Patti Smith Fights the Good Fight
By Vish Khanna
The life and work of Patti Smith is marked by artistic innovation and personal tragedy. A key figure in the development of New York’s influential punk scene in the mid-‘70s, Smith’s high-minded poetry and ferocious stage presence deeply affected how women were perceived in the music biz. Leaving the limelight in 1980 to raise a family, Smith’s return to public performance was precipitated by the deaths of her closest friends and muses. A creative renaissance over the past ten years, however, has left Patti Smith confident about her role and purpose. “I don’t feel at this point that I’m going to change the world or the landscape of music,” she admits. “Perhaps I made my youthful contribution in that pursuit but I can keep working and be a good example, if that’s possible, for taking care of one’s self or survival. I’m just gonna keep working.”
1946 to 1959
Patricia Lee Smith is born in Chicago, IL on December 30, 1946 and is raised in Philadelphia, PA until she’s nine years old, when her family moves to nearby Woodbury, New Jersey. Her mother Beverly is a waitress with a passion for jazz singers, while her father Grant works in an industrial plant. Patti is the eldest of four children; two sisters, Linda and Kimberly, and a brother, Todd. She is tremendously close to her family. (kaapeli.fi) Though she is thin and sickly, Smith feels destined for greatness from an early age. An avid reader with a vivid imagination as a child, Smith’s life changes when she overhears “Tutti Fruitti” by Little Richard on her way to Bible school. (Smith, Patti. Complete 1975-2006; Lyrics, Reflections, & Notes for the Future, New York: Harper Perennial, 2006, p.19) A tomboy, Smith doesn’t identify with feminine images of the 1950s and is confused about her gender. She overcomes this insecurity after visiting a museum with her father and discovering depictions of women by Modigliani and Picasso. (Bockris, Victor, and Roberta Bayley. Patti Smith, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999, pp. 26-27) Smith becomes engaged with visual art, opera and jazz singers, as well as the character Jo March, an actress/writer, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Grant is an atheist and Beverly is a Jehovah’s Witness; Patti comes to reject organized religion and dogma. By 1959, Smith is infatuated with the plight of Tibet, its people, Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama. (Bockris, p.28)
1960 to 1965
Smith attends Deptford High School, which is racially integrated and readily befriends (and dates) her African-American classmates. Her mother buys her jazz records and Smith attends a concert by John Coltrane before being kicked out for being too young. (Bockris, p.32) She soon becomes involved in extra-curricular activities during high school, acting and singing in plays and leading social activities before graduating in the summer of 1964. Smith begins working at a toy factory soon after, a horrible experience that would later inspire her to write the poem/song “Piss Factory.” On a lunch break, she visits a nearby bookstore and buys a copy of Illuminations by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Smith becomes obsessed with Rimbaud, later calling him the first “punk poet.” (Bockris, p.36) Beverly buys her daughter a used copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan, and Smith soon has another hero to emulate. “When I was a teenager, rock’n’roll was more sexual, it was dance music,” Smith says. “As the ‘60s evolved, [rock ‘n’ roll] started evolving. Lyrically, poetically it started to reflect things we weren’t happy about, things we were rebelling against and questioning, like the Vietnam War, the lack of civil rights, and people’s experimentation with drugs. Rock’n’roll started to deeply reflect the culture in every way, not just physically, but actually spiritually, politically, and poetically. So they were a very important time, not just for myself, but to the history of rock’n’roll and its evolutionary process.” Smith attends Glassboro State Teachers College that fall, with the idea of becoming an art teacher. Smith rebels against the prescribed curriculum, guiding her students through unrelated material and using every opportunity to learn about obscure artists and experiment with her own poetry. Her academic record at Glassboro is poor at best. Smith hooks up with a writing group in Jersey and forms a lasting bond with fellow student Janet Hamill. (Bockris, p.39) Despite her father’s objections, Smith falls in love with the Rolling Stones after seeing their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Bockris, p.40; www.beatzenith.com/the_rolling_stones/leftover.htm). Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and his emerging electric sound soon captivate Smith as a well, but she continues to see herself as a visual artist.
Smith has a front row seat for a Stones show in South Jersey and, amidst the chaotic scene of screaming young teenagers, she grabs Brian Jones’ ankle to avoid being trampled. (Moore, Thurston. “Patti Smith.” Bomb, winter 1996; www.oceanstar.com) She wins a scholarship to the prestigious Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Saturday morning classes, where she adopts the fashions of the bohemian students and feels alienated from the straight-laced citizens of Jersey. In the summer of ’66, Smith discovers she is pregnant but her lover disappears.
