Patti Smith on the Death of Her Husband

Patti Smith with her husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, 1990

She ‘walked away from public life’ when she married Fred Smith, the influential guitarist of the countercultural band MC5, in 1980. She was at the height of her fame, having released her bestselling album Easter, but moved to be with him in Detroit and started a family. Passport photos from those days reveal the pair to be both strangely suburban and strangely like runaways, and I suppose that sums up the way of life Smith says they shared: domestic, ingenious, full of curious shared passions. ‘I was so happy,’ she says. ‘Time seemed like it would go on for ever. I didn’t have the concept that all this would be gone. Just like with Robert,’ she adds, thinking of Mapplethorpe. ‘I lived with Robert all those years and used to take pictures of his hands, and never took a picture of his face.’
Fred Smith died of heart failure in 1994, at the age of 45. A thunderstorm was brewing, and his wife, who has always been sensitive to meteorological shifts, felt it keenly. ‘Fred, fighting for his life, could be felt in the howling wind,’ she writes in M Train. She rushed him to hospital on Hallowe’en, and their daughter went to bed in her costume, expecting her father to see it when he came home. He never did. ‘The world,’ Smith writes, ‘seemed drained of wonder.’
In the book, Fred Smith comes across as having an almost mystical appeal. Was there something in particular that drew people to him? His widow nods, then struggles to define it. ‘He had some kind of quiet, special power, but not something I could easily describe,’ she replies. ‘I would see how men – my own brother, my father – how much they admired him, and my father wasn’t easily beguiled. He would have been a great king. I mean, in the best of ways – a benevolent king. He was just that kind of guy.’
Smith and Jesse, and her son Jackson (now 33), speak to each other about him every day. ‘And also my son and daughter are both musicians,’ she says, ‘so they magnify him. My son is really a virtuoso guitar player.’ (Jackson was married to Meg White, of the White Stripes.) ‘Sometimes he’ll be improvising a solo, and his tone… My husband had beautiful guitar tones – he wasn’t called Fred “Sonic” Smith for nothing. And Jackson, without knowing it, resonates that. My daughter, she plays piano, and she has his composing sense. Sometimes the three of us play together, and it’s beautiful. So we have various ways to keep him as part of our conversation.’
— The Telegraph - Patti Smith: 'I'm not a musician, people's concept of me is so off the mark'