Patti Smith, punk-poet laureate of New York City, dabbled in a little bit of everything in the early ’70s, from painting and performance art to music journalism and working as a bookstore clerk.
Smith, a beatnik-like New Jersey ex-pat, moved to New York when she was 21 “to see what [she] was made of.” After several odd jobs and playing local clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, she and her band — guitarist Lenny Kaye, pianist Richard Sohl, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and bassist Ivan Kral — were offered a deal with Arista Records. Smith’s responsibility, she said at the time, was to her art.
“I don’t have any other motivation than to do something really great,” she told Crawdaddy in 1975 during the recording of Horses, which was produced by the Velvet Underground‘s John Cale. “The only crime in art is to do lousy art. I’m going to promote myself exactly as I am, with all my weak points and my strong ones. My weak points are that I’m self-
Horses became a milestone record in the nascent punk movement and has lost none of its power in the decades since its 1975 release.
Standing at the intersection of Bob Dylan‘s literary lyricism, Jim Morrison‘s floor-shaking vocals and Iggy Pop‘s wild stage antics, Smith recognized early on that she occupied a singular space in the scene. “Most of my heroes are men simply because most of the heaviest people in the world have been men,” she said. “There hasn’t been a woman who has done what Jimi Hendrix did. I don’t blame that on anything. If a woman wanted to do it, she’d do it.”
Smith did it her way. From classic tracks to deeper cuts, we run down the Top 10 Patti Smith Songs below.
10. “Redondo Beach”
From: Horses (1975)
The lyrics to “Redondo Beach,” the second song on Horses, first appeared as a poem under the name “Radando Beach” in Smith’s 1972 poetry collection kodak. She saved the words and revisited them for the album, turning her original idea into an upbeat reggae-leaning rock song. At the time, the real-life Redondo Beach in Los Angeles was a popular hangout for the gay community, and Smith’s lyrics, which describe a suicidal girl who washes up on the shore, were widely interpreted as lesbian-themed. Smith played with this idea, introducing the song at concerts by saying “Redondo Beach is a beach where women love other women.” But she had written the lyrics after arguing with her sister, Linda, who had subsequently disappeared for the day, leaving Smith distressed. “She didn’t return, and by nightfall I was worried,” Smith wrote in her 1999 lyric collection, Complete: “Needing time to think, I took an F train to Coney Island and sat on the littered beach until the sun rose. I came back, wrote the draft and fell asleep. When I awoke, she had returned. I showed her what I had written, and we never quarreled again.”
9. “Mother Rose”
From: Trampin’ (2004)
Smith’s ninth album, 2004’s Trampin’, included several tributes to loved ones, both lost and still living. “Mother Rose” was written for Smith’s late mother, who had died two years before the LP’s release. “It’s more of a thank-you to her,” Smith told Uncut in 2004. “And also hopefully a really pretty song. It’s not a grieving song.” Trampin’ featured other thoughts on motherhood: “Cartwheels” was written for daughter Jesse Paris Smith, who played piano on the album’s title track. “It’s been a long road, and I’m still walking on it,” Smith said. “Life indeed takes us on what journeys it takes us on. It takes us to a lot of places we hadn’t anticipated. I think [Trampin’] unfolds as much as life does.”
8. “People Have the Power”
From: Dream of Life (1988)
As Smith remembered it, the genesis of “People Have the Power” began in her kitchen. Making dinner one evening, her husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, entered the room and said, “Tricia, people have the power. Write it.” “And I was standing there with a potato peeler thinking, ‘I’d like to have the power to make him peel these potatoes,'” Smith recalled to NME in 2014. “But I said, ‘Aye-aye, captain.'” Smith and her husband had protested the Vietnam War in their younger days and had been consistently involved in social and political justice issues, so their goal was to write a new song that embodied the same strong spirit that permeated the music of the ’60s and ’70s. “It was really Fred’s song,” Smith said. “Even though I wrote the words, he wrote the music. The concept was his, and he wanted it to be a song that people sang all over the world to inspire them for different causes. And he didn’t live to see that happen, but I have.” (Fred Smith died in 1994.) “I’ve seen people. I’ve walked in marches all over the world where people spontaneously started singing it, you know, whether it’s been in Paris or with the Palestinians or in Spain or New York City, Washington, D.C. – and it’s so moving for me to see his dream realized.”
7. “This Is the Girl”
From: Banga (2012)
“This the blind that turned in wine / This is the wine of the house, it is said / This is the girl who yearned to be heard / So much for cradling a smoldering bird.” Smith’s not-so-subtle wordplay gives away the name of the woman for whom Smith wrote the song. Amy Winehouse died in 2011, the year before Smith included the track on her 11th album, Banga. “We were at Electric Lady [Studios] doing a whole other song, and I wrote Amy a little poem when she died,” Smith told Uncut in 2012. “My bass player, Tony Shanahan, wrote a piece of music, and the two matched perfectly.” Smith didn’t know Winehouse personally, but it didn’t matter. “I wrote it out of respect for her artistry and her youth,” she told Spin.
