For as long as I can remember, I have worshipped musicians. I used to rewind the Michael Jackson music video at the beginning of the Free Willy VHS tape over and over, thinking, ‘I will never be that cool’. I knew exactly how long to fast forward my Elton John cassette so I could listen to Levon and Philadelphia Freedom exclusively. I asked my mother why we couldn’t learn about Bruce Springsteen in Sunday school, and proudly wore a t-shirt she bought at one of his concerts until it fell apart.*
*Disclaimer: my musical tastes also extended to the likes of Hootie and the Blowfish, Shania Twain, The Backstreet Boys and the soundtrack of Pocahontas.
I inherited my love for music from my mother. Most of the tapes that ended up in my Walkman were [stolen] from her. She gave me all her records when she took off to become a stewardess (just kidding- fans of the film Almost Famous will appreciate that) In her collection I discovered (to name a few) The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell and a very worn out copy of Wave by The Patti Smith Group.
“I’m dancing barefoot, Heading for a spin, Some strange music draws me in, Makes me come on like some heroine.” Dancing Barefoot, Wave, Patti Smith Group, 1979
Patti Smith was born in 1946 in Chicago. In 1967, she moved to New York City with no money, no place to stay and no concrete plan. You can read all about this in her memoir, Just Kids, which is one of my absolute favourite reads.
“I bought sacks of books, but I didn’t read them. I taped sheets of paper to the wall, but I didn’t draw. I slid my guitar under the bed. At night, alone, I just sat and waited. Once again I found myself contemplating what I should be doing to do something of worth. Everything I came up with seemed irreverent or irrelevant.” Pg 214, Just Kids, Patti Smith
I didn’t buy Patti Smith’s book with the idea that her story would resonate with me so clearly. I bought her book to read a story about a rock-star: chance meetings with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin & Allen Ginsberg; life at the Chelsea Hotel in the early 70’s; tales of the CBGB music club. I found all of that, but I also found the story of a young woman trying to make her mark on the world in a way that she considered authentic. The story of a self-professed “jack of all trades, master of none”. The story of a “not gifted by imaginative” girl from a working-class family who worshipped Brian Jones and inherited a love of music from her mother.
Patti Smith is not just the “High Priestess of Punk”. She is a poet. She is a daughter, sister and mother. She is an activist, an artist, a life-long non-conformist. She a no-bullshit realist,
“You have to kick doors open yourself. When people come up to me and say, ‘Patti, nobody wants to hear my CD and I don’t have enough money for equipment,’ I say, ‘Well, get a job, y’know?’ That’s what I did. You get people who say, ‘The government won’t give me a grant and I can’t do my art.’ I say, ‘Fuck you, it’s your own fault, you expect the government to give you a hand? The government is corrupt. Do what it takes. You do babysitting jobs, you work in the factory, you work in the bookstore, y’know? But whatever. Get a job.’ Work is really good for an artist.” Patti Smith, The Guardian, 2007
I strongly encourage you to go out and read “Just Kids”. Listen to her albums. Read and listen to interviews. Do not buy an audio-book narrated by Patti because that is possibly the one thing she is truly not cut out for. Getting to know the spirit behind this mysterious punk-rock-hero was an inspiring wake-up call for me, and I wish the same for you.
“… Patti’s music in its ultimate moments touches deep wellsprings of emotion that extremely few artists in rock or anywhere else are capable of reaching. With her wealth of promise and the most incandescent flights and stillnesses of this album she joins the ranks of people like Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, or the Dylan of “Sad Eyed Lady” and Royal Albert Hall. It’s that deeply felt, and that moving: a new Romanticism built upon the universal language of rock’n’roll, an affirmation of life so total that, even in the graphic recognition of death, it sweeps your breath away. And only born gamblers take that chance.” -Lester Bangs review of Patti Smith’s Horses, Creem Magazine, Feb 1976