Patti Smith stands on a tiny stage in a cavernous marble art gallery in Sydney. She wears her signature jeans, T-shirt, scruffy old boots. She’s here to read a little poetry, sing a couple of songs, chat informally with fans (who run the gamut from 20-something fourth-wave feminists to gnarly old artists). They’re expecting maybe a little shouting, a little swearing from this pioneer of the New York punk movement. Instead, Patti quotes her mother on the importance of counting one’s blessings:
“‘I wept because I had no shoes, then I saw a man who had no feet.’ That was what my mother always told us,” she says, in her soft New Jersey drawl. Then she goes on matter-of-factly to impress upon the audience the importance of sensible, woollen socks.
At 72, Patti sees her mother’s aphorisms (of which there were many) as solid preparation for the travails that life has flung her way. She has weathered more than her share of storms since her 1975 album, Horses, took music by the collar and shook it hard. Patti has outlived many of those she’s loved best and her most recent book, The Year of the Monkey, reads almost as a meditation on letting go.
“This is what I know,” she writes. “…My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. My cat is dead. And my dog who was dead in 1957 is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow.”
Patti attributes this tenacious sense of hope to her mother, Beverly, a bighearted Jehovah’s Witness who was a jazz singer in her youth, then raised four children while working as a waitress. Many years later, she took on the task of answering Patti’s fan mail, and would often include a fragment of her downhome wisdom and occasionally a copy of the Witness’ newsletter, The Watchtower, for good measure.
Patti’s daughter, Jesse, now 32, describes her grandmother, who died in 2002, as a: “generous matriarch,â€‹overseer of the family … She was full of genuine unconditional love, but she was tough. She had seen a lot. Someone to strive to be more like, for sure; someone to look towards when you need a little edge, a little dose of genuine toughness to push you through. She loved music. She had a great memory for lyrics and a cool and beautiful way of singing songs from her generation. I think my mom has been deeply influenced by her in more ways than we can know.”
Patti’s childhood was materially frugal but rich in ideas. She was born in Chicago during the Great Blizzard of 1946, “long and skinny”, she wrote in her memoir Just Kids, “but with bronchial pneumonia”. Allergies and lung problems would plague her childhood, leaving her often in bed with books (Little Women, A Child’s Garden of Verses) in the spring and summertime while her brother and sisters joined the tribes of neighbourhood children in the gardens and streets.
“I really believe I inherited my enthusiasm for life from my mother,” Patti tells The Weekly on a warm afternoon in New York, where that summer cough still intermittently interrupts conversation. “My mother had a very difficult childhood. There was a lot of tragedy in her life. She lost her own mother as a child. She was raised by a very austere grandmother. She lost her brother and then her son. Yet, watching my mother field tragedy and always accept the responsibilities awaiting her was a good lesson.
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