42 Tough Facts About Patti Smith, The Punk Rock Poet

Kyle Climans

Emerging in the mid-1970s, Patti Smith emerged as one of the leading figures of the punk rock movement which began in New York City. Long after the 70s were over, though, Smith’s career continued and endured, her legacy secure through her many albums and her fiery personality. If none of this sounds familiar to you, keep reading to find out more about Patti Smith!

1. Music in Your Genes

Patricia Lee Smith was born on December 30, 1946, in Chicago. Her parents were Grant, a machinist, and Beverly, a waitress. Before taking up work in restaurants, however, Beverly had been a jazz singer. Granted, Smith ended up pursuing a different genre, but it’s pretty clear in whose parent’s footsteps she walked.


2. Working Class Background

Smith has long made it clear that she grew up in poverty. In fact, when she graduated high school, she went straight to factory work just to make ends meet.

3. Look at Me Now!

If you’re curious to get more insight into Smith’s experience working as an assembly line worker, you should listen to her song “Piss Factory,” which was one of the first two songs that she ever recorded. The song delves into her frustration and feelings of helplessness working in that industry and served as a punchline to her previous vow to go to New York and make it as an artist instead.

4. On the Front Lines

People tend to forget just how ahead of the curve Smith was when it came to the wave of punk rock which swept across the eastern United States. Smith managed to secure a record deal and release a punk album even before the Ramones appeared on the scene!

5. What a Good Question!

Before Patti Smith’s musical career really began, she spent part of the late 1960s working in bookshops as she pursued poetry. For a time, Smith was also hired to write for music magazines. In one case, though, her employment ended abruptly after a failed interview with musician Eric Clapton. Why did it fail, you might ask?

In true avant-garde fashion, Smith only asked Clapton one question: “What are your six favorite colors?” To be fair, we have to give her props for asking a question that literally no other interviewer has ever asked Clapton before or since!

6. The Things We Do While Broke

Such was Smith’s poverty when starting out as an artist that she went to rather extreme lengths to sustain herself for the most minimal cost possible. This meant that she survived on coffee and by chewing on the heads of lettuce. We here at Factinate would recommend that you speak to a nutritionist before trying that diet out yourself.

7. Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Fans of Smith might have noticed that Smith has a lazy left eye. Smith has had this affliction since she was a child, which no doubt contributed to the fact that she had a very shy disposition during her youth. It didn’t help that she was tall for her age and also frequently sick, which left her with a gawky appearance.

8. Mentors and Friends

Patti Smith’s musical inspirations include James Brown, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, and Bob Dylan. Smith got the chance to tour with Dylan during her music career, and in 1996, she got to collaborate with former Doors member Ray Manzarek on his solo album The Whole Thing Started with Rock & Roll Now It’s Out of Control.

Whoever said that you shouldn’t meet your heroes?

9. Edgy as Hell

One of the most controversial songs of Smith’s career is undoubtedly the one titled “Rock N Roll [N-word],” released in 1978. As you can imagine, the use of a racial slur meant that the song was denied any mainstream radio play, while it was regarded as highly offensive for Smith to use the word. Smith defended her use of the word by claiming that she was redefining it to mean “a rebellious and honorable outsider,” rather than it being a racial slur.

Nonetheless, Smith’s dubious explanation didn’t save the song from controversy. One silver lining for Smith was that it was immortalized in Oliver Stone’s equally controversial film Natural Born Killers.

10. You’ve Got a Friend in Me

One of Smith’s most regular collaborators is guitarist Lenny Kaye. The two of them first met in 1971 after Smith read an essay that Kaye had written on doo wop music which was posted in a magazine. The two of them became regular collaborators, with Kaye providing his talents to the Patti Smith Group, and continued to work with Smith even after the Group was disbanded.

11. Someone Call Bryan Adams!

In 1969, Smith embarked on a trip to Paris with her sister. While most of us would probably be too busy looking at the sights and enjoying the food that Paris would offer us, Smith saw it as her first chance at an international stage. She spent her trip working as a performance artist. She also dabbled in visual arts, and not for the last time either.

12. Interesting Team-Up

One music group which took a lot of inspiration from Smith’s music was the wildly successful alt-rock band R.E.M. In 1996, Smith joined the band to collaborate on a song. “E-Bow the Letter,” written in honor of actor River Phoenix, reached number four on the UK Single Chart and 49 on the Billboard Hot 100.

13. Spoofed

One great indicator of your success and fame is that parodies of you exist on comedy shows. In Smith’s case, she was the subject of a pastiche by renowned comedian Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live. Radner’s pastiche character was named Candy Slice.

14. We Were First!

Smith’s first gig as a performing artist was in 1971 at a church called St. Mark’s. Smith was a supporting act for Gerard Malanga, a former member of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Smith was herself supported by Lenny Kaye, who supplied licks from his electric guitar to accompany her performance. Apparently, it was the first time that an electric guitar had been played in that church, as Smith later claimed with no small measure of pride.