6. “Beneath the Southern Cross”
From: Gone Again (1996)
Gone Again, Smith’s sixth album and first following an eight-year break, arrived in the slow wake of several personal losses. One of Smith’s closest friends, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, lost his battle with AIDS in 1989; her husband, Fred, died of heart failure in 1994 at age 46; and, a few weeks after Fred’s death, Smith’s brother (who also served as her road manager) suffered a fatal stroke. So, Gone Again, which also features the last studio performance by Jeff Buckley, saw Smith persistently and therapeutically working through her grief. “Oh, to cry not any cry / So mournful that the dove just laughs, the steadfast gasps,” she sings on the acoustically driven “Beneath the Southern Cross.” “I’ve always believed in having a sense of balance and stealth,” she told Rolling Stone in 1996. “I learned a lot from Arthur Rimbaud. People talk about how he wanted to be a seer and do that through the derangement of the senses. What they forget was that he also advocated, sternly and austerely, that one must be able to go through all that – and then articulate it. Just to go off and get wasted, into death even, is waste.”
5. “Dancing Barefoot”
From: Wave (1979)
For Wave, Smith moved a bit closer to polished pop-rock, enlisting the help of Todd Rundgren to produce. “I thought that it would be nice to work with a friend,” Smith told Uncut. “And also he’s a great musician, and I knew that he would contribute to the musical sense of the record. He was very good with using keyboards; he was a pianist himself, and a lot of those songs evolved around that. It was not an easy record to make. and Todd works very quickly – I work quickly, too, but not as quickly as Todd, but I think the sound of that record is beautiful.” Compared to her earlier songs, “Dancing Barefoot” is undoubtedly more radio-friendly, but like much of Wave, it captures the essence of Smith’s rough-around-the-edges style.
4. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
From: Twelve (2007)
“When Nirvana came out, I was really excited,” Smith told Rolling Stone. “Not so much for myself – my time had passed for putting so much passion into music and pinning my faith on a band. I’d had the Rolling Stones. I was happy for the kids to have [Nirvana]. I didn’t know anything about [Kurt Cobain‘s] torments or personal life. I saw the work and the energy, and I was excited by that.” Smith included a Cobain tribute on Gone Again, a sweeping, eight-minute song called “About a Boy,” but her most striking salute would come in 2007 on the covers album Twelve. Her stripped-down and dark folk rendition even included some spoken poetry: “Forgotten, foraging, mystical children / Foul-mouthed, glassy-eyed, hallucinating.”
3. “Pissing in a River”
From: Radio Ethiopia (1976)
Any artist who lands a successful debut is faced with the difficult task of a follow-up. Smith met this challenge with an album that was visceral, chaotic and sometimes downright indecipherable. “I wanted to do a record that wasn’t just a cerebral experience – it was more of a physical record,” she said at a press conference following the release of Radio Ethiopia, which once-ecstatic critics found directionless and dependent on a heavier sound that left less room for Smith’s voice. Still, she continued to open the door for women artists, replacing the gleaming image of a perfect pop singer with a more daring option. The downbeats of Radio Ethiopia‘s haunting lead single “Pissing in a River” echo George Harrison‘s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” but is most memorable for its relentless questioning: “What about it, what about it, what about it?“
2. “Because the Night”
From: Easter (1978)
Jimmy Iovine, who produced 1978’s Easter, has been widely noted for his keen ear. Bruce Springsteen had the bones of “Because the Night” started but apparently couldn’t figure out how to piece the song together. So Iovine suggested — or as he remembered it, insisted – on giving the song to Smith. “I just had so much respect for the both of them, their music and their lyrics, that I said ‘This should happen,'” Iovine recalled to Billboard in 2018. “People don’t do a lot of things until they do them.” Smith balked at the idea at first, feeling it was important to write original material, but she eventually gave Springsteen’s demo a listen. “There are certain things in my past I can’t remember, but this I can remember second by second,” she told Billboard. “I stood there, and I shook my head, and I might have said it out loud: ‘It’s one of those darn hit songs.'” Smith added some lyrics, and the song became a Top 40 hit. Though Smith and Springsteen have rarely performed the song together, it regularly appears on their respective set lists. “It wouldn’t have been a hit if I had finished it and released it,” Springsteen said on SiriusXM’s E Street Radio in 2021. “It needed a woman’s voice, it needed Patti’s voice and her vision. She turned it into something that I alone could never have created.”
From: Horses (1975)
Smith couldn’t have introduced herself any more explicitly than with the opening line to “Gloria,” the first track off her debut album: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” In her memoir, Just Kids, Smith wrote that “Lenny [Kaye] showed me how to play an E, and as I struck the note, I spoke the line. … I had written the line some years before as a declaration of existence, as a vow to take responsibility for my own actions. Christ was a man worthy to rebel against, for he was rebellion itself.” Though technically a cover of Van Morrison‘s song for his band Them, “Gloria” was so radically reimagined by Smith that the original was hardly recognizable in it. More than half the lyrics are Smith additions. “What had begun as a poem titled “Oath” turned into an experimental session in the studio,” she recalled, “and then, finally, to a recorded version that slowly built momentum from the ground up, culminating in a tremendous peak of raw energy and sound — and all using just three chords and the truth.”
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