Patti Smith has amassed an enormous fan base as a singer and writer, and the passion she felt about her work when she broke on the scene in the 1970s is still as strong, if not more so, today. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.
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It would be foolish to categorize Patti Smith. She is, of course, a musician, as she is in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. But she is also a painter, photographer, poet and mother. To many she is the very definition of an artist.
Smith prefers the all-encompassing title "worker."
"You just do your work, whether it's photographs or drawing or a poem or performance. I’m not an aging punk rocker eking out work," says Smith.
She is hardly "eking" out work. Her 2010 book "Just Kids," chronicling her friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, became an international success.
Now, there is a new CD, "Banga." Much has changed since the releases of her iconic 1970s albums "Horses" and "Easter," but her process remains the same.
"Contemplation, global concern, loss of people. It's a very similar record," says Smith.
Each morning, Smith maintains a ritual that began when she was a child — writing about her dreams.
"Sometimes I didn’t know what to write so I would just record my dreams," she says.
You might think you know Smith, picturing her as the so-called Godmother of Punk, hanging out at CBGB's and The Hotel Chelsea.
But Patti Smith will surprise you. She is a knowledgeable horse racing fan. When she gave the 2010 commencement address for Pratt Institute, she focused on dental care.
Her influences are many and varied. It is remarkable that the woman who wrote a diatribe against factory life in her South Jersey hometown also wanted to be the next Johnny Carson.
"When I'm on stage and something goes wrong or someone is heckling me, I go right into Johnny Carson mode and I never have a problem," she says.
"Banga" is named after a character in the renowned satirical Soviet novel "The Master And Margarita." Writers play an active, tangible role in Smith's life, like the English poet William Blake.
At a recent Barnes and Noble appearance in Union Square, Smith said that if she could pick one part of her life to go back to, it would be when she was 10, back in South Jersey. She went back there to visit her parents in Steven Sebring's 2008 film about her, "Dream of Life."
"I never wanted to grow up. I was a real Peter Pan kid. I just, I was actually horrified to find out we didn't have a choice," Smith says.
Before attending Deptford Township High School, Smith spent a lot of time in bed suffering from a number of illnesses, including scarlet fever. She read a lot and she had a seminal musical moment, hearing soprano Eleanor Steber sing an aria from "Madame Butterfly."
"I was telling my mother to play it again. It was the only glimmer she said she got out of me," Smith says. "So my mother took the tip money, two days of tip money, went to a record store and bought the box set with the libretto of Eleanor Steber performing 'Madame Butterfly.' I still have it."
After high school, Smith worked in a factory, went to Glassboro State College, had a child who was placed for adoption and left for New York.
Once in the city, she met many who were using drugs and alcohol. But Smith says she merely observed, because she liked to work, didn't like peer pressure and understood from her own childhood that life was tenuous.
"Out of respect to my parents, I would never throw away the life that they labored so hard to keep on earth," Smith says "I think it's very paramount in why I’ve never been self-destructive."
After Smith's initial success, Bruce Springsteen sent her a tape with a song she initially avoided until she spent a night waiting for her boyfriend to call and popped the tape in the cassette machine.
The song was "Because The Night."
"By the time he had called me, I had written all the verses to the biggest song I was ever involved with. That's why it says, 'Have I doubt, when I'm alone, love is a ring, the telephone,'" she says.
Smith's life then took a compelling turn. She married musician Fred Sonic Smith, left New York and moved to Detroit to raise a family.
"We lived a life of some struggle, some financial struggle, some strife, but I loved my life there," Smith says. "People wondered how I could go from playing in a stadium with a rock 'n roll band to scrubbing floors but it's part of my upbringing."
In 1993, Smith returned to New York to give a poetry reading in Central Park. She was nervous, but her husband and brother were in the audience, and it was their support that got her through.
"It brings that home to me so clearly, how vibrant they were in '93, to have lost them both in '94. But I still feel their support," she says.
Smith moved back to New York with her two kids shortly thereafter and has never left.
Patti Smith — musician, artist, photographer, poet, mother, lover of William Blake and opera and horse racing — is all of it, still.
"I do my work. I don’t try to recollect or revive or approximate any other period of work, I’m just moving forward," she says.
Smith began a summer long European concert tour in June. This fall, she is opening for Neil Young, including a November 27 concert at Madison Square Garden.