC5, Fred “Sonic” Smith, in 1980. In Detroit the couple had two kids: a son, Jackson, born in 1982, and a daughter, Jesse, born in 1987.
By 1995 she returned to New York after her husband’s death, where she continues to write songs, poetry, and books to this day. In 2005, she was honored with the title of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.
In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to join the company of her idols including Bob Dylan and Keith Richards. Patti Smith will forever be the “punk poet laureate” who elevated New York’s art scene as it elevated her.