“Hey Joe, I heard you shot your woman down.
You shot her down to the ground, you shot her.
Yes, I did, yes, I did, yes, I did, I shot her, I shot her.
I caught her messing around with some other man.
So, I got my truck, I gave her the gun and I shot her.
I shot her, shoot her one more time for me.”
The 1974 song Hey Joe, as heavy as it is, was Patti Smith’s first studio recording, and it was a single she made in Jimi Hendrix’s famous Electric Lady Studio. Patti had a way of creating a mixture of poetry and rock with a high-energy style that could get either aggressive or blissful – or both. Patti eventually earned her moniker, the Godmother of Punk, but there’s lots to know about the years before that. Let the true story begin…
Patti Smith grew up in New Jersey in a Jehovah’s Witness household before moving to New York in 1967 at the age of 21. There, she slowly started evolving into a poet, songwriter and performer. Those chapters of her life story revolved around her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met soon after she got to New York. Patti and Robert were basically soul mates – with similar artistic aspirations.
But it was Patti who became famous first. The cover of Horses, the album that made her famous, features the iconic photo of her which was taken by Robert (who also became famous later on for his erotic photos of gay men). Robert then died of AIDS in 1989, which was just one of the tragic losses in her life.
In Patti’s memoir Just Kids, readers can get a glimpse of just how different her life might have been under different circumstances. In 1966, when she was about 20 and going to Glassboro State College, she was studying to be a teacher. But then she got pregnant by a 17-year-old boy whom she described as even more immature than she was.
Patti went through with the pregnancy, had the baby, but decided to give it up for adoption. She explained that she was a “lower-middle-class kid” whose family had no money. There was simply no room in their little house to add a baby. There were already four kids, including Patti, who lived there.
If she was going to keep the baby, she said she would have had to get a job in a factory and ask her mother – who was already an overworked waitress – to help her. There was also the issue that the child would have had no father. All in all, Patti felt that she “just wasn’t ready as a human being” to become a mother.
That pregnancy was a turning point in Patti’s life which led to her decision to leave college and thus give up on her plan of becoming a teacher. Instead, she headed for the Big Apple. It was in New York that she met Robert and essentially changed the course of their lives forever.
Patti recalled her first meeting with Robert as “very simple.” At the time, she was looking for her former high school artsy friends, hoping for a couch to crash on since she had nowhere to sleep that night. But she discovered that they had moved. The boy who answered the door had no idea where her friends but suggested that maybe his roommate would know.
Patti went inside to find the roommate sleeping on a little iron bed, noticing his mass of dark curls on the pillow. And as soon as she walked in, he woke up, looked at her, and smiled. He then told her where her friends were living.
Robert had helped Patti get out of a tricky situation. He was her “rescuer” as she referred to it. She was inexperienced in the dating world and had never dated an older man before. She met a man under 30, but he “seemed like a grown-up” to her.
Patti remembers being extremely hungry as she hadn’t eaten in a few days. The man – a friend of her boss’s – was a science fiction writer and asked Patti to go to dinner. As they walked together, Patti kept wishing it would just end. He invited her up to his apartment for a “cocktail,” which she assumed was going to be more than that, and she was dreading it.
Patti admitted that she felt really afraid and wanted to get out of the situation badly. She contemplated running away when suddenly, “as if an answer to a prayer,” a guy came walking down the path.
It was Robert – the curly-haired roommate – who was dressed “like 1967 in a sheepskin vest and a lot of love beads with long curly hair” and apparently looked like Tim Buckley. That’s when Patti impulsively ran up to him and said, “Do you remember me?” After he said yes, she told him to pretend he was her boyfriend.
He agreed, and she dragged him over to “the science fiction guy” and told him that this is was her boyfriend, and he’s “really mad” and that she has to go now. She turned to Robert and said, “Run!” Robert then grabbed her hand, and they ran away.
So, yes, he rescued her, and he was her “knight ever since.” They were lovers at first, but at some point, not only did Patti realize that Robert was gay, but he also realized it himself. Patti found out in 1968 when he told her that he was going to San Francisco and that if she wasn’t going to come with him, he would “turn homosexual.”
While it sounds as though he wanted Patti to be his rescuer this time, Patti as attributed it to the fact that he just didn’t want their relationship to end. She could tell that something was bothering him because he had become increasingly moodier.
There was clearly something that Robert couldn’t communicate to her, which was extremely frustrating for her since they were so open with one another. “But it was just too painful for him to tell me,” she recalled. She added that Robert came from a “very intense, Catholic, military family,” as she put it.
