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Woman Crush Wednesday: Patti Smith

Woman Crush Wednesday is our day to celebrate and highlight the trailblazing and inspiring women who made all kinds of things happen in the world from right here in our neighborhoods. And none are so rocking as the amazing Patti Smith.

Singer, songwriter, and poet Patricia Lee Smith was born on December 30, 1946, in Chicago, Illinois. She was the eldest of four children. Beverly Smith, her mother, was a jazz singer turned waitress, and her father Grant Smith was a machinist. After spending the first four years of her life on the south side of Chicago, Smith’s family moved to Philadelphia in 1950 and then to Woodbury, New Jersey, in 1956, when she was 9 years old.

Smith was a shy and unassuming child with a lazy left eye and a propensity for illness.  But she knew from an early age that she was meant for more than the supposed limitations of her health.  “When I was a little kid, I always knew that I had some special kind of thing inside me,” she remembered. “I mean, I wasn’t attractive, I wasn’t very verbal, I wasn’t very smart in school. I wasn’t anything that showed the world I was something special, but I had this tremendous hope all the time. I had this tremendous spirit that kept me going… I was a happy child, because I had this feeling that I was going to go beyond my body physical… I just knew it.”

In 1967, with aspirations of becoming an artist, Smith moved to New York City and took a job working at a Manhattan bookstore. “At twenty years old, I boarded the bus. I wore my dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old grey raincoat I had bought in Camden. My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me.”

Choosing performance poetry as her favored artistic medium, Smith gave her first public reading on February 10, 1971, at St. Mark’s Church-In-The-Bowery. Next to her Lenny Kaye plugged in his electric guitar and began to play. Some people were shocked, but others were impressed. You can listen to a recording of that historic reading here.

With that reading, Smith began to fuse her love of poetry with rock-n-roll, and essentially launched her career as a performer. Some of the work she read that night would become the songs on her first album, Horses. The pair read/played as part of the legendary Poetry Project at the church, founded in 1966 and still going strong. The East Village church continues to host performances, particularly dance and theater with a social activist or justice bent. The now-legendary reading introduced Smith as an up-and-coming figure in the New York art circle. Later the same year, she further raised her profile by co-authoring and co-starring with Sam Shepard in his semiautobiographical play Cowboy Mouth, also at St. Mark’s in the Bowery.

Patti Smith with Sam Shepard

One of Smith’s most influential and public relationships was with the photographer Robert Mapplethorp.  Smith met Mapplethorpe within days of moving to New York in 1967. Mapplethorpe rescued Smith from a threatening date in Tompkins Square Park by pretending to be her boyfriend. He took her for an egg cream at Gem Spa. In Smith’s words, “He was the artist of my life.” Together they moved into Hotel Chelsea (Room 1017) in 1969. Patti cut her hair to emulate Keith Richards and went to work in a coffee shop. She and Mapplethorpe came into their artistic primes together, as both lovers and friends. Mapplethorpe famously shot the jaunty, iconic cover of Horses (1975) in the penthouse of 1 Fifth Avenue. Smith herself chose Mapplethorpe to photograph her album cover image as she wanted it to be ‘true.’ Smith provides an account of this shoot in her autobiography, recalling details such as her choice of clothing and how she and Mapplethorpe waited for the perfect light. According to Smith, there was no discussion about what the resulting image should look like or what they would do: ‘I had my look in mind. He had his light in mind. That was all.’ Smith looks relaxed in this photograph; her informal pose testifying to how at ease she was in front of Mapplethorpe’s camera. “When I look at it now,” says Smith of the cover of Horses, “I never see me. I see us.”

At the very apex of her fame, with a Top Twenty album (Easter) which yielded the number thirteen hit “Because the Night,” cowritten with Bruce Springsteen, Smith decided to pursue another sort of dream. Following Wave, her fourth studio album, she married MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and moved to Michigan. Smith took herself off the radar – and consequently off the charts, pour­ing her prodigious talents into family life. Smith discovered the simple joy of motherhood, giving birth to a son, Jackson, and daughter, Jesse, something she claims made her a better person.

Fred passed away of a heart attack in 1994, and in 1996 she returned to NYC. She’s lived in the city ever since. Her award-winning memoir Just Kids (2010) chronicles her early years as an artist and musician. A sequel of sorts, M Train (2015), charts her journeys—physical, metaphysical, and intellectual.

On Saturday, December 10, 2016, the extraordinary Patti Smith accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature on behalf of Bob Dylan in Stockholm, Sweden. In a transcendent performance, Smith was overwhelmed with emotion when she stopped mid-performance, only to begin again and drive home her powerful rendition of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” to a stunned audience.

In closing, we leave you with some of Patti Smith’s powerful words; the lyrics she wrote with her husband Fred called People Have the Power:

I was dreaming in my dreaming
Of an aspect bright and fair
And my sleeping it was broken
But my dream it lingered near
In the form of shining valleys
Where the pure air recognized

And my senses newly opened
I awakened to the cry
That the people have the power
To redeem the work of fools
Upon the meek the graces shower
It’s decreed the people rule

The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power

Vengeful aspects became suspect
And bending low as if to hear
And the armies ceased advancing
Because the people had their ear
And the shepherds and the soldiers
Lay beneath the stars
Exchanging visions
And laying arms
To waste in the dust

In the form of shining valleys
Where the pure air recognized
And my senses newly opened
I awakened to the cry

The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power

Where there were deserts
I saw fountains
Like cream the waters rise
And we strolled there together
With none to laugh or criticize
And the leopard
And the lamb
Lay together truly bound
I was hoping in my hoping
To recall what I had found

I was dreaming in my dreaming
God knows a purer view
As I surrender to my sleeping
I commit my dream to you

The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power

The power to dream, to rule
To wrestle the world from fools
It’s decreed the people rule
It’s decreed the people rule

Listen
I believe everything we dream
Can come to pass through our union
We can turn the world around
We can turn the earth’s revolution

We have the power

People have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power
The power to dream, to rule
To wrestle the world from fools
It’s decreed the people rule
It’s decreed the people rule

We have the power

People have the power

We have the power…

You can watch Patti sing this amazing song with a room full of engaged citizens, part of Choir!Choir!Choir! at The Public Theater in the East Village.

The life and work of Patti Smith will be on display as part of our 2021 Annual Benefit: VILLAGE VOICES. Our benefit will feature an engaging installation of exhibit boxes displayed throughout our neighborhoods featuring photographs, artifacts, and recorded narration that will provide entertaining and illuminating insight into the momentous heritage of the Village. 

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