BY AMY Z. QUINN She’s hardly the most famous performer to ever come out of Jersey — The Boss and The Chairman Of The Board still hold those titles — but without a doubt, Patti Smith, the High Poetess of Punk, remains the greatest communicator of the kind of nameless electric angst that drives Kids In Search Of Something to head north on the Jersey Turnpike and never look back. When Patti beat it out of Gloucester County, fleeing a factory job and a year short of her degree at then-Glassboro State Teacher’s College, she was armed with a book of Rimbaud poetry bought on a used-book table in Philly, not dreams of becoming a rock star. In interviews, she’s said she didn’t know what she was looking for back then, but she knew it wasn’t to be found in South Jersey. Some things never change.
From Interview Magazine:
Q: How did you discover Rimbaud?
Patti Smith: I found him in a Philadelphia bus depot when I was sixteen. I remember seeing a copy of Illuminations for sale on a table of used books. Of course, Illuminations is a great word, but what I was really taken by was the cover. It was a beautiful picture of Rimbaud. That’s why I got the book. When I opened it up, I didn’t really understand it. It didn’t compute. But still, somehow, I knew this was the perfect language. It looked like it glittered. I knew someday I would decipher it. So I carried the book around with me.
My first glimpse of Patti came in April, 1976, when I was barely four years old and she appeared on Saturday Night Live on a night when my sisters were stuck at home babysitting and let me stay up late enough to watch. Wraithlike, raging, all elbows and sharp angles, she scared the shit out of me singing “Gloria,” especially that blasphemous declaration: Jesus died for someone’s sins but not mine. Omigod, I remember thinking, she did NOT just say that!
Years later, when I was toiling in the Inquirer’s Cherry Hill bureau, my old colleague David Lee Preston — who still regards Patti as “far and away the most important rock musician ever to come out of South Jersey” — tried to school me. He prided himself on inserting the Deptford High graduate into as many columns as he could, continuing to claim her for New Jersey though she’d left years before.
This morning, by email, he told me: “I took Patti and her band to Walt Whitman’s tomb at Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery and to the Whitman house in Camden, and wrote a column about it. April Saul took the photos. I met Patti’s parents at their Mantua house, where Patti grew up. Lovely people, both now gone.”
These days, I’m no longer afraid of Patti Smith, but sometimes, if I hear “Gloria” on the right kind of day, I still shiver at that opening line. Maybe in her youth it was a pronouncement against religion, but now, after the years in between, after the time she spent raising her children away from rock and roll, it finally makes sense to me: only you commit your sins, and only you can redeem them.
Patti Smith Performs “Gloria” On Italian Television, 1975