A punk icon in jeans and leather jacket, she added ecstasy and spiritual exaltation to the poet-songwriter equation.
She was a weird icon from the start, a girl who dressed like a boy, a poet
with Keith Richards’ hair and a strut copied from Bob Dylan in “Don’t Look
Back,” a white woman who called herself a nigger, a darling of the
avant-garde who hit the pop charts in 1975 without modifying her vision in
the slightest, then abdicated her stardom when she found better things to
do. Her first album, “Horses,” came out nearly a quarter-century ago and is
commonly short-listed as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, but you’re unlikely to hear any of it on classic-rock radio: In the mental jukebox
of the populace, Patti Smith is represented, if at all, by her one hit
single, “Because the Night” — naturally, the most conventional song of all
her ’70s output.
When I was in high school in the suburbs, in the early-’80s, Patti Smith was
no kind of icon. Musically, she didn’t jibe with buzz-saw punk, ominously danceable
new wave or pasteurized FM radio rock; she evaded the jury-rigged
radar of adolescent rebellion. Teen rebels, of course, generally want an
existing “countercultural” pack to join, complete with wardrobe and hairdo
guidelines. Even if Patti Smith had not recently stopped making records (and
even if we’d known to listen to the ones she had made), she was too much of
a misfit for the misfits to embrace.
In the summer of 1984, I was 18, renting an airless furnished room in the
Rochester ghetto, making less than a living and feeling, in
depressive-undergraduate fashion, alienated from everyone. One
day the eerie silver photo on the cover of Smith’s “Radio Ethiopia”
beckoned from a used-record bin — she’s sitting in profile on a tenement
floor, lips parted, and the portrait challenges her own description of
Television’s Tom Verlaine as having “the most beautiful neck in rock ‘n’
roll.” By the time I bought it, she’d already been out of the music
business for five years, but I didn’t know that, and it didn’t matter. The
album opens with a blast of guitars and Smith’s one-word call to arms:
“Move!” It’s not an incitement to dance, make out or fight in the streets,
but to emerge, to indulge, to question, to live: “Ask the angels who they’re
calling/Go ask the angels if they’re calling to thee”; “Everybody wants to
be reeling/And baby baby I’ll show you the way.” She was unclassifiable, but
she blasted that room open by suggesting all kinds of freedom.
Patti Smith was born in 1946 and grew up in working-class South Jersey. A
bout with scarlet fever at age 7 left her with recurring hallucinations. She
pursued religion for much of her childhood but never caught it — her
problem was not with God, but with the constrictions imposed by organized
faith. In her teens, she instead embraced Dylan, the Rolling Stones and,
pivotally, the visionary poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. She didn’t know yet that
she was going to be a poet, much less a singer.
After a brief stint working in a toy factory, two years in college and a
timeout to have a baby, which she gave up for adoption at birth, she moved
to New York in 1967, with the intention, she later said, of becoming an
artist’s mistress. The artist she found was Robert Mapplethorpe, also young,
hungry and determined to make his mark. Following a period of Brooklyn squalor,
during which she drew and painted, Smith spent a few months in Paris, then
moved with Mapplethorpe into hipster central, the Chelsea Hotel.
and Mapplethorpe soon broke up (his homosexuality was presumably a stumbling
block), they remained close. She began writing poetry, acted in absurdist
theater, collaborated on the play “Cowboy Mouth” with Sam Shepard, became
increasingly well known on the downtown poetry circuit, published books,
wrote swashbuckling rock criticism and, over the course of several years
between 1971 and 1974, gave readings at which she was accompanied by
guitarist Lenny Kaye, eventually adding pianist Richard Sohl and second
guitarist Ivan Kral.
Much of Smith’s poetry is in the Jack Kerouac vein of spontaneous bop
ephemera. Her streams of lowercase “babel” tend toward self-indulgence — on
paper. See her live. In Central Park three years ago, she came onstage late,
apologizing that we’d been waiting for her mom to show up. Patti Smith is a
lot funnier than her records would lead you to believe. She flipped through
her book “Early Work” for a while, but couldn’t find the right page. Somebody
shouted out a number. She dutifully looked, then rolled her eyes: “That page
is blank. You trying to tell me something?”
My friends and I were charmed and apprehensive; we weren’t there
to listen to poems. She found her page and, while the band waited,
gave a purely electrifying rock ‘n’ roll performance of “Piss Factory,” from
her first single, recorded in 1974. It details with giddy venom her hatred
of the factory grind she experienced at 17. She won’t accept this life, she’s taking the next train to New York City, she’s going to be a big star; her
voice rises steadily in pitch, grows faster, angrier; she concludes
defiantly, “Oh — watch me now!” (David Bowie had ended “Star,” his 1972
statement of purpose, with the same words: The language of ambition is
In early 1975, Smith began playing regularly at CBGB, a biker bar nestled
amid Bowery flophouses. As Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s scabrously
entertaining oral history of American punk, “Please Kill Me,” makes plain,
the punk revolution CBGB hosted had individual precedents in the Velvet
Underground, the MC5 and the Stooges, all of whom had taken distinctly
anticommercial stances and — surprise — unequivocally failed to win a mass
audience. Their successors in the protopunk parade, the New York Dolls, had
ascended to downtown notoriety in the early-’70s, but the American market
wasn’t ready yet for garage rock in lipstick and platform shoes.
