“You walk like a poet.” In 1969, at the iconic Chelsea Hotel in New York, this remark to Patti Smith, who was holding a notebook, changed the course of her life; Bob Neuwirth, songwriter and aide-de-camp to Janis Joplin, urged the 22-year-old to In 1971 she would debut her half-spoken, half-sung hallucinatory verse at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, launching his career as a seminal recording artist, resulting in game-changing albums like Horses (1975), Easter (1978), and Vague (1979). Performance, she says, became her “vehicle for improvising poetry”.
Throughout, literary mentors—Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso—encouraged her to keep writing, resulting in several books of poetry and prose. In 1989, her soul mate, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, would plead on his deathbed for her to write “our story” – which became winner of the 2010 National Book Award, Just children.
Twelve years and three books later, Smith’s constant photo taking, extensive travels, Instagram habit, and daily writing regimen have merged into exquisite A book of days. Documenting each day of the year, Smith illustrates his unique thoughts on the world, his literary and visual heroes, and the people and objects he holds dear through his own and archival photos. The beautifully crafted volume is both uplifting and bittersweet.
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Much of Smith’s development as a writer, she told me in 1996, evolved during her disappearance from public life between 1979 and 1994. During those years, she lived nearly Detroit with her husband, pioneering rock guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, with whom she would have two children, Jackson and Jesse. “I really liked having some free time,” Smith said, “because I was able to write in a way that I hadn’t been able to write before. When you sing or play the guitar, you ignore your feelings or emotions, instead of using language to express what you feel.
The Smiths and their children traveled the country, often stopping at small coastal towns. “I like to write by the sea, so we found little motels on different coasts,” she recalls. Elements of those years and his literary pursuits emerged in Smith’s elegiac. M-train and The Year of the Monkey.
The death of her husband of 46 years from heart failure in 1994 led a grief-stricken Smith to return to her beloved New York with Jackson and Jesse. There, she resumes her stage life, turns with Bob Dylan then leaves lefthis first new album in eight years.
Often accompanied by Jesse, a pianist, and Jackson, a guitarist, she kept a fast pace, touring, recording, writing and photographing around the world, a product of what she calls her “jumping personality”. In 2018, a few years after Smith got her first smartphone, Jesse introduced her to Instagram, and on the spring equinox she posted on her newly created account, thisispattismith, which garnered a million followers. As she writes in her introduction to A book of days“Jesse felt the platform would be a good fit for me as I write and take photos every day.”
Smith, who turns 76 on December 30, is not intimidated by the passage of time or the pandemic. While grounded, she released “The Melting” on Substack and communicates with subscribers through short videos. In the December 29 entry of A Book of Days, it sums up his dedication to using whatever life brings to express himself artistically. Offer
both solace and a spark for fans, she wrote, “Now to put energy into the task at hand…Creating endlessly.”
Holly George-Warren is the award-winning author of 16 books, including the bestselling Janis: his life and his music, and a longtime contributor to publications such as rolling stone, The New York Timesand Weekly entertainment. She received two Grammy nominations: for co-producing the box set Respect: A Century of Women in Musicand for his liner notes to Joplin’s The pearl sessions. She is currently writing a biography of Jack Kerouac (Viking) and collaborating on a book with Dolly Parton (Penguin).
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