These Are Our Gods: Patricia Lee “Patti” Smith

These Are Our Gods:…”. A series of influential people who’ve had an impact on (Sub)Culture.

This edition of “These Are Our Gods:…” highlights the Godmother of Punk music, Patti Smith. Along with music, Patti is a poet and visual artist. She’s referred to as the Godmother of Punk because of her influence on the New York City Punk Rock movement. Smith was the first to integrate “the beat poetry performance style with three-chord rock.”

Patti was born in Chicago into a blue collared family but she spent most of life in Deptford Township, New Jersey. In 1967, after graduating highschool and working on a factory line for some time, she moved to New York City where she met longtime friend and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. She left the city briefly in 1969 with her sister and started busking and doing performance art in Paris.

“When Smith returned to New York City, she lived near the Hotel Chelsea with Mapplethorpe; they frequented the Max’s Kansas City and CBGB nightclubs.” Smith, obviously a woman of vast artistry, submerged herself in numerous artistic and musical endeavors. She became a member of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, spending the early ’70s painting, writing, and performing.

She was even considered for the lead singer position in the band Blue Öyster Cult. “She contributed lyrics to several of the band’s songs, including Debbie Denise (inspired by her poem In Remembrance of Debbie Denise), Career of EvilFire of Unknown OriginThe Revenge of Vera Gemini (on which she performs duet vocals), and Shooting Shark.”

Truly a woman of many talents, Patti also dabbled in rock journalism. Some of her writing was published in Rolling Stone and Creem magazines.

By the mid 70’s Patti had begun performing in her own band called Patti Smith Group. She spent most of the 80’s in semi-retirement and establishing her family life. But enough regurgitation of autobiographical excerpts. I just wanted to give you a background on Smith in order to justify the gushing lament that is to take place in the next two paragraphs. But first, here she is performing her song “Horses” and her own rendition of “Hey Joe” on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1976:

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I became familiar with Patti Smith’s music in the spring of 2009. Although I’ve heard her name floating on air in the past I just never bothered to delve into her legacy. Secretly, I doubted that my artistic filter would gather anything of substance. I assumed that she would just go over my head. I sensed that I was unprepared for her genius. Eventually I did dip a toe in the purifying waters of her proverbial “Lake Minnetonka” and I’ve been swimming ever since.

At the risk of sounding pretentious and somewhat obsessive, Patti reminds me a lot of myself in certain ways. I feel a strong identification with her and her path as an artist. While working on a factory line in Deptford, Smith found salvation in the 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud‘s Illuminations. While working my way through my junior year in college, a much more privileged setting, I found salvation in beat poet Bob Kaufman‘s Cranial Guitar. Kaufman had a large following in France and was often referred to as the “American Rimbaud.”

I can only aspire to be half the artist that she was. I can only hope to leave such a poignant mark on culture. Patti is my shero. Patti is all that I strived to be.

She wasn’t a child music prodigy. She wasn’t signed at the age of eighteen. She was a working class dog like the rest of us. She was voted “Class Clown” in her senior year of high school. She had a son in her early 20’s but gave him up for adoption. She was a human being who squeezed art from life.

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