1975, subcultural gravity converged on CBGB, attracted by a small group of
rockers — notably Television, the Ramones and Smith — who had little in
common besides a commitment to ignore limitations. Punk was not a single
style, but a boundary-crashing attitude. You could be a punk journalist, a
punk painter, a punk poet. Soon enough, of course, punk would be codified
into a canon of stylistic tics, few of which Smith indulged in, but it’s
always worth remembering that the central motivation was to escape limits,
not to invent a new musical cage. As she said once, talking about “Piss
Factory,” “What is punk rock, anyway? Is it like, I’m writing something just
to make a bunch of people with weird hair happy? I wrote it because I was
concerned about the common man, and I was trying to remind them they had a
While she earned her rent as a writer and performer, Patti Smith was always,
before anything, a fan. Her early sets included at least as many covers as
originals, including Smokey Robinson’s “The Hunter Gets Captured by the
Game,” Lou Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes” and “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time
Together,” the Who’s “My Generation” and everybody’s “Louie Louie.” Though
she borrowed some vocal mannerisms, it was the attitudes and looks of her
readily acknowledged heroes that seduced her as much as their songs — Dylan’s cockiness and mystery; the sinister sensuality of the Stones and Jim
Morrison; everything about Jimi Hendrix.
Smith’s models were all male, by
default rather than deliberation. The only solo female rock star to precede
her (as opposed to singer in a male band or packaged pop chanteuse) had been
Janis Joplin, who provided a small example for a writer who, at first, couldn’t carry a tune without bruising it. Smith wore loose T-shirts, jeans and a
leather jacket without trying to make a statement of androgyny. She knew
what looked cool, even if no other girl looked that way.
Following in the footsteps of Dylan and Reed, Smith was not the first to
explode preconceptions of what pop lyrics could be. What she added into the
poet-songwriter equation was ecstasy — not just visceral thrill, the
standard goal of rock, but spiritual epiphany, a striving for communion
with the beyond, which in the abstract sounds like the worst kind of
pretension, but with Smith it was heartfelt. “Horses,” the first album to
emerge from the CBGB class of ’75, is full of gestures toward
transcendence — visionary riffs involving everything from love and money
through burning bats and death by drowning; and the music itself, a
swirling, driving assemblage anchored not by garage guitar but by Sohl’s
“Land” contains in nine and a half minutes everything splendid and
perverse about Smith: She whispers, croons, intones and sighs about a boy
named Johnny, who is apparently raped in a locker room; Johnny has a vision
of horses; then we’re in the land of a thousand dances, which may or may not
have anything to do with Johnny; Johnny may or may not cut his throat by the
sea. But when Smith belts the party cry “Go Rimbaud!” and gleefully sings,
“And the name of that place is I like it like that, I like it like that,”
she circumvents reason, tapping into that ecstasy by trumpeting the failure of language to express it, as in Sufi poetry.
She works the same trick
throughout the album, in the rollicking “Redondo Beach,” “Kimberly” and “Gloria,” which achieves its thrill not in its opening kiss-off to Jesus
or because it’s a song of lust for a girl, but in the way she holds off for
more than half the song before finally releasing us into the chorus,
breaking the title down into letters, which was the gimmicky hook of Them’s
original version, but then playing with the letters — “I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I” –
until they become pure sound.
The follow-up, 1976′s “Radio Ethiopia,” is a crunchier, messier work. Smith
played guitar on it, though she didn’t actually know how: Welcome to punk
rock. On the other hand, her voice is much surer; she not only hits her
notes, but swoops effortlessly from lilting lullaby to Shangri-la bravado to Buddy Holly hiccup, sometimes in a single line. To
the public and to most critics, it was a comedown from the Top 50 “Horses”;
she was castigated for slipping into plain hard rock on the one hand and
impenetrable abstraction on the other. But this is the one Patti Smith album
on which the band sounds like her worthy foil, with enough production bite
behind it to challenge Smith’s elastic voice. Again, she bleeds meaning out
of words through repetition — “wild, wild, wild, wild” over and over in
“Ask the Angels,” and “total abandon, total abandon” again and again in
“Pumping (My Heart).” “Poppies” is about drugs, but the clearest indication
that she’s not for them is her idiot-junkie imitation, “It was rilly greaat,
maaan.” The epigraph on the back, “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all,”
effectively describes the music’s occasionally awkward but always warranted
stabs and dives. Cumulatively, even more than “Horses,” “Radio Ethiopia” is
a harrowing, ravishing encyclopedia of exaltations, though I’ll admit to
In January 1977, Smith tumbled off a Florida stage while doing her dervish
whirl to “Ain’t It Strange”: “Don’t get dizzy do not fall now,” go the
lyrics. She broke two vertebrae in her neck and wound up convalescing for
several months, during which she wrote a book of poetry, “Babel,” and
prepared her third album, “Easter.” Released in 1978, “Easter” moved Smith
even further toward mainstream rock, though without pandering. The arena
anthems “Till Victory” and “Because the Night” (co-written with Bruce
Springsteen) sonically skirt Jefferson Starship territory, and she was
rewarded with her highest-charting record yet.