1967 to 1968
With her parents’ support, Smith brings the baby to term in February 1967 and then immediately gives up the girl for adoption in order to pursue her goal of becoming an artist, unimpeded. Smith later credits Stones songs like “Let’s Spend the Night Together” with helping her overcome postpartum depression. (Bockris, p.45) That spring, with $16 and some art supplies to her name, Smith boards a train for New York City. Moving in with friends, she quickly finds work at a Brentano’s bookstore in midtown Manhattan. (Bockris, p.47) Smith believes becoming an artist’s mistress will help her sustain her own muse. While exploring the Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn, she stumbles upon a 19 year-old art student named Robert Mapplethorpe. (Bockris, p.49) The two become fast friends and room together in two different homes in Brooklyn. Smith works at a bookstore while Robert works on his art. “Robert and I met each other when we were quite young,” Smith recalls. “I think that he exhibited a lot of confidence in me as an artist and we both did things for each other. I was sort of the breadwinner and he worked very hard to build up his work so that he could have a future and hopefully take care of us. He provided me with self-esteem and that’s something I still draw from.” According to Smith’s friend Hamill, the couple were “enraptured by the idea of being artists…but they wanted to be rich and famous too.” (Bockris, p.51) Though she starts out painting, Smith begins drawing words instead, and an impulse for writing and performing surfaces. (Smith, p.21)
Though they connect in many ways, Smith and Mapplethorpe do not have a sex life; frustrated, Smith pursues a new lover in a young painter named Howie Michaels, which devastates Mapplethorpe, who flies to San Francisco to explore his sexuality. When he returns, he confirms his homosexuality. Smith is shaken up by Mapplethorpe’s realisation and leaves Michaels to live under the watchful eye of Hamill, who feels that Smith is suicidal. In May, Smith flees to Paris with her sister Linda “to search for Rimbaud’s ghost” and the two stay for three months. While there, they join a street theatre troupe and Smith begins performing; her obsession with art shifts dramatically to writing and reciting poetry with a strong musical and rhythmic tone. (Brockis, pp.53-54) Upon her return in July, Smith visits Mapplethorpe and discovers that, due to neglect, he has a serious gum infection. She moves them into the Chelsea Hotel, a refuge for poor and underground arts figures such as the poet William S. Burroughs and folk archivist Harry Smith. Brian Jones’s death that same month deeply affects Smith, who writes poems about him, seeing him in visions. (Brockis, p.56) Smith and Mapplethorpe eventually gain entry at Max’s Kansas City, an exclusive hipster hangout, and meet Danny Fields who once managed the MC5 and the Stooges. (Brockis, p. 58) Smith also begins to mix with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd and her first appearance before a NYC audience is in an underground theatre production of Femme Fatale, where audiences love her. (Bockris, p.62) Though she continues to impress, Smith finds acting “too confining.” (Smith, p.21) “For me, it was like having a steady job,” she explains. “I like to improvise and, in my own band, we don’t do the same show every night, we don’t have lighting cues, we don’t have loops, tapes, sound cues — we’re just an old-fashioned rock’n’roll band. I don’t like being confined to things like that. Being confined to all of the necessary elements of theatre just wasn’t right for me.” While Mapplethorpe tends to his art, Smith befriends one-time Dylan crony Bob Neuwirth, who encourages her poetry and introduces Smith to musicians like Kris Kristofferson and Janis Joplin (Smith engages in drinking contests with the latter but can’t keep up). (Brockis, 66)
Smith becomes close to poet/author/heroin addict Jim Carroll, whose acclaimed The Basketball Diaries is a bestseller. Carroll moves in with Smith and Mapplethorpe and soon becomes Smith’s lover. Though the trio of artists inspire one another, Smith and Carroll have a falling out when he refuses to stop seeing other women; they remain friends afterwards. (Bockris, p.77) Smith writes record reviews and is published by magazines like Creem and Rock Scene. (Moore, www.oceanstar.com) In the fall Smith meets her next partner in drummer (Holy Modal Rounders) and playwright Sam Shepard, and the two have a torrid, if ill-fated affair (he’s married with a child).
Smith views Shepard as a driving force in her career. After Neuwirth suggests she put her lyric style to music, Shepard uses two of Smith’s pieces in his play Mad Dog Blues. (Smith, p.21) On February 10, Smith gives her first public poetry reading, opening up for Gerard Malanga at St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery. Looking to rock’n’roll for inspiration, she recruits guitarist Lenny Kaye to join her. Fuelled by Kaye’s experimentation, Smith gives a legendarily intense performance whose melodrama simultaneously excites and disturbs the assembled crowd of poets and NYC scenesters. (Smith, p.21). “I liked performing, and I’ve always liked it,” she says. “I like being in front of people, whether it’s giving a lecture or reading poems or answering questions or singing — I enjoy interacting with people.” Shepard and Smith write and enact a play together called Cowboy Mouth and on April 29, she acts for the final time on-stage. The play’s depiction of an adulterous affair coupled with Smith’s possessiveness is too much for Shepard and, one night, he splits town suddenly, leaving Smith waiting at the curtain call, embarrassed. (Bockris, p.71) Though she’s heartbroken, the St. Mark’s reading gives Smith a reputation as a star on the rise. Rock manager Steve Paul suggests Smith pair up with guitarist Rick Derringer (a photo session of the duo occurs) and later proposes that she sing lead in Blue Öyster Cult but neither materializes, as Smith has musical ideas of her own. (Bockris, p.74) That summer, however, Smith earnestly begins writing her first book of poetry and once again lives with Mapplethorpe. Smith briefly dates musician Todd Rundgren and the first and only review she’s written that runs in Rolling Stone is of Rundgren’s Runt LP that August. (Bockris, p.76) Smith begins seeing relatively mild-mannered Blue Öyster Cult keyboardist Allen Lanier and, after the tumult of her past relationships, the calm of this union offers Smith a chance to relax and recoup her energy. She also learns much about the business side of music from her new, career-oriented lover and the two soon leave Mapplethorpe to find a place of their own in Greenwich Village. (Bockris, 78) Shortly after Creem magazine publishes Smith’s poems, she decides she’s finished reviewing other people’s records, and now expends energy exclusively on her own work. (Bockris, p.79)
