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Patti Smith stays guided by work, and there's plenty of it
When Patti Smith plays at the Royal Oak Music Theatre this week, it will be a homecoming of sorts.
It was 40 years ago this month that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer temporarily "left public life" — most notably a critically acclaimed career in music — in order to move to Detroit, ultimately settling in St. Clair Shores, marry former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith and start a family. She resurfaced briefly during 1988 to release her "Dream of Life" album, with its anthemic and enduring single "People Have the Power." But for the most part she laid low, raised son Jackson, now 37, and daughter Jesse, 32, and quietly existed within the community.
"It was a very dramatic transition. but the positive things that I was hoping for when I left, they have come to pass," Smith, 72, says by phone from New York, where she returned shortly after Fred Smith died in November 1994. "I think what I was looking for in leaving public life was to evolve as a human being, to evolve as a worker, and to have a family and see them evolve and have such a strong relationship with them. I feel that I experienced that."
And work has certainly been a guidepost for Smith, both before and after her time in the metro area.
A musician, writer, poet, visual artist and activist, she was dubbed a "punk priestess" and "rock poet laureate" during the last half of the '70s. Yielding enormous influence, she released four lauded, landmark and provocative albums starting with 1975's "Horses," which is enshrined in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry, and landed one crucial Top 20 hit in 1978, the Bruce Springsteen co-written "Because the Night."
Since 1996, meanwhile, Smith has produced a steady stream of albums and books, including the memoir "Just Kids," which won a National Book Award in 2010. Her new book, "Year of the Monkey," publishes on Sept. 24. France named her a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Letteres in 2005, two years before her Rock Hall induction. She received a 2011 Polar Music Prize in Sweden and ranked No. 47 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of rock's 100 greatest artists. And Bob Dylan tapped her to perform in his stead at the ceremony when he won a Nobel Prize in 2016.
"I've always considered myself, for lack of a better word, an artist," explains Smith, who made a surprise guest appearance during U2's September 2017 concert at Detroit's Ford Field. "I've never considered myself a public figure or a rock musician or a rock 'n' roll star, even though I lived that life for a certain amount of time and I was a public figure at a certain time. But that was not the core of my self-identity.
"The core of my identity was always to be a worker — to study, to write, to evolve. So the things that I gave up (in 1979), but the things I kept for myself were more meaningful. I didn't come to Michigan stripped of my identity; I had my identity intact because my identity was as a worker, or a writer. I always kept my identity, and it just expanded as also a wife and mother."
For all those reasons the Detroit area remains close to Smith's heart, and any visit, to perform or to see her children, who reside here, usually includes a trip to Lafayette Coney Island, where she met Fred Smith, Belle Isle, the Detroit Institute of Art, Mariners Church, where she and Fred married, as well as his grave.
Her prolific artistry has not ebbed since December of 1995, when she returned to performing by opening some shows for Dylan. Smith is still exploring music, adding new cover songs to her set and considering the possibility of another album, her first since 2009's "Banga." She also clearly delights in taking her "old-fashioned rock 'n' roll band" around the world, reveling in the continuing relevance of songs that are now more than 40 years old — and the audience that's coming to see them.
"We have a very, very young audience — very young, like under 25," Smith notes. "That's a fantastic thing which always brings me back, which is that new generations are interested in our work."
Next on the docket, however is "Year of the Monkey," which details the deaths of former manager Sandy Pearlman during 2016 and playwright-filmmaker Sam Shepherd the following year, after contracting ALS.
"I think it's more experimental than my last book, (2015's) 'M Train,'" Smith says. "It's a book that had no particular plot, that I just started writing. It's semi memoir, semi dream. The lunar Year of the Monkey is a traditionally mischievous sign, and it was a very unique year, somewhat difficult and somewhat, well, driven by mischief and also sorrow.
"I didn't have any particular plot except to embrace that particular year, and I'm really happy with it."
Smith has already started writing another book and is finishing a book of poetry. As she notes, "I'm always working on something," and she doesn't expect that to change any time soon.
"Y'know, I feel very sturdy," Smith says. "I'm healthy. It's really just about the joy of doing my work. When I'm finished, I feel like it's a job well done, and that's what I get out of it. I like music, I like writing and taking photographs and drawing. I like the communication. That's what gives me a lot of pleasure."
Patti Smith, with Zachariah Malachi & the Hillbilly Executives, performs Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 16-17, at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Tickets $45-$89.50. Call 248-399-2980 or visit royaloakmusictheatre.com.
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