(The National Post, 20 October 2015)
When Patti Smith was a teenager she fell dangerously in love with the myth of art and madness. The daughter of a waitress and a factory worker in New Jersey, she dreamed of being creative. For a while she studied at Glassboro State Teachers College but she knew her destiny was elsewhere, among artists who devote their lives to their work and think of little else.
Her unlikely career guide was Arthur Rimbaud, the 19thcentury French poet who planned to go mad because only madness could feed his poetry. When she moved to New York at the age of 20, in 1967, she took along a shoplifted copy of Rimbaud's book, Illuminations, so that he would always be with her. "Rimbaud was like my boyfriend," she said much later. "It was for him that I wrote and dreamed."
Rimbaud said that "I'm working to make myself a visionary." Patti Smith read that and did likewise. She took to the world of mad art and brash experiment as if she had been born to it. She revealed how it worked for her in her first book of memoirs, Just Kids, a likeable fusion of memory, yearning, mysticism and cultural gossip. Rightly, it won a National Book Award in 2010. This season, at age 68, she's back in the bookstores with M Train (Knopf), another personal story, as absorbing as the first one.
Just as before, she's apparently unsurprised by the many dazzling turns her life has taken. She takes for granted that she's an omni-artist playing multiple roles: She's been a poet, a songwriter, a playwright, a rock star with her own band, a published and exhibited photographer, a memoirist and an all-purpose cultural celebrity.
Sam Shepard collaborated with her on a play and Bruce Springsteen on a hit song. She had a cameo part in a Jean-Luc Godard movie, Film Socialisme, and acted in an episode of Law Order: Criminal Intent. She's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The French ministry of culture enrolled her in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. (The ministry noted her appreciation of Rimbaud.)
She began slipping quietly into this world not long after she arrived in New York. Impoverished, she slept in Central Park on her first night and calmed her hunger pains with cheap day-old bread and cookies.
By accident she met Robert Mapplethorpe, who was not yet a famous photographer of sado-masochism. In fact, he hadn't even discovered he was a photographer. But he too was determined to be an artist. He was experimenting with collages made from fragments cut from books and magazines, rather like the work of Joseph Cornell. Patti was writing poetry. They admired each other and soon were lovers. She later wrote that in the morning, after their first night together, "I knew he was my knight."
It was a Bohemian fantasy, scrambling for grocery money in parttime jobs. They were so poor that they took turns visiting museums and reporting back to each other. They made collections of objects scrounged from garbage - little talismans representing Buddhist, Catholic and Hindu beliefs. Patti, having been taught the Bible during her Jehovah's Witness upbringing, invented her own kind of mysticism, focusing on physical objects.
"Both of us felt magnified by the other," she says. He was "the artist of my life." She quickened to anything that would give her an artistic sensibility. He was looking forward to fame and money; Andy Warhol was his ideal of success. She didn't see the point of Warhol. She worried about nothing but "the work," convinced that relentless effort would be rewarded.
Patti and Robert read to each other from the writing of Jean Genet, the French poet-thief who boasted about his prison terms for burglary. Robert also stole, sometimes. He demonstrated a Genet-like amorality when he stole an original print by William Blake from a bookstore where he was working. He slipped it into a leg of his pants but panicked on the way out, afraid of being caught. He ducked into a washroom, tore it to pieces and sent it down the drain.
They moved to the Chelsea Hotel and met William Burroughs and other stars of the Beat Generation. It was said that Allen Ginsberg tried to pick her up, believing she was a "very pretty boy." The romance of Patti and Robert faded as Robert discovered he was gay but they continued to admire one another. He died in 1989, 42 years old, from AIDS-related illness.
Patti found a way to turn her poetry into songs. She acquired a guitar, learned a few chords and became the queen of punk. Her tours with her band went across Europe and North America.
In 1980 Patti married Fred ("Sonic") Smith, guitarist with the group MC5, and endured jokes about having chosen him to avoid changing her name. They lived in Detroit and brought up two children. After a heart attack killed him in 1994, she revived her music career and eventually turned into a prose writer.
In recent years she's also become a notable presence on YouTube. Sometimes she performs her songs with a disturbing ferocity and astounding confidence, almost as if she had invented rock music or the idea of performing in public. On other You-Tube items, talking to an enthralled young interviewer, she tells her life story with a lovable eagerness, as if she had never done it before.
Today, even when a reader knows a great deal about her career, her books still seem fresh. She has an intuitive sense of narrative and a keen alertness to detail. She has her own voice, a quality many writers fail to achieve despite years of trying. She writes a flowing style, unabashed and innocent, a kind of idiomatic folk poetry. When she wrote an article about Lotte Lenya for Rolling Stone, her editor, she reports, said "that although I talked like a truck driver, I had written an elegant piece."
"When I was a little kid, I always knew that I had some special kind of thing inside me," she wrote. And so it proved, although no one else knew it at the time. After all these years it still seems surprising.