In January, Smith flies to London for a poetry reading arranged by Telegraph Books, a small Boston publisher. Again, Smith mesmerises an unsuspecting audience with a charismatic, dramatic performance. That spring her first poetry book, Seventh Heaven, is published by Telegraph to rave reviews. With references to drugs and violence and tragic figures such as Joan of Arc, Amelia Earhart, and Edie Sedgwick, as well as Dylan and Stones associates, Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull, the poems have a street-news feel and the book is often cited as the birth of Smith’s oeuvre. (Bockris, p.84-85) In the summer, Smith returns to Paris with her sister Linda, making a pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s grave, where she has a vision and rids herself of all of her dead role models. In July, she watches the Stones perform the last show of their U.S. tour at Madison Square Garden and is convinced that Mick Jagger’s performance is the future of poetry. (Bockris, p.86) Smith contributes lyrics to Blue Öyster Cult’s sophomore album, Tyranny and Mutation, which will be released the following year. (allmusic.com)
After alienating Telegraph with her distant behaviour and quibbling over royalties, Smith’s second volume of poetry, Kodak, is published by Middle Earth Books in Philadelphia at the end of the year. She also befriends Andreas Brown, owner of the Gotham Book Mart, and has a gallery showing in a space above the store. (Bockris, p.92)
Smith acquires a manger in Jane Friedman, who runs a publicity firm called the Wartoke Concern. Friedman gets Smith a regular opening gig, reading poetry at the Oscar Wilde Room before the popular New York Dolls take the stage as the house band. (Bockris, p.93) Armed with stage props, megaphones, and a toy piano, Smith’s show was different and she often faced down hecklers, modelling herself after Johnny Carson and firing off sharp jokes. Smith’s poetry receives acclaim from the likes of Allen Ginsberg and is analyzed in the Oxford Literary Review. (Bockris, p.94) In September, Gotham Book Mart publishes Smith’s third poetry book, WITT. (oceanstar.com)
In December, Smith opens a four-night stand by Phil Ochs and calls upon Lenny Kaye to once again accompany her on guitar but, unlike the St. Mark’s reading, Kaye plays during her entire set. (Bockris, p.98) “Probably the longest running collaboration I’ve had is with Lenny Kaye and we did not have a personal involvement,” Smith says. “If you look at the length of my friendship with Lenny, it’s from 1971 and the basis of it is that we can work together, as well as communicate; that’s important to me.”
Smith and Kaye decide to add keyboards to their space-y sound and the classically trained Richard “DNV” Sohl passes the audition, as much for his skill as his free attitude. (Bockris, p.99) The trio practice for hours every day, growing close, and developing strong word-of-mouth for their unprecedented sound. Feeling alone in her mission to alter rock’n’roll, Smith has an epiphany in April when she visits the emerging bohemian hotspot, CBGB, for the first time to see her friend, fellow poet Richard Hell, perform in his band Television. Their raw sound is often cited as the harbinger of New York punk and Smith is overwhelmed by them. Smith recalls the energy in the city with fondness and frustration. “Certainly it’s impossible now to come to New York City as a struggling artist, the way I did and all of my friends did in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and get a cheap apartment, like a six-floor walk-up in the East Village and a cheap practice space to work on your music — it’s just impossible because everything costs so much money,” she explains. “The loss of that kind of energy and community is tragic. Historically CBGB’s is important to me, but what’s more important was the excitement of having a lot of people who were all struggling and all playing for each other and trying to communicate with each other. I think that’s why a lot of young people resort to building their community on the internet because you can’t afford to have the kind of communities that we had.” Though she still lives with Lanier, Smith begins an affair with Television’s Tom Verlaine; her emerging celebrity strokes Verlaine’s ego, causing friction in Television. (Bockris, p.102-104) Smith is inspired to make a record; Mapplethorpe donates $1,000 towards the project and Smith, Kaye, and Sohl enter Electric Ladyland studios in NYC to cut a single. The session yields an original song, “Piss Factory,” which chronicles Smith’s time working at the toy factory, and a reinterpreted “Hey Joe,” inspired by Jimi Hendrix, with Smith improvising lyrics torn from the headlines of the day (particularly the abduction of Patty Hearst). “I just feel that Jimi Hendrix is the quintessential rock star,” she says. “He had everything; vision, beauty, a spiritual sense, a conscience in terms of the war and human rights issues, and was just a brilliant, inspiring performer. Unfortunately he lived on the edge of danger and was not careful and wound up losing his life and I know that was not something he wanted to do. He had a real vision of where music should go and what should happen to music in the future. He believed that music was moving towards a universal language that could make revolutionary change. But he fucked up and it’s tragic and I really mourned the loss of him. I like to keep him in my memory and his work still is fresh for me; I still listen to it and get excited when I hear it.” Released on the small, DIY label, Mer in the late summer, the “Hey Joe”/“Piss Factory” single is generally credited as the first punk record. (Bockris, p.106) A four-night stint opening up for Television at Max’s Kansas City between August 28 and September 2 is when Kaye suggests the band became a serious thing and Smith transitions out of a bebop scat into a singing voice. (Bockris, p.108) After successful shows in California in November, Smith and Kaye decide they need more sound and guitarist Ivan Kral joins them as a member. (Bockris, p.111) Later, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty joins the band on a full-time basis. (Smith, p.27)
