Punk rock’s poet laureate Patti Smith ranks among the most influential female rock & rollers of all time. Ambitious, unconventional, and challenging, Smith’s music was hailed as the most exciting fusion of rock and poetry since Bob Dylan’s heyday. If that hybrid remained distinctly uncommercial for much of her career, it wasn’t a statement against accessibility so much as the simple fact that Smith followed her own muse wherever it took her — from structured rock songs to free-form experimentalism, or even completely out of music at times. Her most avant-garde outings drew a sense of improvisation and interplay from free jazz, though they remained firmly rooted in noisy, primitive, three-chord rock & roll. She was a powerful concert presence, singing and chanting her lyrics in an untrained but expressive voice, whirling around the stage like an ecstatic shaman delivering incantations. A regular at CBGB’s during the early days of New York punk, she was the first artist of the bunch to land a record deal and release an album, even beating the Ramones to the punch. The artiness and the amateurish musicianship of her work both had a major impact on the punk movement, whether in New York or England, whether among her contemporaries (Television, Richard Hell) or followers. What’s more, Smith became an icon to subsequent generations of female rockers. She never relied on sex appeal for her success — she was unabashedly intellectual and creatively uncompromising, and her appearance was usually lean, hard, and androgynous. She also never made an issue of her gender, calling attention to herself as an artist, not a woman; she simply dressed and performed in the spirit of her aggressive, male rock role models, as if no alternative had ever occurred to her. In the process, she obliterated the expectations of what was possible for women in rock, and stretched the boundaries of how artists of any gender could express themselves.
Smith was born in Chicago on December 30, 1946; her parents moved to Philadelphia when she was three, and then to the nearby, less urban town of Woodbury, New Jersey, when she was nine. Something of an outcast in high school, she found salvation in the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, the writings of the Beats, and the music of soul and rock artists like James Brown, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, and especially Bob Dylan. She attended the Glassboro State Teachers College, but dropped out due to an unplanned pregnancy. She gave the baby up for adoption and took a job on a factory assembly line, thus saving enough money to move to New York City in 1967. She worked in a bookstore and met art student/future photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who became her lover despite living most of his adult life as a homosexual. In 1969, Smith went to Paris with her sister, busking on the streets as a performance artist. Upon her return, she moved into the Chelsea Hotel with Mapplethorpe for a brief period, then became involved with underground theater, not to mention playwright Sam Shepard; she co-authored and co-starred with him in the somewhat autobiographical play Cowboy Mouth in 1971. During this time, she was also working on her poetry, and met guitarist Lenny Kaye, also a Bleecker Street record store clerk and rock critic. Kaye had written a magazine essay on doo wop that impressed Smith, and the two found that they shared a love of early and obscure rock & roll. When Smith gave a public poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church in February 1971, she invited Kaye to accompany her on the electric guitar for three pieces.
Over the next two years, Smith continued to perform in plays and poetry readings; she also wrote for several rock magazines, published two volumes of her poems, and began contributing lyrics to the literary-minded metal band Blue Öyster Cult. She and Kaye performed again in late 1973, and their partnership grew into a much more regular occurrence. The following year, they added pianist/keyboardist Richard Sohl, and their performances grew into unique blends of Beat-influenced poetry, improvised spoken word with equally spontaneous musical backing, and covers of rock & roll oldies. Regular gigs around New York cemented their growing reputation, and in June 1974, with Mapplethorpe paying for studio time, the band cut a groundbreaking independent single, “Hey Joe” b/w “Piss Factory.” The former added a monologue about Patty Hearst, while the latter recounted Smith’s stint as an assembly line worker in vivid detail, incorporating lyrical snippets from the rock records in which she took solace. Both songs featured Television guitarist Tom Verlaine, who briefly became Smith’s lover, and along with Television’s own “Little Johnny Jewel,” the single helped kickstart the independent, D.I.Y. aesthetic that remains punk rock’s hallmark even today.
In late 1974, Smith and her band played a few gigs on the West Coast. When they returned, they added guitarist/bassist Ivan Kral to flesh out their sound, and joined Television as part of the emerging new-rock scene at CBGB’s, a dive bar in the Bowery. Their two-month stand in early 1975 sometimes featured drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, who became a regular member, and attracted the notice of Arista Records president Clive Davis, who offered Smith a record deal. She entered the studio with ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale serving as producer, and in late 1975 released her debut album, Horses, which was essentially the first art-punk album. Rapturously received by most critics, Horses offered unorthodox covers of party rock tunes like “Gloria” and “Land of 1000 Dances” (Smith opened the former with the declaration “Jesus died for someone’s sins, but not mine”), as well as a mix of original songs and lengthy, improv-driven spoken word pieces. Despite nonexistent airplay, it sold well enough to climb into the Top 50.
