Patti Smith was 16 years old when she first set eyes on the love of her life. ‘‘He was very beautiful,’’ she tells me, down the phone from Chicago. ‘‘He was sort of a French version of a young Bob Dylan.’’
The singer saw that beautiful face at a book stall in a Philadelphia bus depot, staring out from the cover of a 99-cent paperback: Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud.
‘‘I didn’t have any money, so I pocketed it,’’ she says, laughing. ‘‘It was a stolen moment.’’ It was the start of a lifelong obsession.
‘‘At the factory where I had laboured with a hard-edged, illiterate group of women, I was harassed in [Rimbaud’s] name,’’ Smith writes in her 2010 memoir, Just Kids. ‘‘Suspecting me of being a Communist for reading a book in a foreign language, they threatened me in the john, prodding me to denounce him … It was for him that I wrote and dreamed. He became my archangel, delivering me from the mundane horrors of factory life.’’
Having learnt about the 19th-century poet’s life – how he had run away, penniless, from his provincial home, to join the Parisian demi-monde – Smith, a young writer from New Jersey, took a similar leap of faith. ‘‘It gave me the courage to go off myself and not be afraid,’’ she says. ‘‘When I went to New York City I had no money, no prospects, no one was waiting for me there.’’