THREE PIANO CHORDS, accentuated by two simple bass guitar notes, repeated slowly, over and over, like a mantra. A woman's voice, deep and rasping, begins to sing: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." When Patti Smith first sang these words in 1975—as the very first words of her first song on her debut full-length album—it was, as the writer Paul Williams described it, "a declaration of existence." The album, Horses, led by the call-to-arms reworking of Van Morrison's "Gloria," forever changed what was possible in rock music and poetry, inspiring generations of musicians, poets, punk rockers, riot grrrls, and other iconoclasts worldwide.
Flash forward to December 13, 2014. Patti Smith is onstage at the Conciliation Auditorium in Rome, singing at the annual Vatican Christmas concert, at the personal invitation of Pope Francis. The journey from Horses to performing for the Holy See was not a short one, nor was it without a lion's share of triumph, controversy, and heartbreak.
Much about Smith's early years in New York have already been documented in Just Kids, her National Book Award-winning memoir recounting her time living in the Chelsea Hotel with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In addition to offering an intimate portrait of New York City during its gritty and reckless days, Just Kids served as a eulogy for one of Smith's closest friends and earliest supporters. Mapplethorpe died from AIDS-related complications in 1989, but what is not as widely known is how, shortly after Mapplethorpe passed, Smith's longtime piano player and musical collaborator, Richard Sohl, died of heart failure. Four years later, her husband and father of their two children, Fred "Sonic" Smith, of legendary Detroit rock band MC5, would die of a heart attack—followed, less than a month later, by the death of her younger brother, Todd. After all this, it was a miracle her own heart survived.
Smith turned 68 in December. She would be well within her rights to slow down, to grieve for her loved ones, and to enjoy her status as a "living legend," or as the ridiculous, critic-appointed designation, the "Godmother of Punk." But the new millennium has found Smith working harder than ever, releasing four full-length albums since 2000, delivering speeches and performing at benefit concerts as a peace activist, and adding to her considerable list of accolades, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and being named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. In 2015 alone, Smith's song, "Mercy Is," written for Darren Aronofsky's film Noah, will contend for an Academy Award; she plans to follow her current tour with another world tour later this year, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Horses; and, on top of all that, she is set to release her highly anticipated follow-up to Just Kids.
Patti Smith remains vital because of her willingness to contradict herself, to challenge her audience, and to defy expectations. (Her third album, Easter, included her highest charting single, "Because the Night," along with her most controversial song, "Rock N Roll Nigger.") So it shouldn't have come as a surprise or drawn such controversy when a similarly minded public figure—one who has also gained worldwide fame by shaking up the status quo—invited her to perform at the Vatican for its annual concert. It was the perfect arena for someone who has lived through tremendous grief and, though her works and through the love of others, found salvation.