Patti Smith made her name in 1970s New York as a punk-era heroine, a genuine poet-slash-rock star and fearless, charismatic performer who has rightly served as a role model for generations aiming to follow in her inspiring footsteps.
This spring, Smith is hard to miss in the Big Apple. Her clarinet is on display in the Play It Loud exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Robert Mapplethorpe’s images of her are in his posthumous Implicit Tensions show at the Guggenheim. And Just Kids, her 2010 Mapplethorpe memoir, is a finalist in the One Book, One New York competition.
But never mind Manhattan: Smith’s deepest roots are in Philadelphia and South Jersey. The artist-in-the-making lived in Germantown from when she was 3 years old until her family moved to Deptford Township at age 10.
“I love Philadelphia and I love to talk about Philadelphia,” the 72-year-old singer said, speaking on the phone from New York before heading to rehearsal at her bass player Tony Shanahan’s studio in New Jersey.
Smith is particularly excited to be headed back to the town where she bought her first Bob Dylan records at Woolworth’s and a treasured 25-cent copy of the Declaration of Independence at the Franklin Institute.
She has not one but two Philly shows. On Monday, April 29, she plays the Met Philadelphia. That’s a rock show with her band, which includes guitarist Lenny Kaye, who provided accompaniment at her first-ever poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church in New York in February 1971 (it was Bertolt Brecht’s birthday, and they opened with “Mack the Knife”), plus drummer Jay Dee Daugherty; Smith’s son, Jackson, on guitar; and Shanahan. Her daughter, Jesse, will sit in on piano.
Then on May 30, she’ll be at the venue “where I first saw art in person, and I fell in love with Picasso,” at age 12. That’s a sold-out “Whitman at 200” celebration of people’s poet Walt Whitman’s birthday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The “People Have the Power” performer will be accompanied by Jesse, a climate-change activist who is a cofounder of the nonprofit Pathway to Paris.
About growing up in Philly, “I remember everything,” Smith says, including the apartment the family lived in on Newhall Street, where her mother, a former jazz vocalist, would sing around the house. “She had a very smoky, simple voice, sort of like June Christy,” Smith recalls. “We have a similar tone to our voices. I sound just like her when I sing standards.“
Smith’s mother worked at the Strawbridge & Clothier department store in the Market Street building that’s now home to The Inquirer. “When I was growing up the battle between the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Evening Bulletin was like the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones. And my father was a Philadelphia Inquirer person. We weren’t allowed to touch it until he finished it.”
Smith was let down when her mother took her to Strawbridge’s. “I thought it was going to have millions of strawberries. I was imagining strawberry ice cream and strawberry shortcake. I was disappointed it wasn’t a strawberry emporium.”
A more satisfying experience awaited her at Leary’s, the Center City bookshop that closed in 1968. “When it was your birthday, you would give old Mr. Leary a dollar and he’d give my mother a shopping bag that I could fill with children’s books. I would get Wizard of Oz books and Uncle Wiggily books, and Mr. Leary would compliment me. ‘Ooh, you picked a good one here,‘ “ she says, in an old man voice.
Literature and poetry were Smith’s first loves. The magnetic front woman, who would cover the Byrds‘ “So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” on 1979′s Wave, had no career plans in that regard.
“I never really pursued a musical or singing career,” she says. “It never occurred to me.” Still, for that first reading at St. Marks, she took the advice of friend Sam Shepard and called up Kaye, the guitar-playing pal whom she had bonded with over a mutual love of the kind of a cappella music she remembers hearing sung on street corners in South Philly.
“I didn’t want it to be boring. I went to a lot of poetry readings, and sometimes I found them boring, unless it was Gregory Corso or Allen Ginsberg or Jim Carroll.” People who attended the reading were not bored. Future Clash producer Sandy Pearlman tried to get her to sing for a band he was working with that would soon become Blue Öyster Cult.
“I was offered a record contract in 1971,” Smith remembers. “But I didn’t like the terms, so I turned it down. I wanted to be an artist. Just getting a record contract to get a bunch of money to be somebody’s idea of what I should be or a pop singer. … I didn’t care about anything like that.”
She had bigger ideas.
“I was too conceited. I wanted to do something great. I didn’t just want to be successful. I wanted more than that. So I carved a strange path. But it’s taken me to some wonderful places.”
