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Punk Rock Icon Patti Smith Receives IAH Medal at Penn State

From the time of her rise to fame in the 1970s, Patti Smith has been credited with the transcendence of musical genres, poor circumstance, gender norms, and even, it seems, time itself. But don’t ask her personally about these acts of excellence without expecting a bemused chuckle in response.

Last night the Institute for the Arts and Humanities awarded its eighth annual “Medal for Distinguished Achievement” award to punk rock pioneer Patti Smith. The medal presentation was followed by with an eclectic Q&A session and, of course, a highly-anticipated acoustic performance by Smith and long-time guitarist Lenny Kaye.

Age seems to have no diminishing hold over Smith, who delivered a passionate performances of “Because the Night,” “People have the Power,” and a handful of other pieces. Her voice has actually grown, it seems, more refined with age following a staunchly different trajectory than most of her 60s/70s rock-and-roll compatriots. Perhaps this can be linked to her conscious avoidance of the drug and alcohol scene that was so prevalent in her time. This would be an obvious and easy connection to make, however, the still-more obvious source of  Smith’s continued success is her unwavering dedication to her “work.”

Throughout the duration of the medal ceremony and performance, Smith only dropped the f-bomb one time. However, the same cannot be said of the English/Women’s Studies class, “Patti Smith, Punk, Poetry, Performance” that got to hang out over coffee with Smith and Kaye yesterday afternoon. Smith got pretty real with the students, never abandoning her eternal punk-rock persona.

Smith expressed her feelings about the current state of the world, calling out the “bullshit” of environmental destruction and political corruption. She also adopted unexpected optimism in regard to the potential of the rising generations, likening the digital age to the “new frontier,” a “Wild West.”

“We’re living in a time that never existed before. This is the era where everybody creates,” she said.

With a mind equally rooted in William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, and Hans Christian Andersen, Smith actually considers her writing her most serious art form, devoting three or more hours to words every day. Music is something quite separate.

“That’s just public service that I get paid for,” Smith said.

Either way, Smith has contributed to the canon of art with music, poetry, photography, drawings, paintings, and prose, pouring her entire self into the creation of her art.

“Creative energy is one thing, having a  great imagination  is another thing, and the third thing is manual labor,” she said. “Art is work.”

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