2017 Recipient of the John Lennon Real Love Award
Patti Smith has been called “the queen of punk,” “the high priestess of punk,” “the high priestess of cool,” “punk rock’s poet laureate,” “downtown rocker and street poet turned memoirist” and “one of the most influential female rock and rollers of all time.” We will take issue with only the latter descriptive. Patti Smith is one of the most influential rock and rollers of all time, period.
When she was a child, Patti’s family moved from Chicago to Philadelphia. When she was nine, they moved to Woodbury, New Jersey. In high school, she was inspired by the poetry of Rimbaud and the Beats, and the music of James Brown, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
In 1967, Patti dropped out of college and went to work on a factory assembly line to save enough money to move to New York City. Once there, she found a job at a bookstore and met a talented art student, her future roommate, friend, romantic partner and muse, Robert Mapplethorpe. Decades later, Patti lovingly chronicled their relationship in her bestselling memoir “Just Kids,” which won the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction. Her following memoir, “M Train,” received universal acclaim and earned Patti a Grammy Award nomination for Best Spoken Word Album.
After spending time in Paris as a street performer in 1969, Patti returned to New York, became involved in underground theatre, worked deeply on her poetry and art, and soon revolutionized punk rock. In the mid-70s, she was among the first artists to appear at the legendary CBGB and was the last artist to perform there when the club closed in 2006. The following year, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Patti’s ground-breaking album, Horses, featuring Robert Mapplethorpe’s simple, yet stunning, black and white portrait of her, is widely regarded as one of the greatest rock albums ever. She has since released ten studio albums of fiercely bold, brash, outspoken and compelling songs, expanding the boundaries of rock and roll.
In 1980, Patti’s bandmate Lenny Kaye, introduced her to guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. Patti and Fred were soon married and Patti gave birth to their son, Jackson, in 1982, and their daughter, Jesse, in 1987.
Fred died at the age of just 45 in 1994. Patti persevered. Years later, in 2010 at the 30th Annual John Lennon Tribute, Patti said, “I looked to Yoko as an example of how to carry oneself as a widow: to do one’s work, to raise one’s children, to find joy in life, and to always have your loved one walk with you.”
Among the many charities and causes that Patti has championed and appeared in benefits for are Sweet Relief, to help raise money for artists with medical needs, Human Rights Watch, Tibet House, and Pathway to Paris, a collective of artists and activists working to address the crisis of climate change.
Perhaps Yoko Ono summed up Patti’s tremendous positive influence best, when she wrote: “Patti is one of the truly great and impactful artists of her generation. Her songs, books, and social activism have inspired millions to care about the world more deeply and love more fully.”