Patti Smith -“Christ died for somebody’s sins, but not mine…” – an enigma at age 75

The American media isn’t celebrating Patti Smith on her 75th birthday. It should. She’s an icon born in Chicago, raised in New Jersey and has become world reknown for her music and writing.  

Patti Smith has now reached the world of advertising and can be seen modeling for Rimowa luggage as she continues to reinvent herself.

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Patti Smith carries the Rimowa brand

Excerpted from Deutsche Welle 12.29.2021

Some have called her the Godmother of Punk, others the Grande Dame of Alternative Rock. But what Patti Smith really is, deep down in her heart, is a poet. Her music takes second.

Born on December, 30, 1946, in Chicago, Smith grew up in New Jersey together with three siblings. While her father was an atheist, her mother was a Jehovah’s Witness, raising her kids to be religious.

She wanted to become a teacher. During her studies, she got pregnant and had the baby, but gave it up for adoption. Then she quit her studies, and – not even 20 years old – found her way to New York’s art scene where she got involved in art, drugs, parties and music.

Back then, her idols were the poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, and the musicians Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison.

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In clubs and bars, Smith opened for rock bands by reciting her poems on stage. She had her first big performance in February 1971. As part of a planned poetry series, Smith recited her work for New York stars like Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Sam Shepherd and others, eventually publishing two volumes of poetry.

During that time she also jammed with guitarist Lenny Kaye and keyboarder Richard Sohl.

The three musicians kept playing around with Van Morrison’s song “Gloria” for a long time until Smith decided to work in her famous poem “Oath” into that song:

“Christ died for somebody’s sins, but not mine (…) Christ, I’m giving you the goodbye, firing you tonight. I can make my own light shine.”

The reference to her mother’s suffocating religiosity could not be overlooked.

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In 1975, the Patti Smith Group was complete. The first album, “Horses,” was created with the help of producer and Velvet Underground veteran John Cale. On the cover, Smith appeared almost like an androgynous being with a wild dark mane – slim, delicate, clad in a men’s shirt and jacket, and wearing a black ribbon looking like a loose tie.

Reacting to Smith’s wild performances, the music world put her squarely in the punk box, and even called her the Godmother of Punk. In an interview with BBC, she later said she regretted having been given all kinds of titles, like “princess of piss,” or “wild rock ‘n’ roll mustang.”

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Patti Smith with Bob Dylan

After a fade in the 1980’s Bob Dylan brought her back into the limelight in the mid-1990’s. Smith reactivated her old band, and before they knew it they were opening for Dylan’s show. The audience was thrilled. Twenty years after the release of “Horses,” the band returned into the studio to produce the album “Gone Again” – a collection of somber and touching songs in memory of her deceased husband.

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Patti Smith’s autobiography Just Kids. Winner of a 2010 National Book Award – pictured with Robert Mapplethorpe

Smith still continues to produce music today. Her wild mane has turned grey but the power of her songs hasn’t diminished a bit. Whether she sings her old hits attempts to cover rock classics like “Smells like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, she remains a poet who transports her verses via music.