Eventually, he came to terms with being gay and had multiple lovers, but he and Patti were always just as close. It was her, in the end, who severed the physical aspect of their relationship. And it was because, aside from the fact that she tended to be monogamous, that there was the ever-present concern about a social disease.
She admitted to having had a phobia of things like that. They worked it out, though, because they were so close and their “love for each other was so deep.” She stated, however, that they were still physical with one another. He was affectionate until the day he died, she said.
Before Patti started singing her heart out on stage, she acted in a few plays. It was on the theatre stage that Patti realized that she was herself on stage, which was a revelation that led her to becoming a performer. The 74-year-old recalled that from an early age, she was comfortable in front of people. She was something of a book worm who loved giving book reports, which helps explain her initial choice to be a teacher.
She went on to do plays in college, including a musical comedy. She did well, but she remembers that the memorization killed her. Memorizing gave her “a lot of anxiety.” She also hated all the “pancake makeup” and dressing for parts. She liked being on stage; she “just didn’t like the theatrical aspect of being in front of people.”
“The boy disappeared, Johnny fell on his knees,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started crashing his head against the locker, started laughing hysterically.
When suddenly Johnny gets the feeling
he’s being surrounded by horses, horses, horses, horses.”
Patti Smith’s first album Horses was released in 1975, and she had written for several years before actually performing in a rock ‘n’ roll setting and performing. Before Horses, Patti never really used her voice that way. As a kid, she said would daydream about being an opera singer. She loved Maria Callas, and her mother was “a really nice singer” with a “’30s-style jazz voice.”
She “thinks” she sang in the school choir “or something,” but she claims that she didn’t “have any real gift.” What she did have, though, was the ability to talk and perform in front of people. And “a lot of guts.”
Speaking of guts, Patti started reading poetry in bars and places where poets aren’t typically heard. She wasn’t really in the “poet click.” She didn’t even have a lot of respect for poets and had a hard time relating to them. So, she looked for different venues where she could read her poetry.
When it came to finding venues, it basically meant “anywhere that anybody would take [her].” It was usually non-paid gigs, just for her to get the experience. And if it was paid, she got $5 or $10. Sometimes she was the opening act’s opening act, which was usually a local band.
She remembers no one being interested in what she had to say. They didn’t come to the bar to hear poetry, after all. But if she got those 15 or 20 minutes on the little stage, she “was going to fight for it.”
The classic photograph on the Horses cover was by her soulmate Robert. The way Patti describes it, it’s “a little bit of Baudelaire, a little bit of Catholic boy, a little bit of Frank Sinatra, and a lot of Robert.” When asked (by NPR’s Terry Gross) what impact that photo had on how people received her, Patti answered honestly, “I don’t know.”
She did add, though: “I know people really liked it. I know the record company didn’t.” And the reason they didn’t was because her hair was messy, and it was “a little incomprehensible to them at the time.” They even tried to airbrush it, but she fought for it to stay natural.
As it turns out, the look and style that Patti became known for was something that upset many people when she was younger. “People were very upset constantly about my appearance when I was young. I don’t know what it was.” When she was little, she would go to the beach wearing her dungarees and flannel shirt.
“And the whole time, people would be, ‘Why are you wearing that? Why don’t you get a bathing suit?’” It just goes to show that people have always been interested in how she presents herself. And people love the iconic photograph from Horses.
The photo also gave Robert instant attention. When she started performing after the album came out, she would do shows in clubs all over the world – from Denmark to Ohio – and “half of the kids had white shirts and black ties on.” She thought that was sweet.
Ironically, it never occurred to her to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band until a friend of her’s suggested it did. The truth is, as the modest singer herself explained, she’s not a musician. “I don’t play any instrument… I didn’t have any specific talents.”
Patti came from South Jersey-Philadelphia. In the early ’60s, everybody sang – on street corners, singing three-part harmonies, a cappella. Most of her friends were better singers than her, she admitted.
So there was “nothing” that would give her a sense that she should be in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Also, she pointed out, “Girls weren’t in rock ‘n’ roll bands.” The closest thing to a real rock singer that they had was Grace Slick, and she “certainly didn’t have Grace Slick’s voice.” But Patti had something that other women didn’t at the time.
Patti Smith created a new style – a combination of poetry and music. It wasn’t about having the perfect voice. Patti perceived herself in those formative years as a performer and a communicator. She said she had a mission when she recorded Horses.
Her mission was, “on one level, to merge poetry and rock ‘n’ roll.” But she also wanted to reach out to “other disenfranchised people.” She gave the example of back in 1975 when young homosexual kids were being disowned by their families. These kids were often persecuted in their small towns.
But it wasn’t just about your sexual orientation. It was for any reason – for being an artist, being different, having political views, or for simply wanting to be free. She recorded Horses to connect with these people who were like her in the real world.
