10 Things You Never Knew About… Patti Smith

The lesser-known history of the Godmother of punk rock

Patti Smith’s debut ‘Horses’ is widely considered as one of the most startling debuts in rock history. We delve into the lesser-known history of the Godmother of punk rock…

1. Patti Smith’s first gig was supporting Gerard Malanga, one of Andy Warhol’s Factory disciples, who invited her to share a poetry reading at St. Mark’s in the Bowery with him on February 10th 1971. She asked rock critic Lenny Kaye to back her on guitar. It was the first time an electric guitar had ever been played in the church and she later described the set as having “thundering moments”.

2. ‘Free Money’ was inspired by her upbringing, where she says she “grew up in a tougher part of Jersey than Bruce Springsteen”. Her mum always dreamed of winning the lottery but never bought a ticket. Instead she would make lists of the things she would do with the money, hence the line: “I’ll buy you a jet plane, baby…And take you through the stratosphere”.

3. John Cale produced Patti Smith’s seminal debut album ‘Horses’. She chose him not just because of the Velvet Underground link, but because of the raw sound of his solo records. The pair soon realised they couldn’t work together. “I hired the wrong guy,” she said. “All I was really looking for was a technical person. Instead, I got a total maniac artist. It was really like A Season In Hell, for both of us.” Cale himself described the relationship as “a lot like an immutable force meeting an immovable object”.

4. Her song ‘Birdland’ was inspired by Peter Reich’s childhood memoir The Book Of Dreams. The younger son of radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, Peter describes a birthday party shortly after his father died where he went outside, looked up at the sky, and convinced himself that his father was coming to carry him off in a UFO. What he thought was a group of spaceships was actually a flock of blackbirds.

5. In January this year, Patti Smith announced that she has written a song about Amy Winehouse, to appear on her forthcoming album. “The little song for Amy just blossomed in the studio. We were at [New York studio] Electric Lady doing a whole other song and I wrote Amy a little poem when she died and my bass player, Tony Shanahan, wrote a piece of music and the two matched perfectly,” she told one interviewer.

6. Like many other artists, she supported Barack Obama in the 2008 US presidential elections. At a gig at the Orpheum Theatre in LA, she told the crowd that if she was walking slowly that night, it was because she wanted to make sure everyone missed the airing of Saturday Night Live, where Republican candidate Sarah Palin was set to appear. Evoking the poet William Blake, she called on Obama to “just be good, be a good man” before urging everyone to go out and vote, throwing a bunch of Obama T-shirts into the crowd.

7. Name-checked as an influence by generations of artists that followed her, Morrissey in particular has said he grew his hair long in the 1970s to emulate her: “It was the voice of somebody who perhaps had felt unattractive all their lives, in every way. Yet here they were, singing about it, and seemed to know a way to make the misfortune of their lives become attractive. And I felt that, well, I could therefore simply sing about my life and how I really feel, and perhaps it could transform itself into something acceptable,” he said.

8. She first met her great friend and mentor, the poet Allen Ginsberg, in a café close to the Chelsea Hotel, after he mistook her for a “very pretty boy”. Short of money for her lunch, he shouted her the extra dime, and bought her a coffee before realising she was a girl. “Look at the tits, Allen. Notice the tits!” she told him.

9. After moving to New York in 1967, she worked in bookshops, as well as pursuing her art and poetry. As she became better known, she wrote for a number of music magazines, including Rock magazine, where she was reportedly sacked after an interview with Eric Clapton, where she asked only one question: “What are your six favorite colors?”

10. She found love for the French poet Rimbaud after seeing his face on the cover for one of his books, Illuminations, outside a shop in Philadelphia. She loved him so much, it was almost a relief when she later discovered Bob Dylan: “Rimbaud was like my boyfriend. If you’re fifteen or sixteen and you can’t get the boy you want, and you have to daydream about him all the time, what’s the difference if he’s a dead poet or a senior? At least Bob Dylan… it was a relief to daydream about somebody who was alive,” she said.

Words by Jenny Stevens

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