In the early '70s, painter-turned-poet and sometime playwright (Cowboy Mouth, with Sam Shepard) Patti Smith began to set her poems to the electric guitar backup of erstwhile rock writer Lenny Kaye. By the end of the decade, Patti Smith had proved remarkably influential, releasing what may be the first punk-rock record (the independent 1974 single "Hey Joe" b/w "Piss Factory") and claiming the rock-musician-as-shaman role previously reserved by males. After a nine-year hiatus, Smith returned to recording with the 1988 album Dream of Life, the work of a more mellow, but still rebellious songwriter. Another eight years would pass before her second artistic comeback, marked by a trio of acclaimed albums released in quick succession, which found her fighting her way out of a period of intense personal grief stemming from the loss of several of the most important people in her life.

Smith, who grew up in Pitman, New Jersey, first began performing her poetry backed by Kaye and pianist Richard Sohl in 1971. Along with Television, she helped put New York’s punk-rock landmark CBGB on the map. As her music grew toward rock & roll, she enlisted Ivan Kral on guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums. This lineup recorded Horses (#47, 1975), produced by John Cale, an original mixture of exhortatory rock & roll (“Gloria,” “Land of 1000 Dances”), Smith’s poetry, vocal mannerisms inspired by Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison, and the band’s energetically rudimentary playing. Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas oversaw the Patti Smith Group’s second album, Radio Ethiopia (#122, 1976), and the result was a more bombastic guitar-heavy record, tempered by the title cut, the height of Smith’s improvised free rock.

A fall from a Florida stage hospitalized Smith with neck injuries in early 1977, during which time she wrote her fourth book of poetry, Babel (Seventh Heaven, Witt, and Kodak preceding it). When she was able to perform again, the result was her first Top 20 LP, Easter (#20, 1978), produced by Jimmy Iovine, and her only hit single, “Because the Night” (#13, 1978), written by Bruce Springsteen and revised by Smith. She then began her withdrawal from rock & roll - Wave (#18, 1979) was overtly religious. Soon after its release, Smith moved to Detroit to live with her new husband, ex-MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, and except for rare local appearances, dropped out of the music scene altogether. She and Smith, who died in late 1994, had two children together.

After the breakup of the Patti Smith Group, Sohl remained close to Smith, and Daugherty played with a variety of people, from folkies like the Roches and Willie Nile to Tom Verlaine, the Waterboys, and the Church. Ivan Kral put in a stint with Iggy Pop (on the LP Soldier). Lenny Kaye led several bands, beginning with the Lenny Kaye Connection, and produced such artists as Suzanne Vega.

In 1988 Smith’s comeback album, Dream of Life (#65), featured her husband (who coproduced the album with Iovine), Daugherty, and Sohl. Its songs included a call-to-arms, “People Have the Power,” which got some radio airplay, as well as lullabies for her children. Smith did not tour behind the album, but five years later, on a hot summer night in 1993, she made a rare appearance at Central Park’s Summerstage, reading her poetry (including “Piss Factory”) and singing a few songs a cappella. She dedicated her performance to two close friends who’d recently died, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Sohl. In 1994 W.W. Norton published a book of Smith’s poetry, Early Work: 1970–1979. She was also at work on a new album, but withdrew from it when her husband died of a heart attack at age 45. A month later, her younger brother (and former road manager), Todd, also died of a heart attack.

Determined to carry on as a tribute to the encouragement her husband and brother had shown her before their passing, Smith performed a string of opening dates with Bob Dylan in late 1995 and issued the intensely personal Gone Again in 1996. The album - which featured Kaye, Daugherty, and new band members Tony Shanahan on bass and Oliver Ray on guitar as well as Jeff Buckley, John Cale, and Television’s Tom Verlaine - offered a potent mix of songs about mourning and rebirth, reflecting Smith’s belief that the beauty of life survives death. Highlights included the title track and the rocker “Summer Cannibals,” both cowritten with her husband, and “About a Boy,” a bittersweet paean to the late Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. The same year saw the release of The Coral Sea, her epic prose poem dedicated to Mapplethorpe, as well as her vocal turn on the song “New Test Leper” from R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Armed with the basic guitar chords her husband taught her shortly before his death, Smith continued to write new songs at a steady pace, releasing Peace and Noise in 1997 and Gung Ho three years later. Both albums found her expanding her focus beyond personal mourning to political reflections on subjects ranging from the Vietnam War to the Heaven’s Gate cult and AIDS to American slavery. Gung Ho featured guest turns by Michael Stipe and Smith’s teenage son Jackson, who played guitar on the song “Persuasion.” In 1998 Doubleday published a comprehensive collection of Smith’s lyrics, Patti Smith Complete: Lyrics, Reflections & Notes for the Future.

from The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001)




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