15. Not for Me

During her childhood, Patti Smith was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in a very religious household. As so many other teenagers have done, Smith left this religious upbringing behind her, later singing “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” After a brief interest in Tibetan Buddhism, Smith moved away from all religious doctrines, having concluded that they were all merely “man-made laws that you can either decide to abide by or not.”

16. Eat Your Heart Out, Juno

Patti Smith was only 21 when she had her first child. Her daughter was born on April 26, 1967. Smith chose to have her daughter placed for adoption after she was born.

17. I Am What I Am

One thing which Smith always avoided in her career was a reliance on sex appeal. A consummate poet, Smith maintained an intellectual, avant-garde image, which was even described as androgynous on occasion. Does this mean that she inspired Marilyn Manson? It would certainly be fitting, given that Manson went on to cover Smith’s most controversial song—more on that later.

18. A Nice Reunion

Patti Smith was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 12, 2007. She was certainly inducted in good company, as her fellow inductees were Van Halen, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, the Ronettes, and her old friends, R.E.M.

19. If I was a Rich Woman

During her early years, Smith lived in, as she later alleged, “a tougher part of Jersey than Bruce Springsteen [experienced].” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Smith’s mother nursed a passionate dream where she won the lottery, coming up with a long list of things she’d buy if she won. Unsurprisingly, Smith’s mother never won the lottery, but that’s probably because she never actually bought a ticket.

However, her daydreaming did inspire Smith’s song “Free Money,” so at least something good came out of it.

20. How Long Until She Appears in a Tim Burton Movie?

Throughout her life, Smith has also dabbled in acting, whether it’s done live or just via voiceover. She made her feature film debut with the rather odd choice of The Rugrats Movie, where she voiced one of the babies’ singing voices. She also appeared in such television series as The Killing and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

21. My Heroine

Just as Patti Smith was inspired by musicians, she too has inspired others with her own persona and talent. One of her biggest fans was none other than Morrissey. Morrissey has gone on record saying that he’d grown his hair out during the 1970s after Smith’s example made him realize that he could make his music personal in its content.

22. Zero Out of Four

As of 2019, Smith has received four Grammy nominations in her career: Best Spoken Word Album (2016 and 2015), and Best Female Rock Performance (2000 and 1997). Sadly, she has yet to win a Grammy.

23. What Might Have Been

One romantic partner that Smith had in her life was Allen Lanier, who some of you will know was the keyboardist for the rock band Blue Öyster Cult. Before her own career really took off, Smith was a co-writer of several of their songs (“Fire of Unknown Origin,” “Baby Ice Dog,” “Career of Evil,” etc.) and at one point, she was almost brought on as the band’s lead singer.

24. It’s Firefly All Over Again!

It might surprise you what Smith’s favorite TV show is. She expressed an utter devotion to the crime drama The Killing, claiming that she adored that show’s main character (played by Mireille Enos). We can imagine that The Killing’s multiple cancellations and resurrections gave Smith a lot of frustration!

25. In Good Company

In 2011, Smith was made a Laureate of the Polar Music Prize. Founded in 1992 by Sweden’s own Stig Anderson, the Polar Music Prize is given yearly to a contemporary musician and a classical musician. It is sometimes referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Music.” Smith won the award in 2011 for her achievements in music, being praised for showing the world “how much rock’n’roll there is in poetry and how much poetry there is in rock’n’roll.”

Among the other winners of the Polar Music Prize are Paul Simon, Chuck Barry, Sting, Ravi Shankar, and Miriam Makeba.

26. Tying the Knot

Following her relationship with Allen Lanier, Smith fell completely head over heels for fellow musician Fred “Sonic” Smith, best known for being in the Detroit-based band MC5. The couple married in 1980, with a joke emerging that Smith only agreed to get married because she wouldn’t have to change her name!

27. What a Coincidence

During Smith’s marriage to Fred “Sonic” Smith, she gave birth to two children; a son named Jackson, and a daughter named Jesse.

28. My Pal Patti

It’s sometimes a surprise when you discover close friendships between celebrities who seem to have little in common. Such is the case with Patti Smith and rock musician Rick Derringer (“Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo”). Not only were Derringer and Smith friends in their personal lives, but Smith also helped write a number of Derringer’s songs.

29. Come Again?

Bizarrely, Patti Smith once stated that her ideal vacation spot was a border town in French Guinea called Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. If you’re not clear on what that is, or why Smith wanted to go there, it was once a penal colony which was the final destination for hardened criminals before they were taken to Devil’s Island.

We feel safe in saying that Smith is one of the only people in the world who would name a former penal colony as their most desired vacation spot.

Patti Smith Facts

30. Long-Lasting

Speaking of Smith’s Dream of Life, the highlight of the album was arguably the single “People Have the Power.” The song ended up having a lot of staying power, thanks in part to the efforts of Smith’s musical peers. In 2004, Bruce Springsteen made use of the single as a theme song at the concerts which made up his “Vote for Change” tour.

