Patti Smith was America’s first punk poet. Influenced by beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs as much as by rock and roll and classic literatureincluding French symbolist poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur RimbaudSmith’s emergence from the New York punk rock scene of the 1970s ushered in a new era in popular music in which academic intellect and street smarts were equally appealing.
Smith landed in New York City in the late 1960s and almost immediately struck up a friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe which would last until his death in 1989 and would also become the subject of Smith’s award-winning memoir Just Kids (2010). Smith was an early rock journalist, earning bylines inCreem and Rolling Stone,while gaining acceptance in the burgeoning punk scene at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City alongside acts such as Blondie, the Ramones, and Television, a band led by guitarist Tom Verlaine (nee Miller), who would contribute guitar to Smith’s debut album, Horses (1975).
The impact that Horsesproduced by John Cale of the Velvet Undergroundhad on the rock world cannot be understated. A new generation of musicians came to cite the album as an influence, including Morrissey and Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Courtney Love (Hole), U2, and REM’s Michael Stipe. Since its release the album has been hailed by sources such as Rolling Stone and Time as one of the greatest albums of the rock era.
With it Smith gained appreciation from her peers, including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, with whom she would collaborate on the 1978 song ‘Because the Night.’ At the time Jimmy Iovine was engineering Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and producing Smith’s Radio Ethiopia. Unsure that he could record a convincing version, Springsteen gave the song to Iovine who then gave it to Smith. She completed lyrics from what she referred to as Springsteen’s ‘mumbles,’ much of it while waiting for a phone call from her then-new boyfriend Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of the legendary Detroit band MC5.
The song gave Smith real commercial success, becoming a Top 40 hit and, later, a rock radio staple. (It was also covered, to great commercial success, by 10,000 Maniacs in 1993.)
Her relationship with Sonic Smith would intensify through the recording of 1979’s Wave, which was produced by her longtime friend Todd Rundgren (he had produced the sleeper hit Bat Out of Hell by Meat Loaf in late ‘77). Wave was a decidedly more commercial endeavor and critics were not as kind to it as they had been previous outings. Still, it contained one of her most enduring songs ‘Dancing Barefoot’ and would be her last album for nearly a decade.
Not long after Wave‘s release, she married Sonic Smith and moved to Detroit where the couple would raise two children. She remained quiet in subsequent years, releasing Dream Of Life in 1988her only album of the erato positive reviews. The record’s first single, ‘People Have The Power,’ would be revived some years later by Bruce Springsteen for the 2004 Vote For Change concerts. All the songs from Dream Of Life were co-written by Smith and her husband. The cover photo was taken by Mapplethorpe whose AIDS diagnosis had occurred during the creation of the album. He would die a year later.
She continued to write with her husband and raise their children but she would remain out of the spotlight until Gone Again in 1996. Two years earlier she had lost two significant men in her lifehusband Fred and brother Tod Smith. She’d also lost former bandmate Richard Sohl in 1990 and close friend Mapplethorpe in 1989. She was equally struck by Kurt Cobain’s suicide, also in 1994, which influenced some of the lyrics on the album. (Gone Againfeatures a guest turn from singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, who would drown less than a year after the record’s release.)
The album featured a wealth of material written by Smith and longtime bandmate (and fellow rock critic) Lenny Kaye, as well as material she had penned with her late husband. (Namely ‘Summer Cannibals,’ the first and only single from Gone Again.)
From that point forward, Smith released a succession of acclaimed albums including Peace and Noise (1997), Gung Ho (2000), Trampin’(2004), Twelve (2007), and Banga (2012). She also released The Coral Sea with Kevin Shields (of My Bloody Valentine) in 2008, which featured her reading from her 1996 poem of the same name.
Smith was named a Commander of Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 2005 and elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2010, her memoir about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
She is the author of several books of poems and is presently working on a crime novel.
Patti Smith selected discography:
The most recognizable of all her albums, it is one of the quintessential recordings by an artist emerging from the New York City music scene of the 1970s. It features her version of the Them classic ‘Gloria’ and ‘Free Money,’ a track that was covered by Sammy Hagar on his 1977 self-titled release.
Easter (1978) (as the Patti Smith Group)
Like most of Smith’s releases Easter (appropriately enough) features lyrics rife with reliagious imagery and nods to Smith’s literary background. It also contains ‘Because the Night’ co-written by Bruce
Springsteen, about her budding affair with musician and future husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith.
Wave (1979) (as the Patti Smith Group)
Produced by studio wunderkind Todd Rundgren, this record has its fans although some were eager to deride it for being ‘too commercial’ (a charge leveled against virtually every record Smith has made since Horses). It features one of her best known songs, ‘Dancing Barefoot’ and her love letter to the man who inspired much of ‘Because the Night’ via ‘Frederick.’
Gone Again (1996)
Smith returned with all guns blazing on this outing. Led by the single ‘Summer Cannibals’ (which recalls the Tennessee Williams play Suddenly Last Summer), its titular track and cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Wicked Messenger’ are not to be missed.
Opening with the blistering ‘Jubilee’ and continuing in a similar fashion all the way to the end (including a 12-minute opus called ‘Radio Baghdad’), this is as good as anything from Smith’s first wavesomething that places here deeper in a rarefied waters among a handful of artists whose work has remained relentlessly visionary throughout their careers.
This features some of Smith’s best, most relaxed singing and even perhaps her most sentimental song to date, ‘April Fool.’ She pays tribute to
fallen singer Amy Winehouse via ‘This Is The Girl’ and delivers a powerful take on Neil Young’s ‘After the Gold Rush.’