Having infiltrated the ears
of mainstream America, Smith pried them open with the hypnotic faux-Plains
Indian chant “Ghost Dance,” and “Babelogue,” a duet for swaggering poet and
audience that begins at a boastful pitch with “I don’t fuck much with
the past, but I fuck plenty with the future,” and crescendoes through
glorious nonsense to the finish line: “I have not sold myself to God.” In
the searing “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger” and in interviews, she mounted a misguided
campaign to reclaim the word “nigger” for all people “outside of society,”
starting with herself; there were few takers. Politics was never her strong
Much of the material on “Easter” had been in Smith’s repertoire for years,
and the songs that were new seemed more specifically about love and God, as
if she were narrowing the parameters of a personal quest. Around 1978, she
found what she was looking for in the person of Fred “Sonic” Smith, former
guitarist for the MC5. Though she’d had relationships with other intense
artists — among them Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard, Tom Verlaine and Allen
Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult, with whom she’d lived for years — she now
recognized her future, and it was to raise a family with Fred, not expend
her energy on the road and in the studio. The 1979 album “Wave” was a weak
wave goodbye, though with plenty of good moments. “Dancing Barefoot” may be
her best song, and in the stomping “Revenge,” she tosses off a couplet that
would have done Muddy Waters proud: “I gave you a wristwatch, baby/You
wouldn’t even give me the time of day.”
And that was it. She married Fred Smith, moved to the suburbs of Detroit
and had two kids. In 1988, she and Fred released “Dream of Life,” which
disappointed fans and was ignored by everybody else, in spite of a great
single, “People Have the Power.” Nestled in an over-lush production, the rest
of the songs seemed complacent rather than ecstatic; domestic tranquility
resulted in ho-hum music. She didn’t tour, and within a few months it was as
if the album had never happened.
Death brought Patti Smith back. Robert Mapplethorpe died in 1989, pianist
Richard Sohl in 1990. In 1994 came the suicide of Kurt Cobain, one of many
younger rockers to cite Smith as an influence, whose writhings on the hook
of fame she had watched sympathetically. And near the end of that year, the
hearts of Fred “Sonic” Smith and her brother, Todd, gave out within two
months of each other. Strafed by grief, Smith plunged back into music. She
had given a small handful of mostly non-singing performances in the ’90s, but
in 1995 she assembled a band again, including old stalwarts Lenny Kaye and
drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, and featuring a young guitarist named Oliver Ray.
“Gone Again,” the terrific album she released in
1996, finds her fully in the fray again, grappling with mysteries. “About a
Boy,” her elegy for Cobain, is the kind of electric-guitar freakout she hadn’t sponsored since “Radio Ethiopia,” but much of the album is folksier, in a
Carter Family rather than a Joan Baez way: A slightly sinister fervor
mingles with Smith’s determination to survive. In “Beneath the Southern
Cross,” though, she allows naked optimism to radiate through sorrow, and the
result is the album’s masterpiece and her most affecting song ever.
A year later, in 1997, she released “Peace and Noise,” informed by the
deaths of two more friends and mentors, Allen Ginsberg and William S.
Burroughs. It’s a dense record, devoid of glee, tough to listen to all the
way through, but every time I do it draws me further in. Smith’s voice keeps
getting darker and fuller, and she sounds like a stern angel of judgment on
droning, baleful, minor-key songs with titles like “Death Singing,” “Dead
City” and “Last Call” (about the Heaven’s Gate suicides). “1959″ reflects
her long-standing support for Tibetan Buddhists, and the CD booklet pictures
her and the band in the company of the Dalai Lama. By and large, “Peace and
Noise” sounds more like Christian-period Dylan than like “Horses,” which is
to Smith’s credit — she’s still capable of changing tack and getting
somewhere new that’s worth the trip, which is more than can be said for most
rock performers over 50.
And she’s all over the place now. “Patti Smith Complete,” a gorgeous
coffee-table book of lyrics, notes and photos, just came out in paperback. A
clumsy, salacious biography by Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley was
published in September. A new album is due in early 2000. Patti Smith may
have a hard time singing, “I’m so goddamn young” with a straight face
anymore, but she can probably still do a more persuasive “My Generation”
than Roger Daltrey’s been able to for the last 20 years. In 1988, she told
an interviewer, “The greatest thing about having done ["Dream of Life"],
besides having had the opportunity to work with Fred, is having created
something that can be inspiring or useful to people in some way. Even if it
just helps them have good dreams.” She’s accomplished this goal in spades
throughout her career, and before she burns out, sucks up or runs down, she’ll do it again.
Greg Villepique plays guitar in the band Aerial Love Feed. More Greg Villepique.
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