Patti Smith, godmother of punk,
wins award for her autobiography
For a musician who virtually dropped out of public life for almost two decades, Patti Smith has become remarkably ubiquitous. Barely a month passes without her being graced with a new award or feted at a Manhattan cultural event.
The latest accolade for the 63-year-old "godmother of punk" was the National Book Award for non-fiction, which she won on Wednesday night for her memoir of her bohemian days in the Chelsea Hotel with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
It marked the fulfilment of Smith's lifelong dream to be a writer, or as she put it at the awards ceremony at Scribner's bookstore in New York, "of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf". (She has, however, produced several books of poetry and some photography collections.)
The cheers that greeted the announcement of her victory were a far cry from the 16 years she spent in semi-retirement during the 1980s and most of the 1990s, when she retreated to the outskirts of Detroit to bring up her family. She returned to performing, with the encouragement of friends such as Bob Dylan, beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Michael Stipe of REM, only in 1996, and in the past three years has enjoyed a cultural blooming in some ways even richer than her heyday in the 1970s.
Next year she will release her 11th album, 36 years after her debut album Horses, which, with its iconic Mapplethorpe portrait of her on the cover, propelled her to countercultural fame. Dream of Life, a documentary on her life and work that involved her being followed around with a camera for more than a decade by the fashion photographer Steven Sebring, was released in 2008 and continues to do the rounds of art cinemas and music venues, often with live performances by Smith.
Her rise as an author provides the unexpected icing on the cake of her cultural rebirth. Just Kids is Smith's keeping of a promise that she made to her lover, friend and muse, Mapplethorpe, as he lay dying from Aids in 1989. "I promised Robert the day before he died that I would write it … I wanted to write a book that he would appreciate," she told the music daily Spinner.
The book draws on the copious notes that she kept from childhood onwards. She told Spinner that she went back over "Robert's letters to me, my daily diaries of when I was 20 and when I lived at the Chelsea. I wrote down what happened, every day. I have little notations like 'Cut Robert's hair,' 'Met Janis Joplin', 'Got a new book store job', 'Met Salvador Dali'."
The book ends as she is on the brink of fame, and so does not touch on her breakthrough moment, the top 20 hit Because the Night, which she adapted from an original song that was passed on to her by Bruce Springsteen.
• This article was amended on 25 November 2010. The original gave Patti Smith's age as 65. This has been corrected. A headline has also been amended so that it no longer says this is Smith's first book; a line has also been inserted in the story to clarify a remark by Smith that seemed to suggest she had produced no other books.