Intersections: Patti Smith, Poet Laureate of Punk
In the 1970s, Patti Smith hit the underground music scene with an ecstatic blend of free-form poetry and three-chord rock. The woman hailed as the "godmother of punk" credits her signature sound to lessons in free-verse defiance from 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud and 20th-century music legend Bob Dylan. Tracey Tanenbaum speaks with Smith for Intersections, a series on artists' influences.
Smith, 57, spent most of her childhood in rural New Jersey. Gangly and rail thin, she fell short of the fleshier and blonder ideal of beauty of the day. "I didn't really mind being different," she says, "because I perceived that it was connected with creativity."
Although Smith says she had no special talents of her own, she felt a kinship with artists. At age 16, she came across a book by Rimbaud in a pile of recycled paperbacks. "The language in it just totally seduced me, and I fell in love," she says.
Rimbaud believed a poet's role was to jar the senses. As a teenager roaming the streets of Paris, he was one of the first to draw images from dreams and drug-induced states. Smith — an outsider in high school — clung to the bohemian poet as the ideal imaginary boyfriend.
Smith suffered from a variety of illnesses growing up, which gave her plenty of opportunity to nourish her fantasy life. During a severe bout with the flu as a teen, Smith's mother introduced her to another companion — a Dylan record.
"It immediately spoke to me," Smith says, "and I became overjoyed to find this person, and I have been overjoyed ever since."
Smith says she saw Dylan as a Rimbaud-like figure whose songs were rich in poetry, politics and substance. She began writing poetry of her own, and made a name for herself in Manhattan's underground arts scene before experimenting with music. She says her 1975 debut album, Horses, was her attempt to do for others what her artistic influences had done for her:
"I was consciously trying to make a record that would make a certain type of person not feel alone. People who were like me, different... I wasn't targeting the whole world. I wasn't trying to make a hit record."
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