As a creator of songs, poems, prose, and visual artwork, multi-talented poet laureate and grandmother of punk rock, Patti Smith, now 72, continues to achieve the success she was hungering for as she was coming of age in a working-class community in southern New Jersey in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Her first album Horses, released in 1975, is ranked number 44 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all-time and number 10 on its list of the best debut LPs. In 2009, the Library of Congress placed Horses on its National Recording Registry for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.
Her book Just Kids, which described her relationship and life with controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe in New York City, won the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction.
In 2005, the French Ministry of Culture awarded Smith the title of Commandeur des Arts des
Lettres, the highest honor given an artist by the French Republic. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2016, she attended the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Sweden on behalf of Bob Dylan, that year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who could not be present due to prior commitments.
Earlier this month Smith appeared at George Washington University here in Washington, D.C., to talk about her new book Year of the Monkey. She told those of us in attendance that this was her first presentation on the work, which had just been released that day, and she was planning to try a few things out to see how they worked. Smith’s ideas included performing four songs live as a duo with her band’s bass player, Tony Shanahan. Smith and Shanahan’s stunningly powerful version of “Pissing in a River” (see YouTube video at top of page) prompted a deserved standing ovation. Smith, who has been known since the ‘70s for her activism especially on climate change and the environment, also offered a cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” with its classic line “look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s”.
As for the book, Year of the Monkey, combines fact and fiction to create a dreamscape of the year 2016. Much of the book deals with four significant changes familiar to all of Smith’s fellow Baby Boomers – aging, change, loss and death.
Here is one of my favorite segments on that topic from the chapter entitled “Imitation of a Dream” that Smith read to the audience:
I suddenly felt dead – no, not dead, more other-worldly, a grateful kind of dead. I could feel life scurrying about, a plane overhead, the sea just beyond, and the unfolding note of “Dark Star” (a classic Grateful Dead tune) drifting through the grid of my screen door. I could not bring myself to move, and let myself be transported elsewhere, long before I knew Sandy (her long-time friend who had just died), long before I listened to Wagner, to another summer at the Electric Circus, where a young girl slow-danced with an equally young boy, awkwardly in love”.
In another favorite passage, Smith speaks for so many of her generation when she writes:
I had bad feelings about an election in the Year of the Monkey. Don’t worry, everyone said, the majority rules. Not so, I retaliated, the silent rule and it will be decided by them, those who do not vote. … Election night I joined a gathering of good comrades and we watched the terrible soap opera called the American election unfold on a large-screen TV. One by one each stumbled off into dawn. The bully bellowed. Silence rules. Twenty-four percent of the population had elected the worst of ourselves to represent the other seventy-six percent. All hail our American apathy, all hail the twisted wisdom of the Electoral College.
10 Must-Listen-To Songs by Patti Smith
- Because the Night (from Easter)
- Pissing in a River (from Ethiopia)
- Gloria: In Excelsis Deo (from Horses)
- Frederick (from Wave)
- Gimme Shelter (cover of a Rolling Stones’ song from Twelve)
- My Blakean Year (from Trampin’)
- Wicked Messenger cover of a Bob Dylan song from Gone Again)
- Dancing Barefoot (from Wave)
- People Have the Power (from Dream of Life)
- Trampin’ (from Trampin’)