A two-month weekend residency at CBGB with Television between March and April is legendary and puts the club on the map. Smith is so impassioned, she sheds blood some nights; impressionable members of Blondie, Talking Heads, and Ramones, pay close attention to her style and legends like Lou Reed and Andy Warhol show up to absorb the band’s sound. (Bockris, p.119) Smith meets her idol Bob Dylan when he attends a show of hers at the Bitter End; the two are photographed together by the Village Voice. (Bockris, p.122) “He came to see me play in early ’75, which drew a lot of attention to what I was doing,” Smith recalls. “It probably helped me get signed to a record contract because it was very big news when Bob Dylan came to visit you. [Dylan’s visit] received so much press that it sparked Clive Davis’ interest in me, who got me to audition and signed me to Arista. So Bob had his influence that way, as well as aesthetically.” Indeed, Smith draws Davis in and even after she successfully stipulates that she must retain artistic control over every facet of her work, Davis signs her to a seven album deal worth $750,000 in April. The band soon begins rehearsing material for their first full-length record; Kaye and Smith ask John Cale to produce the album and enter Electric Ladyland with him in August. (Bockris, p.124) Smith and Cale clash repeatedly, as he seems determined to alter the band’s sound (in hopes of emulating a Beach Boys/Phil Spector approach), though, by Kaye’s observation, he had little technical expertise in the studio. (Bockris, p.125) Further tensions arise when Smith has both Verlaine and Lanier contribute to the record during the same sessions; the love-triangle coupled with the animosity towards Cale creates a violent atmosphere. (Bockris, p.128) In the end, Smith’s masterpiece Horses was born out of this tumultuous atmosphere. A mix of improvisation, new songs, and a poet re-imagining rock ‘n’ roll tropes and anthems (i.e. “Gloria,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” etc.) with gritty, contemporary wordplay, the record — along with its iconic cover portrait of an androgynous Smith shot by Mapplethorpe — remains one of music’s most enduring artefacts. Horses is released on November 10, 1975 and, hailed as a massive artistic achievement by Rolling Stone and The New York Times; the record goes on to sell 200,000 copies over the next year. With her tough, gender-neutral stance, Smith shatters stereotypes of what female rock music is limited to; influential critic Robert Christgau calls Smith, “the first credible rock shaman.” (Bockris, p.137) Dylan and Smith grow closer and he invites her to join his Rolling Thunder Revue tour. While Smith attends some rehearsals, she turns the opportunity down to focus on touring behind Horses. (Bockris, p.134)
With Horses’ profile rising (even Penthouse runs an interview), the group tour the U.S. from January to April with Patti’s brother Todd beginning his long-term role as road manager and Cale opening up solo. Cale plays bass when the band play a live re-invention of the Who’s “My Generation” in Cleveland on January 26, which ends up as the b-side for the “Gloria” single. (www.oceanstar.com) Smith decries contemporary mainstream rock and radio in interviews and she’s banned from one station after cursing repeatedly during a live interview. (Bockris, p.142) While in Detroit, Smith is introduced to former MC5 guitarist, Fred “Sonic” Smith on March 9 and she’s instantly smitten with the tall, quiet figure who now leads the Sonic Rendezvous Band. Though she’s still involved with both Lanier and Verlaine, she begins a phone courtship with Fred, who’s married. (Bockris, p.148) An underground NYC paper, The Daily Planet, publishes nude photos of Smith and she’s hassled by reporters and photographers at her home and on the street. On April 17, she and the band appear on Saturday Night Live, the first nationally televised appearance of Smith’s career. (avclub.com)( Soon, SNL’s Gilda Radner portrays a Smith send-up named “Candy Slice” and notorious, cross-dressing NYC musician Wayne County does a full-on parody of Smith before amused audiences at CBGB. (Bockris, p.150) In May, the band heads overseas for their first European tour and encounter a press divided over their worth. Audiences are warmer and some, such as the Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, even join the band on-stage. (Bockris, p.154) In July, Smith enters the Record Plant East studio with a more commercial producer, Jack Douglas (John Lennon, Aerosmith), to work on the band’s next album, which she hopes might be more accessible. (Bockris, 158) Smith endures writer’s block and purchases a 1957 Fender Duo-Sonic guitar (allegedly once played by Jimi Hendrix) for inspiration; she refuses to learn chords and, instead, strums randomly to create sounds. (Smith, p.66) The idea works and she begins writing again earnestly, despite the fact that her relationship with Verlaine ends badly and she stays with Lanier. (Bockris, p.158) The new record is called Radio Ethiopia and is militant in its expression (the acronym “F.T.G.F.” or “Fight the Good Fight,” becomes the group’s rallying cry) and is arguably more experimental musically than Horses. To galvanize the group, Smith alters the solo billing of the band to the Patti Smith Group. (Bockris, 162) It’s not enough for Sohl who is physically exhausted from the band’s intense schedule; he declares he won’t travel with them that September, two days before a European tour is set to begin. Kaye’s friend Andy Paley is called in to replace Sohl. (Bockris, p.162) When Radio Ethiopia is released in October, it is met with lukewarm to negative reviews, even from some of Smith’s most ardent supporters, who feel it’s too generic and that she’s “sold out.” (Bockris, p.163) The negative press stings Smith and there’s a new rawness in the live show and during her interactions with the press. On November 29th, Smith is banned from WNEW, New York’s most powerful alt-rock radio station for saying “fuck” on the air. The group plays a raucous New Year’s Eve show at New York’s Palladium, originally meant to be broadcast live by WNEW but isn’t, in light of the ban. Smith responds by condemning the station and the Federal Communications Commission in an essay on censorship (later published by the Yipster Times) entitled, “You Can’t Say ‘Fuck’ in Radio Free America.” (Smith, 65) Her outspoken stance for free speech and against the government generates controversy. “I wouldn’t say that I’m political; I don’t know much about politics,” Smith says. “I really hate politics but I care about our world. I’m a mom and I care about the world in terms of my children and everybody else’s children. My parents were both concerned with the human condition and so am I. I wouldn’t say it makes me political; I would like to think I’m a humanist.”