But within the rock world, she wanted to create a bridge between the great artists they had just lost – Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison – and the “new guard,” which didn’t even include herself. In fact, she figured she would just create an album and then “go back to my writing and my drawing, and, you know, return to my… somewhat abnormal normal life.” But Horses took her on a very different path.
“On that day
Filled with grace
And the way to heart’s communion
Steps we take
Steps we trace
On the way the heart’s reunion
Paths that cross, will cross again
Paths that cross, will cross again”
Robert was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, which was around the same time Patti found out she was pregnant with her second child. She was married to musician Fred Sonic Smith and living in Detroit. At the time, Robert’s longtime partner Sam died. And so to comfort him, Patti wrote the song Paths That Cross.
On the night that Sam died, Patti recalled not being able to sleep because she knew that Robert was suffering. Paths That Cross was written that night – she sat up all night to write it. She said she tried to write an optimistic song “in a sort of Sufi style,” as Sam loved the Sufi ideology.
She wrote the song for Robert and as she was writing it that, she was aware that one day she would be listening to it and thinking of him. But Paths That Cross ended up having a life after that. Patti explained that many people who lost loved ones from AIDS played the song at their funerals.
“Speak to me heart
All things renew
Hearts will mend
Round the bend
Paths that cross, cross again
Paths that cross, will cross again”
The song took on a life of its own and became, in a certain community, a song of comfort. Patti admitted that she never anticipated that she would someday listen to the song and find herself thinking of her late husband, her brother and Richard Sohl, who played on the album Dream of Life (in which Paths That Cross was on).
Four years after his diagnosis, Robert passed away from AIDS.
Robert died in March of ’89. Patti had spoken to him in the last hour that he was still able to speak. She listened to his breathing before she went to sleep. She said Robert’s brother called her to let her listen to his breathing. He died that morning.
Patti then described feeling this sensation – this “acceleration into his next place after death. I could really feel that.” As it turns out, Patti has experienced a lot of death since Robert’s passing. She sat with poet and writer Allen Ginsberg when he died.
She was with her husband when he died, as well as with her parents when it was their time. But the “acceleration and energy I felt after Robert’s death was unique.” She believes that our energy “leaves in a different way,” according to an article in People magazine.
In Patti’s memoir, she mentions something Ginsberg told her after her husband died. He told her to let go of the spirit of the departed and to continue her life’s celebration. Patti believes that it’s “very important to not be afraid to experience joy in the middle of sorrow.”
When her brother died, she and her sister sat with his body and wept. And then, suddenly, they started laughing. The three siblings used to laugh so much they “would get sick.” The two sisters were laughing so hard at that point, next to their dead brother, that they were scolded by the funeral director.
But they didn’t feel bad about it because they knew fully well what the depth of their sorrow was, so it was all right for them to also experience some joy in their brother’s presence.
During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Patti and Robert worked together feverishly into the night and had to choose between grilled cheese sandwiches and art supplies. She helped him get through trench mouth and gonorrhea while they were living in a cheap hotel in which the hallways were filled with junkies.
The two soul mates hung out with Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol, and Sam Shepard. These were the days before Patti hit the stage and before Robert became obsessed with photography. They were, as Patti puts it, “in a fresh state of transformation.”
They were soon to become the artists they would go on to be. About a decade later, when Patti and Robert were walking down the street, they heard Patti’s hit single Because the Night blaring from storefronts.
He said to her, “Patti, you got famous before me.” He was teasing her, Patti explained, because she would always tell him that she didn’t care if she was famous. “I just wanted him to be famous.” It didn’t matter to her whether the world saw her or not – it was very important for Robert that the world acknowledge her. “He believed in me.”
“Come on now, try and understand
The way I feel when I’m in your hands
Take my hand, come undercover
They can’t hurt you now
Can’t hurt you now, can’t hurt you now”
Because the Night was written by Bruce Springsteen near the end of the ‘70s. However, the Boss realized that there wasn’t any more room on his album Darkness in the Edge of Town. So, he decided to hand it over to Patti Smith, who was at the time recording the album Easter in the studio next to his. Patti then chose to alter the lyrics to come from a more feminine perspective.
“Have I doubt, baby, when I’m alone
Love is a ring on the telephone
Love is an angel, disguised as lust
Here in our bed ’til the morning comes”
One evening, Smith was waiting for a phone call around 6 p.m. from her future husband, Fred. But he didn’t call. As she was waiting, though, she wrote down that the night belongs to lovers. By the time she gave up at 2 a.m., Fred finally called her. Because the Night is one of Patti’s strongest pieces – maybe even her first song to secure her place among the music greats.