It took some time. At the start, says Kaye, “we didn’t know what we were doing, so we let it tell us where to go.” The guitarist, who is also a deejay on Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel on Sirius XM and is working on a book called Lightning Striking about the evolution of rock-and-roll that includes a chapter on Philadelphia at the height of American Bandstand, says: “We didn’t attempt to steer it. Instead we let it become what it was meant to be.
“We wanted to have the possibility to have a three-minute song with an indelible chorus or have a sprawling 10-minute field of improvisation that leads us who knows where. We wanted to turn the amps up to 12 and also have the freedom to keep things intimate.”
The no-formula formula brought Smith a growing audience, from her remarkable, ripping debut, 1975’s Horses, which famously began with her “Jesus died for somebody’s sins … but not mine” addition to Them’s “Gloria,” to “Because the Night,” the 1978 radio hit she cowrote with fellow Jersey kid Bruce Springsteen.
It also earned her stature as a singular feminist icon. “I’m not really conscious of those kind of things,” she says. “I’m not really gender-oriented. Yes, I did things early and I did things that others hadn’t done. But women before me and after me have done things that I couldn’t do."
“Bo Diddley’s guitar player” — Norma-Jean Wofford, known as “The Duchess” — “is a really strong female role model. And at the time I was coming up, Suzi Quatro was the first girl I saw wearing leather and playing electric guitar. There are all kinds of achievements. I never presume that anyone has taken anything from me. But I would hope that all genders would find something in what we do.”
By the end of the 1970s, touring and promoting records “engulfed all my time and energy,” Smith says. “I wasn’t evolving as an artist or a human being.” When she married guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and moved to Detroit, it was “part for love,” and to raise a family, but also to get off the rock-stardom treadmill.
She made one album, 1988′s Dream of Life, and returned in 1996 to public life, after the deaths of her husband and brother Todd. “Truthfully, one of the reasons I came back was to make a living,” she says. “I had two small children. Almost no income. I couldn’t continue to live in Michigan. I don’t drive. I was very isolated, and New York had become very costly.”
Since 1996′s Gone Again, a tribute to her husband and brother, Smith has been productive as a recording artist, writer, performer (and more recently, excellent Instagrammer at @thisispattismith). Just this week, she finished a new book that’s a sort of sequel to her 2015 collection, M Train, traversing her life in 2016, the “brutal” election year in which she turned 70, and lost two close friends in Shepard and Pearlman.
She’s looking forward to paying tribute to Whitman, whose grave she visited as a girl after thrift-shop trips to Camden.
“What I loved about Whitman when I was young was how he reached out to the young poets in the future. You know, Jesus says that at the end of Matthew. ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ And with Whitman it’s more specific. He’s thinking of the poets 100 and 200 years into the future.
"And then when I became friends with Allen Ginsberg, Whitman was like his mentor. Like his spiritual great-grandfather or something. In fact, when Allen died, we sat with him, and over his bed was a photograph of Walt Whitman.”
As her most long-standing collaborator, Kaye says “it’s been very gratifying to stand by Patti’s side for all these years and watch her perform and send her message of human potential out into the world.
“We’re an idealistic band. I believe in Patti and her artistic vision, and I’m happy to help her raise her Mighty Sword, and be, as she calls me sometimes, her Knight. ... I find it to be a very high calling.”
“My goals are really simple,” says Smith, talking about playing live with the band, which she refers to as “our job.” “I don’t think we’re breaking new ground, or discovering new music. But we do bring a sense of our history to people and we care about people, and about the environment, and freedom of speech, and all of these things that are spoken of in our concerts…
“We don’t have anything fancy,” she says, laughing. ‘We don’t even have our own lighting guy. I use the same microphone I did in 1971. But the way we change is, we mirror the times. And see what kind of inspiration we can bring to young people. That’s pretty much my goal. We just trample through the night. We get on our horse and ride.”
Patti Smith & Her Band at the Met Philadelphia, 858 N. Broad St. at 8 p.m. Monday. $45-$75. 800-653-8000. TheMetPhilly.com. And Rose Susan Hirschhorn Behrend Lecture: Patti Smith at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 7 p.m. on May 30. Sold out. 215-763-8100. philamuseum.org.