Amid great scrutiny from the press, the Patti Smith Group tour America, playing arenas and opening for Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. On January 26 in Tampa, Florida, Smith trips on a monitor on a poorly lit stage and falls 15 feet to a concrete floor, fracturing vertebrae in her neck and spine, and severely lacerating her head. (Smith, p.88; Bockris, p.175) Returning to New York to recuperate, Smith suffers vision loss and paralysis of her legs; medical specialists offer conflicting reports about her prognosis, suggesting spinal surgery and physiotherapy, and Smith chooses the latter. (Bockris, p.176) Prior to the accident Smith signed a book deal with Putnam and, with the help of Andi Ostrowe (a fan-turned-personal assistant), she uses the time off the road to work on the prose poems and gather the photos that comprise the unique Babel. (Smith, p.88) While convalescing, Smith receives a unique array of guests, including Legs McNeil of Punk magazine, Bruce Springsteen, and Richard Hell who attempts to write poems with her for some time. Smith ends her relationship with Friedman and hires Ina Meibach in her place. (Bockris, p.180) In March, Smith’s physical therapy begins in earnest and she and Mapplethorpe collaborate on a gallery exhibition together. Smith returns to live performance on Easter Sunday (April 30) for a memorable show at CBGB, defiantly ripping off her neck brace during the second half of the show. (Bockris, p.182) While recuperating, Smith read a great deal of T. E. Lawrence and other texts about Jesus. In re-imagining him as “a teacher, a fighter, [and] a guerrilla,” her writing reveals her new perspective. (Smith, p.96) Smith asks old friend/producer Jimmy Iovine (John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen) to produce her next record, Easter. Via Iovine, Springsteen gives Smith a tape of an unfinished song he’s composed that he thinks might work for her. Ignoring the tape initially, Smith pops it in absently one night and is instantly inspired to complete the lyrics. The band loves it and Smith’s biggest hit, “Because the Night” is born. (Smith, p.100)
Another U.S. tour begins in January but Smith drops a bombshell when her relationship with Fred “Sonic” Smith extends beyond long distance phone calls. She leaves Lanier and New York behind to move in with Fred in Detroit. Viewing him as her ultimate muse and soul mate, Patti falls deeply in love with Fred and the intensity of the union distances both from their friends and colleagues. (Bockris, p.188) Easter is released in March and polarizes critics and listeners. On one hand, the record is an accessible affair, with “Till Victory” and the radio-ready “Because the Night” stomping out of the stereo; on the other, there are tribal meditations such as “Ghost Dance” and the controversial “Rock n Roll Nigger,” a ferocious conflation of religion and pop culture that best represents the record as a whole. “Our audience is relatively small but I think that there are always people interested in the same things I’m interested in,” she says now. “Whether it’s human rights issues or poetry or the fusion of poetry and political ideas and spiritual ideas and rock’n’roll and art — there’s always a segment of the population, at any age, who are interested in these things. Hopefully people feel they can trust me. Whether people like what I do or don’t like what I do, I would never want to steer anybody wrong.” A European tour coincides with the record’s release and, again, the split critical reception initially brings out the savage in Smith on-stage. Eventually, her energy vanishes and critics take note of her depleted presence — a hard contrast from her early performances. (Bockris, p.195) Smith’s book Babel is released in March to mixed reviews; some critics marvel at her daring while others mock the immaturity of her musings. (Bockris, p.207) Smith is nonetheless elated when “Because the Night” is released as a single on March 29 and storms the charts, as the biggest single of her career. As punk’s popularity wanes, Smith moves from greasy punk poetess to popular entertainer and morning TV talk show guest. (Bockris, p. 199) On June 12, Smith fulfils a dream when she opens up for the Stones in Atlanta and in July, she’s on the cover of Rolling Stone. (Bockris, pp.202-203) In his story on Smith, Charles Young takes her to task for her frequent use of the word “nigger,” which she defends by stating she’s re-defined the word to mean an “artist-mutant.” Smith comes off foolishly in her comments and Rolling Stone editors and readers are both disgusted by her insensitive outlook. (Bockris, p.205) After promotion for Easter and Babel is finished, Smith retreats to Detroit to be with Fred and write her next album. The distance from New York and her devotion to Fred closes Smith off from her friends and, perhaps most importantly, the rest of the Patti Smith Group. (Bockris, p.207)
Patti loses herself to Fred and the two make decisions about her music and her band. Without consulting Kaye or the others, they decide that Todd Rundgren will produce the next record in his studio in upstate New York. The band (including Sohl, who returns) are not pleased to be so far from their families but a feeling of finality settles among the members; Patti secretly tells Rundgren that this will be the last Patti Smith Group project. (Bockris, p.210) The album is called Wave and the band plays select shows before touring behind it. Upon Wave’s April 27 release, few critics praise it and many more deride its clean pop sound, blaming Rundgren partially but also suggesting that Smith’s material is weak. (Bockris, p.216) The subsequent tours of the U.S. and Europe are not pleasant; Smith is burdened by bronchitis, is homesick for Fred, and grows restless doing countless promotional interviews. She soon appears disengaged on stage. (Bockris, p.216) The final two shows of the tour occur in September and are riotous affairs in Bologna and Florence, Italy, where the Italian Communist Party is supposed to provide security but, instead, do nothing. 70,000 fans have free access to every part of the giant soccer arenas and destroy barricades, crashing the stage. The final show seethes with such energy, the group actually give up their instruments to excited fans during “My Generation.” (Smith, p.145) After the show, Smith informs the band that the Patti Smith Group will not tour again. (Bockris, p.220) “When I quit, I was becoming more in demand and probably a little more famous and the demands on me were daily and intense,” Smith recalls. “Nothing I couldn’t handle, but that’s not what I really aspired to, as a human being. I didn’t enter into rock’n’roll to spend every day working on these types of things. I wanted to make a political statement, as well as an artistic statement and I had done that, so I felt that my mission was accomplished.”
