It’s hard to categorise Patti Smith. Is she a musician? A painter? A punk poet? A photographer? Or all of the above? The honest answer is that Patti Smith is a human being first, and after that, an artist.
Smith was born in Chicago in 1946 to a machinist father, and a mother who was a jazz singer turned waitress. Having moved around as a child, from Chicago to Philadelphia to New Jersey, she attended Glassboro State College (now known as Rowan University), and upon leaving in 1967, Smith settled in New York, the place she would call home for much of her life.
With a keen interest in music, brought to the fore from her early childhood experiences, Smith began writing poetry and performing as a musician. She formed the Patti Smith Group in 1974, who recorded their debut album Horses in 1975, a mixture of performance poetry and punk rock. However, despite finding success with her band in the decades that follow, Smith does not really regard herself in the light of being a rockstar or, amazingly, even a musician at all.
“I’m not really a musician,” Smith once said. “I’m a performer, and I love rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve embraced rock ‘n’ roll because it encompasses all the things I’m interested in: poetry, revolution, sexuality, political activism – all of these things can be found in rock ‘n’ roll. But I am also engaged in all of these things separately. I don’t have an image of myself, when I’m walking down the street, like I’m a rock star or something.”
“I’m a human being, I’m a friend, I’m a mom, I’m a writer, and I’m an artist,” she added. “I do play electric guitar and all of that, but in the end, I’m just a person. I really don’t live like a rock star, economically or socially. I still live a pretty simple life besides the travelling aspect of it. I live with my daughter, and she always has musicians and friends sleeping in our living room. We live a happy, sort of discordant life.”
It would be hard not to refer to Patti Smith as a musician. However, the sentiment from which she is coming is easy to understand. First and foremost, as Smith says, she is a human being and all artistry, regardless of its medium, comes solely from the experience of what it is like to live a human life.
“All of this stuff, if you call it flattery or whatever, yes, it’s awkward, it’s awkward for you, and it’s a little awkward for me, but in the end, we connected, and that is pure,” Smith added. “That has no hierarchy, that has no pedestal, it’s just so. So that other stuff is just human; we can’t help it; we get self-conscious and excited; that’s just what it is. The real thing is the actual purity of the connection, and that doesn’t have a star, an icon, a lower person; it’s just a pure thing. So that’s really what we’re talking about, and that makes me happy, and if we can find some unifying principle despite what we all look like and act like, that’s the shit.”