Biologically, Patti Smith is the mother of two. But her artistic spirit has been a nurturer of generations, her literate songwriting and self-created example inspiring many to pursue their rock-star dreams. On their own terms. For nearly three decades, ever since the release of her seminal 1975 debut Horses, Smith has been the female Bob Dylan of punk -- an unflinchingly political, often moving poet-rocker.
Perhaps best known for the 1978 hit "Because the Night," which she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen, Smith is thought of as the mother of the punk movement.
"A mother gives life and shepherds the young, so I don't mind the mother image," says Smith, who's calling from her New York City home. "I care about young people. ... But when I'm on stage playing the guitar, I certainly don't feel like a mother. I plug in and turn the amp up loud." The 57-year-old artist has just put out a new album: Trampin', a critically well-received 11-song set and her first since 2000's Gung Ho. After 29 years and eight albums with Arista, Smith makes her debut for Columbia Records, the longtime recording home of her idols Dylan and Miles Davis.
Trampin' is perhaps the rock trailblazer's most riveting album since Horses, an immediate, highly improvisational, stripped-down record bolstered by her powerful band of the last 10 years: guitarists Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray, bassist Tony Shanahan and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty.
The poet-singer-songwriter-musician wrote all of the songs save for the title cut, an old Marian Anderson hymn on which Smith's 16-year-old daughter, Jesse, plays piano. The song is a warm ending to a collection that veers from the bright and driving ("Jubilee") to the dark and unsettling ("Radio Baghdad").
"The main thrust of the record is hope," Smith says. "The songs denote struggle, but a sense of optimism is on the record. Life gives you lots of great things. It's a beautiful thing to be alive. Ending the album with 'Trampin',' I like the fact that the song denotes journey. Something about the song always made me feel good," she says. "The song has hope, but the narrative says it's a long road."
Much has contributed to Smith's personal and artistic evolution since the release of her last album. She supported Ralph Nader on his campaign trail in 2000; she was involved in protests against the strike on Iraq; her mother died; and she found spiritual solace in the works of Gandhi. So "there's this mother, spiritual theme that runs through the new album sort of subconsciously," Smith says.
In no way didactic, Trampin' is the rock legend's most political album to date.
"My political concerns came as we were recording," says the Chicago native. "I was so deeply against the strike on Iraq. I was so concerned that people weren't voting. The voice of the record is not from a Republican or a Democratic point of view. It's nonpartisan. It's a human record about human concerns," she says. "What we have to get back down to is what makes us equal: We care about children; we want a better life; we want to be good to each other. We have to clean our inner house."
Using rock and poetry as conduits of change -- as ways to powerfully express and highlight various conditions of human life -- has always been Smith's mission as an artist. In the April 15 issue of Rolling Stone, which listed the 50 "immortals" of rock, Smith was among such iconic figures as Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. Garbage lead vocalist Shirley Manson said in a tribute to Smith: "She is a soldier. She will not be defeated."
Born in the Windy City on New Year's Eve 1946, Smith was raised in New Jersey. An outsider in high school, she absorbed the writings of the Beat poets and Arthur Rimbaud; she also developed a deep appreciation for the music of James Brown, the Rolling Stones and the Doors.
In '67, she moved to New York City and worked in a bookstore, where she met a fellow outsider, an art student named Robert Mapplethorpe, who would become a famously controversial photographer and Smith's lover despite living most of his adult life as a homosexual. Around 1974, after a brief stint in Paris, Smith, who had put together a band a few years earlier to flesh out her poetry and song performances, fell into New York's burgeoning punk scene.
With her unisexual look (choppy dark hair; skinny, boyish body) and loosely expressive show (whirling around the stage, singing and chanting her lyrics), Smith became a much-talked-about regular at the legendary venue CBGB's. She eventually attracted the attention of Clive Davis, who signed her to his then-new label, Arista Records, in 1975--- the same year she dropped her unorthodox, classic debut.
Other milestone albums -- namely Easter (1978) and Wave (1979) -- established Smith as a critical favorite, although her material was often too challenging for radio, and the uncompromising artist has never been a prolific record maker. In 1980, after marrying Fred "Sonic" Smith of MC5 fame, she retired from music and moved to Detroit to raise her children. But after her husband and brother died in 1994, the rock star returned to performing full-time as a means of therapy. She also relocated to New York.
As Trampin' indicates, Smith is as vibrantly relevant as she was 30 years ago. But compassion and sensitivity have tempered her lyrical approach.
"I don't feel a lack of energy," she says. "I had a lot of guts when I was young, but I didn't have confidence. Now I have the confidence. Not everything is in decline when you take care of yourself and keep evolving and keep learning."