1980 to 1985
Patti and Fred marry in a small, private ceremony in Detroit on March 1, 1980. Smith is happy to leave the rock’n’roll lifestyle but recruits the Patti Smith Group to play a benefit for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the ‘motor city’ in June, 1980. While the band is encouraged by the performance, later that month they’re devastated when Smith calls a business meeting to announce that the band is, in fact, finished for good. (Bockris, p.223) Patti herself retreats from public life to begin a domesticated existence with Fred but she also hopes the two will make music together. They book studio time and record five songs near the end of 1980 towards an album called Dream of Life but then suddenly halt the project. (Bockris, p.226) Patti works sporadically on her prose while Fred earns a pilot’s license. Patti gives birth to the couple’s first son, Jackson Frederick in 1982 and, shortly thereafter, the family moves to St. Clair Shores just outside of Detroit. (Bockris, p.231) Little is known about Patti and Fred during this time but speculation mounts among friends that Fred’s drinking is interfering with their personal lives and halting any progress towards artistic collaboration. (Bockris, p.233) Patti channels her energies into motherhood and her lifestyle changes dramatically to suit the needs of her son. When not tending to her child and husband, Smith is busy writing; three books composed during this period (Woolgathering, and Patti Smith Complete among them) would eventually be published. (Bockris, p.236) “Not working in the public eye doesn’t mean I wasn’t working,” she says. “I worked just as hard, or even harder, when I was out of the public eye. In terms of whether I could’ve done things in the public eye and raised a family? No. The demands placed on one, especially in rock’n’roll, are very self-oriented. I would be asked to tour, be away from the family, and be concerned with fairly trivial matters that might be important to the advancement of a record but not necessarily of a human being. So, I think I made the right decision in devoting myself to my family and my studies. I was absolutely able to study and work on my writing and things like that in raising my family but I don’t think it would’ve been a good mix.”
1986 to 1988
After a few aborted attempts and scrapped songs, the Dream of Life sessions resume in New York with Richard Sohl, Jay Dee Daugherty, and Jimmy Iovine reuniting with Patti. Fred allegedly insists that Lenny Kaye be left out of the project. Though he’s often in rough shape due to drinking and other health problems, Fred plays guitar instead. The band finishes recording but the vocals are delayed when Patti discovers she’s pregnant; the sessions resume after her daughter, Jesse Lee is born in 1987. (Bockris, p.238) Smith asks Mapplethorpe to shoot the cover image of her next album. Mapplethorpe is in the news due to an uproar over his controversial X Portfolio, which draws attention from the Reagan administration and places the artist at the centre of a censorship scandal. Mapplethorpe is also dying of AIDS and, while he is not well, he notices a change in Patti and is alarmed by her constant deferrals to Fred. (Bockris, p.240) Dream of Life is completed in the spring of 1988 and Patti is truly proud of her collaboration with Fred. The album features a Lennon-esque anthem in “People Have the Power” and is received warmly by critics upon its release. Patti is keen to discuss her growth as a person and the profound affect that motherhood has had on her, which surprises some old friends and fans, who can’t fathom her decision to sacrifice her career for domesticity. (Bockris, p.243) “Having a family requires a lot of sacrifice and it’s not something to take lightly,” she says. “I’ve seen other people balance the situation fine. In terms of my upbringing, and how I view family life and how to raise one’s children, it didn’t correspond with my vision of having a family. I wouldn’t criticize anyone who did any different. It’s just, I made the decision that was right for me.” Though Patti promotes the record tirelessly, it ends up selling poorly when the Smiths refuse to tour, citing a desire to be with their kids. The apparent truth of the matter is that Fred is unable or unwilling to tour due to various health problems (an undiagnosed stomach ailment plagues him for years) and the album’s failure breaks his heart. (Bockris, p.243-244)
1989 to 1991
On March 9, a day after spending his last moments with Patti, Robert Mapplethorpe succumbs to AIDS and dies. Devastated, Smith writes the prose piece, The Coral Sea, as a meditation and memorial to her dear friend and also pens the touching foreword to Flowers, a 1990 collection of Mapplethorpe’s work. “There’s nothing that will make you appreciate life more than to see someone struggle to keep it and not be able to,” Smith says. “I watched my friend Robert Mapplethorpe struggle to keep his life and he wasn’t successful, so of course I would never throw mine away.” On June 3, 1990, Richard Sohl suffers a cardiac seizure and dies at 37; again, Smith is heartbroken. (Bockris, p.247) Friends notice a visible change in Fred’s health, as the guitarist looks gaunt and frail. At a 1991 benefit for the family of deceased MC5 vocalist, Rob Tyner, Fred is drunk and completely off the mark musically. Patti is absent at what would come to be Fred’s final public appearance on-stage. (p.250) In December a collaboration with Fred entitled “It Takes Time,” appears on the soundtrack to the Wim Wenders film, Until the End of the World. (allmusic.com)
1992 to 1994
Smith’s collection of short prose pieces, Woolgathering, is published. (Bockris, p.251) In the alternative boom of the early ‘90s, Smith’s name is dropped frequently by young artists like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, 10,000 Maniacs, and U2, who all cite her as an influence. Patti soon takes guitar lessons from Fred and begins contemplating a new record but Fred’s deteriorating health curbs these ideas. In December 1992, Interview magazine publishes a new essay by Smith entitled “February Snow,” which contemplates the deaths of Warhol, Mapplethorpe, and Sohl. (www.panix.com)
“My personal life is my own but I’ve had a lot of good friends and loved ones who were also great workers and revered by people,” Smith explains. “Some of them didn’t make it and some of them went their way but we all did good work together. I learned from all of the people I’ve worked with and I’m still learning.” Smith gives a dramatic reading in Central Park on July 8, 1993. She writes “About a Boy,” a tribute to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain after he commits suicide in April, 1994. (Bockris, p.254) On November 4, 1994, Fred “Sonic” Smith dies of heart failure in a Detroit hospital. MC5 member Wayne Kramer recalls little grieving at the funeral service, implying that Patti treats the ceremony like “a gig,” and even discusses some unresolved MC5 business with him, which Kramer finds inappropriate. (Bockris, p.256) Smith and her children spend Thanksgiving in Jersey with her family and her brother Todd suggests that the time is right for her to create new music. On December 4, Todd Smith dies shockingly of a stroke and Smith feels lost. (Smith, p.180) “When we lost [Fred], I tried to stay [in Detroit] but it was extremely difficult because I don’t drive and have no mobility. There were a lot of medical bills and things and I needed to make a living. I found myself in a very difficult position, so the only way that I knew how to make a living to take care of my children was to go back to work. My original plan was not return to performing but to go to Virginia and live with my brother and he was going to help me raise my children. But, a month later, my brother had a stroke and died. It was very sudden because he seemed in perfect health. So, my next option was taken from me and I had nowhere to go. I had to return to New York and get back to work.”
