Patti Smith by Joseph O'Connor
'She has been a poet, an acclaimed photographer, a memoirist, a mother, perhaps the last truly uncompromised artist in rock music'
n my 14th birthday, I bought a record that changed my life. I had never heard of the artist. It was the album sleeve that captivated me. It showed a woman of mournfully beautiful gauntness, jacket draped over her shoulder. It was like a still from a French movie too cool to be made. The record was Horses by Patti Smith.
I had never seen anyone who looked quite like her. A lovesick Yeats wrote that Maude Gonne had "beauty like a tightened bow", and the old priest who taught us English (and who had once seen Gonne on a Dublin street) would spend eternities explaining the simile. But when I saw that photograph, I knew what it meant.
The first time I heard Smith singing is one of the defining moments of my life. It was East Village garage meets the sulphur of the blues. And that voice like a whip-crack: impish, transgressive, swooping from a mutter to a scream. She'd snarl like an angry Dylan or croon with tenderness, punctuating Lenny Kaye's guitar work with murmured incantations.
The rebels of culture haunted her work. Rimbaud, Jimi Hendrix, Virginia Woolf and The Who, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Baudelaire, John Lennon: they loomed behind her vision. Maddening, gorgeous, insolent, unique, she has been a poet, an acclaimed photographer, a memoirist, a mother, perhaps the last truly uncompromised artist in rock music. At 63, she's still making work of importance and beauty. She's been my hero for three decades. I don't know what I'd have done without her.