It took Patti 10 years to write her book Just Kids. At first, after Robert died, she wrote instead of crying, and created a series of linked poems in his honor, titled The Coral Sea. But then Patti’s pianist, Richard Sohl, died at the age of 37.
During the following few years, her husband and her brother died. “Robert was the first great death in a series of great deaths,” Patti stated. She said that it taught her how to grieve. There was a period after she got married, when she and Fred moved to Detroit and had two kids, that she was out of the public eye.
In New York City, back in her heyday, it was “gritty and dangerous” – just how Patti liked it. “Much better than I do now,” she said. When she lived there, it was nearly bankrupt, cheap to live in, “and there was always action.”
The way Patti put it, the possibilities were endless. “I was 20 years old and sleeping in graveyards and subways.” Graveyards? Yes, graveyards. She said it was definitely scary, as she laughs about it now, but it was “no more scary than sleeping the night in a field in south Jersey.”
The city had a mix of danger and creativity that permeated into the art scene. When she would perform her poetry in local bars, she had Lenny Kaye (a guy from a local record store) play feedback behind her verses.
“I didn’t have any fear,” she stated. “I never left the stage crying, and if I was booed, I would stand my ground.” According to Patti, 80 percent of the time, she could turn the situation around in her favor. She often ended her sets with a poem called “Piss Factory,” an autobiographical story about finding the strength to escape a dead-end job.
The same guys that would heckle her at the start found themselves on her side by the end, relating to the story. While there were moments like these on stage in her early performing days, there were other – less flattering – moments that occurred on stage.
One time, while she was playing with Bob Seger in Florida, Patti lost herself in a performance of her song Ain’t It Strange. She was “spinning like a dervish” as she said and then slammed her foot on her monitor. But the monitor was balanced on the edge of the stage and she suddenly fell 14 feet on to the concrete below. Ouch.
She ended up fracturing her skull, several vertebrae in her neck, back, and tailbone. She also broke some teeth. “It was serious. And I still have certain repercussions.” In fact, she never got her full eyesight back and her range of movement has never been the same.
It took months of physical therapy to get back on stage. Being on stage, Patti says, is like a “microcosm of life.” She explained that all the same wonderful and embarrassing things that take place in life can also happen on stage, and you have to face it all with a good sense of humor.
She doesn’t think of herself as a queen because she has great moments on stage, and she also doesn’t think she’s a failure because of some terrible moments. On stage at Glastonbury on the Pyramid, Patti slipped and fell down.
She simply got up and screamed: “Yeah, I fell on my f**king ass at Glastonbury. But you know why? Because I’m a f**king animal, that’s why.” It’s rock ‘n’ roll, after all. Even in her 70s, Patti still has the punk angst inside of her and knows how to put on a show.
After Fred passed away in 1994, she moved back to New York. She wasn’t the most financially well-off, but her friends and even her fans pulled together. Her lawyer got her children a place in a top-notch, progressive private school.
REM’s Michael Stipe found the single mom and her kids a house; fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester gave her clothes; and Bob Dylan asked her to perform with him. Slowly but surely, she started to rebuild her life, and eventually made a comeback. Over the last decade, Patti has been working more than ever.
A few years ago, Patti performed at London’s Hyde Park in support of electronic group Massive Attack. Playing there has been a lifelong dream for Patti. She remembers being heartbroken when Brian Jones (her favorite Rolling Stone) died, and the Stones held a concert in the park afterward.
In 1969, she was in Paris with her sister, busking. “I didn’t have the money to get to London, but they had the pictures in the French papers that week and I remember Mick released all these butterflies.” It was a memorable moment.
It might be nice to get to know Patti’s kids for a moment. Jackson Smith, 39, is a rock guitarist who was married to White Stripes drummer Meg White between 2009 and 2013. Jackson has been performing with his mother as a part of her band since 2016.
Patti said she likes performing with her kids (her daughter also joins the fam jam). “We all have professional responsibilities, but I’m still their mom, you know, and they’re my kids, and sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s very comforting,” Patti said. She also loves how Jackson has aspects of his father’s great musicality.
Jesse Paris is a composer, musician, and producer. She co-founded Pathway to Paris with Rebecca Foon, a non-profit organization dedicated to global climate change. As for her music, she’s been commissioned by Steven Sebring and other filmmakers and by Aesop and UNDP.
Her compositions have also been used for commercials, fashion shows, audiobooks, and live film score performances. Patti and Fred never pushed her to learn an instrument, but when she was 13 after her schoolteacher played her Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, she started to take piano lessons. After her father’s death, she joined her mom on the road.