In January Smith makes a rare public appearance, giving a reading and singing “Ghost Dance” at St. Mark’s Church in New York. (Bockris, p.259) She accepts Allen Ginsberg’s invitation to perform at an Ann Arbor benefit for Tibetan Buddhists in February. The reading goes well and she meets a young poet named Oliver Ray and begins seeing him. (Bockris, p.263) On April 8, Smith performs songs at a tribute to Fred in Ann Arbor and, after a recording session for a compilation, she begins plotting her first studio album in seven years. (Bockris, p.266) “I had very, very good mentors and friends who all really encouraged me to come back,” she says. “Truthfully, I was a little afraid to start performing again and it wasn’t until a year and a half had passed that…it was just something I had to do. It wasn’t a happy, joyful decision; it was something I did out of necessity and I did it prudently. When I toured it was summer time so that my kids were out of school or I took jobs when they had spring break and things like that, so I designed everything around their schooling.” In July, Smith fronts a band for explosive shows in Toronto and Central Park in New York and reunites with Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty; the rest of the summer is spent in Electric Ladyland. Smith does a surprise, second-stage set at Lollapalooza’s New York stop and tears into her songs with abandon, impressing and embracing a young generation of onlookers. (Bockris, p.270) Dylan invites Smith and her band (which now includes Verlaine and Ray) to open eight east coast dates for him in December; Smith is thrilled, particularly at the opportunity to sing “Dark Eyes” with Dylan in Philadelphia. (youtube.com)
“I have to say, in all of the years of my performing, that was one of the most memorable things that ever happened, something that I’ll always cherish,” Smith recalls. “So, that’s my continuing saga with Bob Dylan and I’m still listening to him like I always did and occasionally we find each other.”
In January, Rolling Stone readers vote Smith, as the “Comeback of the Year,” and she inducts the Velvet Underground into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that same month. (Bockris, p.277) After some scattered spring shows, Gone Again is released on June 18, 1996 and receives strong reviews from critics encouraging Smith’s return. Two songs—“Gone Again” and “Summer Cannibals”—are written by Fred, with Kramer alleging that the latter was kicking around towards the end of the MC5. (Bockris, p.281) In interviews, Smith speaks mostly of death and how losing those around her inspired her latest work. “The people I lost all believed in me and my children needed me, so that’s a lot of reasons to continue, let alone that life is great,” she says now. “It’s difficult but it’s great and every day some new, wonderful thing is revealed. Whether it’s a new book, or the sky is beautiful, or another full moon, or you meet a new friend—life is interesting”.
Smith’s band is frequently joined on the road by Michael Stipe, who takes pictures, eventually releasing them as a book, Two Times Intro. Critics marvel at the sound of both the band and Smith’s strong voice. She appears on the R.E.M. single “E-Bow the Letter” and performs with them live.
1997 to 2000
In April, while Smith is working on her next album, Peace and Noise, Ginsberg lies dying and Smith stays with him during his final hours. In August, Burroughs dies and Smith drops a white envelope into his grave during the funeral. (Bockris, p.286) Re-visiting her days as a protest singer, Smith releases Peace and Noise on September 30 to moderate praise but takes every opportunity to decry atrocities across the world, most notably the plight of the Tibetan people; (Bockris, p.287) the single “1959” deals specifically with China’s occupation of Tibet. On June 7, the Beastie Boys invite Smith to perform at their Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York; on March 9, 1998, Smith plays Carnegie Hall, as part of the Tibet House New York benefit concert. (www.oceanstar.com)
In March of 2000, Smith releases Gung Ho, another socially conscious record about wars with an emphasis on Vietnam. The cover is a photo of her father Grant, as a youth, in his service uniform; on August 27, he dies. Smith is an active supporter of Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign, touring with him and performing at rallies. (wikipedia.org)
“He’s a man who’s spent his whole life fighting and working for the people,” Smith says. “He’s a completely honest and trustworthy man and I learn from him all of the time.”