The 1976 follow-up, Radio Ethiopia, was credited to the Patti Smith Group, and placed some of Smith’s most straightforward rock songs (“Ask the Angels,” “Pumping [My Heart]”) directly alongside some of her most experimental, free-form pieces (the title track). In early 1977, Smith was performing in Tampa, Florida, when she twirled herself right off the stage; she broke two vertebrae in her neck and was forced to take some time off to recuperate. During that period, she wrote a book of poetry titled Babel. She returned to recording in 1978 with Easter, a more accessible nod in the direction of album rock radio, which featured her writing collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, “Because the Night.” The ballad climbed to number 13 on the pop charts and sent Easter into the Top 20; plus, 10,000 Maniacs’ 1993 cover of “Because the Night” became their biggest pop hit and made the song something of a standard for the Lilith Fair generation. Easter also contained Smith’s most notorious cut, “Rock n Roll Nigger,” which attempted to redefine the term as a badge of honor for anyone who lived outside the establishment. Some critics roasted her for the conceit in the ensuing controversy, but the song achieved a measure of redemption when it was included on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack in 1994.
1979’s Wave found Smith’s sound becoming increasingly polished, thanks in part to new producer Todd Rundgren; however, many reviewers found it her least developed set of material. Smith had been living with Blue Öyster Cult keyboardist Allen Lanier for some time, but now took up with MC5/Sonic’s Rendezvous Band guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith; indeed, Wave’s “Dancing Barefoot” and “Frederick” were both dedicated to him. The couple married in 1980, and Smith retired to a life of domesticity near Detroit, raising two children with her husband. In 1988, Smith re-emerged for a one-off album, Dream of Life, on which Fred co-wrote all the material and also played guitar, with backing by Smith Group members Sohl and Daugherty. However, it wasn’t intended to establish a full-fledged comeback, and Smith disappeared from music again following its release. She continued to write, however, completing a poetry collection called Woolgathering (among other projects), and gave occasional readings.
Sadly, in the span of a few years, Smith lost some of her closest associates: longtime friend and album-cover photographer Mapplethorpe died in 1989, followed a year later by pianist Richard Sohl. At the end of 1994, both her husband and her brother Todd died of heart failure, within a month of one another. A grief-stricken Smith returned to performing as a means of therapy, and re-formed the Patti Smith Group — with Kaye, Daugherty, and new bassist Tony Shanahan — for a few small-scale tours aimed at reconnecting with her audience and re-orienting herself to the concert stage. In 1996, the group entered the studio and recorded Gone Again, which featured a new second guitarist in Oliver Ray and guest spots from Tom Verlaine, John Cale, and Jeff Buckley. Gone Again took a stronger, more optimistic tone than might have been expected, and was well received by many critics. Following closely on its heels, Peace and Noise appeared in 1997 and earned a Grammy nomination for the track “1959”; a much darker affair than its predecessor, it took into account the deaths of two more of Smith’s inspirations, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Smith returned in 2000 with Gung Ho, the most aggressive-sounding and socially conscious album of her comeback; the song “Glitter in Their Eyes” also earned her a second Grammy nomination.
Smith and Arista parted ways in 2002, with the label issuing Land (1975-2002), a double-disc compilation of hits and rarities, as a wrap-up. Smith subsequently signed with Columbia. Her first album for the label, Trampin’, appeared in spring 2004. Horses received the deluxe two-CD treatment in 2005 when it was reissued by Arista in a 30th Anniversary Legacy Edition. On March 12, 2007, Smith was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame alongside Van Halen, the Ronettes, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, and R.E.M. She released an album of typically eclectic covers, Twelve, that same year. She was the subject of Stephen Sebring’s 2008 acclaimed documentary, Patti Smith: Dream of Life; the film played the festival circuit worldwide as well as art house theaters and was released on DVD. Smith also authored a memoir entitled Just Kids about her life with friend and collaborator, the late photographer Mapplethorpe. It was published in 2010; it won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction for that year. In 2011, Sony Legacy released a single-disc, career-spanning compilation, Outside Society, featuring recordings from her Arista and Columbia catalogs. Just after the recording was released, Smith, along with the Kronos Quartet, won Sweden’s prestigious Polar Prize for “devoting her life to art in all its forms.” Smith also contributed both a 12″ x 12″ original print and an audio track to the ultra-limited edition, multi-artist Legacy box set 15 Minutes: Homage to Andy Warhol. Smith released Banga, her eleventh studio album, after a hiatus of more than eight years in the early summer of 2012. Along with her regular band, guests included her two children, Jackson and Jessi, Tom Verlaine, and Jack Petruzzelli. ~ Steve Huey