[read in Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” voice]
Happy birthday to writer and rock star Patricia Lee “Patti” Smith, born Chicago, Ill. 70 years ago today. Her family moved to Philadelphia and eventually New Jersey, where she was raised. Her mother was a devout Jehovah’s Witness which informed Patti’s religious views, both pro- and anti-.
After moving to New York in the late 1960s, she befriended artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The two were close until his death in 1989. Smith’s National Book Award-winning 2010 memoir “Just Kids” chronicled their friendship. She published another memoir, “M Train,” in 2015, in addition to more than dozen collections of poetry and lyrics.
After writing and performing poetry for several years, Smith formed the Patti Smith Group in 1974, becoming an integral part of the New York punk and proto-punk scene. The group released the landmark album “Horses” in December 1975.
A dynamic, groundbreaking songwriter and performer, Smith fronted the group until 1979, after which she largely retired from the public eye to raise her family with her husband, ex-MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith.
She released a one-off comeback record, “Dream of Life,” in 1988. After the deaths of both her husband and brother Todd’ in 1994, Smith returned to the road in 1995, released the album “Gone Again” in 1996 and continued to record and tour ever since.
From her radical reworking of Them’s “Gloria” to Motown tunes to Nirvana songs, covers have always been a huge part of the Patti Smith story and I have always loved the relationship between her and Bob Dylan. She never seemed afraid of him, or rather, never acted afraid of him, which is even cooler and he seemed to revel in her lack of care. I love the way both of them had no problems tying themselves up in the past and openly worshiping their idols, Patti being far more likely to cite her sources.
Here is a clip of Smith performing Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at this year’s Nobel Prize Ceremony. Dylan won the 2016 prize for literature.