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Punk Rocker Patti Smith Inspires Penn State English Majors with Class Visit and Concert

By Sarah Becks, Undergraduate Intern, November 20, 2013

On October 15, Penn State was visited by one of the most influential punk artists of all time. Patti Smith was awarded the 2013 Institute for the Arts and Humanities Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Eisenhower Auditorium, where she also performed songs, read her poetry, and answered questions from the audience about her take on life and art.

Six weeks prior to Patti Smith’s arrival, English Professor Dr. Janet Lyon and women’s studies Professor Dr. Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor taught a one-credit class called Women’s Studies and English 197A Patti Smith: Punk, Poetry, Performance.  Students met once a week for an hour and half to talk about all things Patti Smith.

Commonly referred to as the “Godmother of Punk,” Patti Smith has been influential in the punk movement since 1975, when she debuted her album, Horses. She co-wrote the song “Because the Night” with Bruce Springsteen, which she performed at Eisenhower Auditorium with guitarist Lenny Kaye. Just a few of her recent honors include being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 and winning the National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids, which was also assigned reading for the Penn State class.

Caitlin Spence, a junior majoring in rehabilitative human services, joined the class because of her strong interest in English studies along with service to the elderly. “I love Patti Smith,” Caitlin said. “I want to be her when I grow up.” Caitlin signed up for the class because she wanted to take an elective that was fun and satisfied her interests in English. She was also pleased to find out that the class was also listed under women’s studies.

Before Smith’s arrival, Caitlin Spence had to prepare herself. The class was given an opportunity before the award ceremony to ask Smith questions. Caitlin said that she wanted to know what inspires Smith and to just hear in person all the things she’s been reading about. “I want to know the things that make her, her,” Caitlin said.

Caitlin learned that Patti Smith had an unplanned pregnancy at a young age, which is something that she could relate to. “It was so weird to read how Patti Smith was worried about the stretch marks, and that’s what I worry about,” Caitlin said, reflecting on how relatable Patti Smith seemed to be. “I like learning about how she balances a domestic life with an artistic life,” Caitlin added. “Isn’t that what feminism is about?”

Senior and English and philosophy double major Sam August also realized he could relate to Patti Smith’s life. Sam wants to go to Nashville to be a professional musician and write songs for guitar. Learning that Patti Smith was a starving artist who met the right people hit very close for Sam. Smith is linked to artists such as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Mick Jagger, just to name a few. She talks in her book about how photographer and ex-lover Robert Mapplethorpe was one of the most influential artists in her life. Reading about her anecdotes of meeting other celebrities piqued Sam’s interest, and he said that he wanted to ask her about the coolest famous person she ever met.

Sam also talked about how he enjoyed the structure of the class. “The class is very impromptu,” he said. “The professors go with the flow and everyone seems into it, which makes it fun.” One of the other students who was into the class is senior and English major, Julianne McCobin. When asked if she was a fan of Patti Smith before the class, Julianne said, “While I'd heard of Patti Smith before, I'd never heard her music or knew of her books, so no.” But when asked what she found most interesting about Patti Smith, Julianne replied, “Everything! I really enjoyed reading her memoir, Just Kids, in which she recounts her personal and artistic relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and others living in New York in the '70s. I loved experiencing their dedication to art and each other.”

During the small meet and greet with the class, Katie Murt, senior majoring in English and media studies, was one of the students who was able to ask Patti Smith a question. “I asked her whether she ever doubted herself as an artist, because so much of her work makes it seem as though she is so self-assured and clear in her artistic vision,” Katie said. “ She told me that when she was younger, she would doubt herself all the time, but became more assured as she grew older.”

During the question and answer session, often Smith would begin to answer a question and then go off on a long story or anecdote that reveals so much more than what you were originally asking, Katie said.

Later the same day, Smith went to Eisenhower Auditorium to perform and speak to a broader audience. She performed “Grateful,” “Pissing in a River,” and “Because the Night.”

Katie said that seeing her perform live was so much better than she could have anticipated. “Her live performance was better than any recording I've heard, and the added benefit of seeing her emotions and hearing her inflection in a live setting made the songs she sang that much more engaging and entertaining.”

The concert/discussion hybrid allowed for a more personal setting for audience members to experience Smith’s visit in a unique and intimate way. She also dedicated the song “My Blakean Year” to the members of the class who had met with her earlier that day.

“Taking the Patti Smith course exposed me to so much of her life and work that you don't hear about in mainstream culture, and some of that lesser-known work is where her true masterpieces lie,” Katie said. “I'm glad I got to study her before meeting her and hearing her perform, because it gave me a much deeper appreciation for the beauty of her life and work.”