Ten years later, the band U2 used “People Have the Power” as their introductory song during the “Innocence + Experience Tour.” On one occasion, Smith herself joined U2 onstage to sing the song.

31. Sheer Force of Personality

If you thought Smith wasn’t quite niche and avant-garde enough, consider the fact that she is one of just 27 members of an exclusive society known as the Continental Drift Club. Founded by a Danish meteorologist, this tiny group “pledged their dedication to the perpetuation of remembrance.” Smith has stated that while she didn’t meet the group’s criteria, she was still welcomed as a member thanks to her “abundance of romantic enthusiasm.”

32. Meet Cute? Not Exactly

Being a poet, Smith was understandably eager to make the acquaintance of American Beat legend Allen Ginsberg. This chance meeting took place in a café not far from New York’s Chelsea Hotel. According to Smith, Ginsberg initially thought she was a “very pretty boy,” and bought her coffee before Smith clarified that she wasn’t his type, so to speak.

After that humorous misunderstanding, Smith and Ginsberg became close friends, with Smith even referring to Ginsberg as a mentor.

33. Ahead of Her Time

During the early 1960s, the United States was dealing with the issue of racially integrated schooling, and the opposition to it by a white population. Smith, however, attended a school that was already racially integrated, leading her to befriend and even date black classmates. If our incredulity sounds weird, keep in mind that this was during a time when people could still be jailed in many states for being in an interracial relationship.

34. Brief In-Law

In 2009, Smith’s son Jackson married rock star Meg White of The White Stripes. The marriage ceremony took place in the backyard of Meg’s bandmate and former partner, Jack White. Sadly, the marriage didn’t last long; the couple divorced in 2013.

35. Near Miss

In 2015, Smith was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, along with Lenny Kaye. The two of them were nominated for Best Original Song, having co-written the song “Mercy Is” for the Darren Aronofsky film Noah. Unfortunately, for them, they lost out to Common and John Legend for their hit song “Glory,” which appeared in Selma.

36. In My Words

In 2010, Smith released her memoir Just Kids. This book focused entirely on telling the story of Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. According to Smith, she wrote and released Just Kids to fulfill a promise she’d made to Mapplethorpe himself on his death bed. The memoir was well received upon its release; it won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction and made the New York Times bestseller list.

37. Time for a New Medium

Speaking of Just Kids, there is evidence that it may be turned into a limited series. Smith herself became involved due to her being a fan of screenwriter John Logan. Sadly, as it is still early in development as of September 2019, we don’t know if it’s meant to be a documentary or a fictionalized series, but feel free to debate on which actress would be the best person to portray Smith onscreen!

38. Born This Way

We’ve mentioned already that Smith didn’t ever meet society’s standards for femininity, but we haven’t quite carried across how much this impacted Smith as she grew up. By her own admission, she was a tomboy who preferred to carouse with male friends rather than embrace traditionally feminine pursuits. Allegedly, this led to Smith experiencing gender confusion for a time.

She later credited art for helping her embrace who she was, stating that her high school teacher introduced to artwork by Picasso and others which portrayed female figures that she identified with in ways that she hadn’t done before. She even tore pictures of Picasso’s Blue Period artwork from books to take back to her bedroom.

39. One Person’s Loss is Another Person’s Gain

Perhaps ironically, Patti Smith’s most famous and successful song was not a punk song, or even a rock song. That honor goes to the New Wave track “Because the Night.” Released in 1978, “Because the Night” was a hit song in several countries on multiple continents. Perhaps predictably, the song wasn’t originally Smith’s idea.

In 1977, after four months of several recordings, Bruce Springsteen was fed up with the song not working out. Producer Jimmy Iovine persuaded Springsteen to give the song to Smith instead, who contributed to the writing and provided her own vocals. The rest is history. The pair even once performed the song together in 1977 at CBGBs. That’s right, the Boss himself performing at punk’s most famous club at its height!

40. My Dear Robert

One of the most important people in Smith’s life was her friend and onetime lover, Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe was a controversial photographer and artist, challenging censorship with his suggestive and explicit art. Smith was in a relationship with him for five years until 1972, but even after the romance ended, they were close friends for the rest of Mapplethorpe’s life.

Sadly, Mapplethorpe died before his time in 1989 due to HIV/AIDS.

41. Where’s Patti?

Following Patti Smith’s marriage in 1980, she spent the next 17 years or so in semi-retirement. During this time, Smith spent much of her time raising her two children. She only released one album during this time, which was the 1988 record Dream of Life, which was a collaborative album with her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith.

Despite mild-to-positive reviews, the highest that the album reached worldwide was #9 in Switzerland and Norway.

42. I’m Back!

In the early 1990s, Smith sadly lost quite a few of her close friends for a number of reasons. The last and saddest losses were her brother, Todd, and her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, who suffered a fatal heart attack in 1994. Bereaved, Smith was nevertheless inspired to return to her music career, thanks in part to encouragement from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Allen Ginsberg.

In 1996, her comeback began with the critically successful Gone Again.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26

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