Smith fulfils her contract with Arista by releasing the best-of/rarities collection, Land: 1975-2002. (allmusic.com) In September 2002, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh hosts “Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith,” an exhibit of early, child-like drawings and paintings, as well as visual and written reactions to 9/11; the World Trade Center towers stood only blocks away from Smith’s New York home. On September 19, 2002, Smith’s mother Beverly dies, leaving Patti devastated. (www.rollingstone.com)
“Sometimes I shy away from talking about my past, only because some times it can make me sad,” Smith says. “All of these people I loved are dead. Whether it’s my brother, my parents, Robert, or my husband — it’s daunting sometimes when people want to talk about it, like it’s just facts but, for me, these were people in my life that I miss. Some times it’s a pleasure to talk about them and some times it’s painful. My reluctance is not because I’m hiding anything; my reluctance sometimes is just human.”
2004 to 2005
On April 27, 2004 Smith releases the album Trampin’ on her new label, Columbia. The record is heralded by critics, as it mixes personal feelings about motherhood (the title track is a duet between Smith and her daughter Jesse) with concerns about the state and future of the war-torn world. Smith nominally supports John Kerry’s bid for President but later raises money for Nader’s campaign. She joins Nader on a tour protesting the Iraq war and calling for President Bush’s impeachment. (wikipedia.org)( Smith curates the Meltdown Festival in London in June 2005; here Smith performs Horses in its entirety, the first time she’s ever done so. As Smith and Ray’s relationship appears to be over, Verlaine replaces Ray on guitar. (wikipedia.org) The performance is included as a separate disc on the 30th Anniversary Edition of Horses released that November. (allmusic.com) On July 10, 2005 Smith is named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Culture Ministry for her empowering work for women in the arts and for her appreciation of Arthur Rimbaud. ( culture.gouv.fr)
In September 2006, Smith collaborates with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields for a poetry reading. That same month, Smith premieres two new protest songs in London, one (“Qana”) about the Israeli airstrike on the Lebanese village of Qana, and the other ("Without Chains") about the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. (enjoyment.independent.co.uk)“Without Chains” is available for download on Smith’s website. (pattismith.net) “Most of my new songs are acoustic, so I’m thinking of doing an acoustic record,” Smith reveals. “I haven’t really found the right time to do them or else they didn’t really fit in with other things I was doing. [“Without Chains”] will give you a certain insight into the kind of songs I’m writing.” After a long, public feud with his landlords, CBGB owner Hilly Kristal is forced to shut the historic club down; on October 15, 2006 the Patti Smith Group performs for three and a half hours at the final show held at CBGB. (wikipedia.org) “That’s just systemic of what is happening in New York period,” Smith says of the closure. “It’s being taken over by big developers like Donald Trump who are buying old buildings or areas of New York and putting up high rise, luxury condominiums. Then of course, they have to serve the people that have those condominiums and have designer stores and fancy restaurants and we’re losing certain whole communities. Young people have to re-design how they create and share music and ideas. I think a lot of it is on the internet. That’s why something like MySpace is so big; young people are finding each other in that way. It’s a whole different thing and it’s not even something one can criticize; one can only hope that they’ll find a way to make this strong and use these formats to develop their culture and make political change but that’s up to them.”
Smith is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 12, 2007. Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine gives Smith’s induction speech, and the visibly shaken recipient dedicates her induction to the memories of lost loved ones, specifically her mother and Fred. (cnn.com) On April 24, Smith releases her first record devoted completely to other people’s songs; Twelve finds her interpreting popular works, including Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” “A certain amount of my work is still obscure, which is one of the reasons that I was really happy to do this record,” Smith explains. “It’s almost a respite from my own complex thoughts and lyrics and it gave me a chance to say some of the things that I liked to talk about with other people’s words. I don’t know why, but people almost feel angry that I would do a Tears for Fears song and I think it’s so stupid. Why not? Who cares? I’ll do whatever song I want. They think that if you’re an old punk rocker, you’re not supposed to do a Tears for Fears song and I just tell them that’s a load of bullshit. To feel intimidated or feel peer pressure, that it’s not cool to do a certain song, is a bunch of crap. I did the song because it had current political resonance.”
The Essential Patti Smith
Easter (Arista, 1978)
Though Smith has never been a mainstream artist, Easter yielded her greatest hit and presented some of her most stimulating and challenging work. Conflicted about releasing a song co-written by Bruce Springsteen, as a single, Smith was ultimately pleased when “Because the Night” became a smash. The impassioned work of two great poets, it was unconventional fare for radio. The band rocks hard throughout the record, and Smith and Lenny Kaye sound particularly unholy roaring through “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger.” ‘Outside of society,’ indeed.
Dream of Life (Arista, 1988)
The major collaborative work of the Patti/”Sonic” Smith union, Dream of Life may have been more anticipated than Horses. Smith’s first release since retiring from public performance in 1980, Dream of Life is a startling album, both for its eclectic, modern (though unfortunately ‘80s-ish) rock sound and its lyricism. There’s a mighty drive to enduring anthems like “People Have the Power,” while songs like “Up There Down There” and “Where Duty Calls” contain wild and vivid imagery, unheard of from a songwriter not named Dylan.
Horses (Arista/Columbia Legacy 2005)
Everything about Horses is so iconic (i.e. the cover image, the “Jesus died…” opening line, etc.) and seemingly untouchable, Smith was brave in daring herself to live up to its legacy. The original record sounds crystal clear in its remastered form but that’s not a surprise. Hearing a reconstituted Patti Smith Group tackle the entire album live, 30 years later, is. Smith herself sounds ageless, her voice strong and words relevant. The Group impressively faces down the myth, responding to every growl or whimper in Smith’s voice, and Horses runs anew.
• Be our friend
• Be our fan