To call anybody the ‘Godmother of Punk’ is a grandiose statement. To snatch a thread from the creative ether and champion it as the first is a game that deals with pithy epigrams that fall apart under the slightest bit of hard-hitting scrutiny. Punk, by definition, can’t be pinned on a single person; it crawled from the plashy depths that rock and roll landed in after the prelapsarian slip of the ‘60s and snarled up like a straggly dirge to that loss of innocence. It came clad in drainpipe trousers and copious leather, and it needed a nurturing hand.
Patti Smith was that nurturing hand. And Patti Smith is nothing if not grandiose. The opening stanza to her memoir concludes, “men cannot judge it, for art sings of God and ultimately belongs to him,” and the first lyric she ever put forward to the world in the opening rap to her 1975 debut album, Horses, was “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”
In her words she speaks to a higher level, one that both belongs to, and is of art. It is also one that transcends the punk boundaries of piss, spit and platitudes and relishes in the need for “freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are.”
In punk, Patti Smith found the underlying principals behind creativity, and she propagated them with unfettered affection for art. If ever a genre had a mother, then it is the ovaries of Patti Smith that deserve to be lionised as the humble inception ground for the incendiary attack on the mainstream that was the fictive fuck-about of punk rock and roll. It was the youth movement that snarled its way from the pillow-propped idolising of blackened bedrooms to the rarefied air of the charts.
Patti Smith isn’t so fond of the ‘Godmother of Punk’ label herself. An attitude that, in a way, is pretty much on the nose for punk rock. Besides the irony lies a truth that sticks in her craw and trumps the token title – that her early work is not some rictus cataclysm of genre tropes embodied in time but an ethereal transfiguration of disillusioned youth in revolt and reflection. And it is from this confluence of inward introspection and elucidation of life at large that her art springs forth. If Bob Dylan had been the voice of the sixties, then he had to step aside for the sumptuous voice of Smith that his counterculture ways helped spawn.
At some point in the sixties, Patti Smith had started off with poetry. By 1967 she had left her Chicagoan home behind and delved into the melee of Manhattan culture. In this liberated world, the hardships of tough city living were always tempered by the boon of art and the sanguine hue of creative spirit. Within this menagerie of art and civility, Patti Smith forged an identity as a modern renaissance woman. Her poetry and spoken word made an impact, but it was clear to Smith that something was missing within the mainstream that needed to be illuminated with a broader brush. The heroes of the sixties had fallen in the purple haze of an inevitable comedown and Patti recognised that they had taken something essential with them and the only way to recapture that essence was through the maelstrom of music.
As she told Mojo Magazine, “I was young, but I felt our cultural voice was in jeopardy and needed an infusion of new people and ideas. I didn’t feel like I was the one. I didn’t consider myself a musician in any way, but I was a poet and performer, and I did feel that I understood where we were at, what we’d been given and where we should go, and if I could voice it, perhaps it could inspire the next generation.” This was the mothering that punk needed, and it was Patti’s proliferation of poignancy that catapulted it from cult skylarking to a vital creative voice.
She started a collaboration with guitarist Lenny Kaye and found a way for music to lend her poems a visceral edge that could infuse the current faltering mainstream and usurp the creeping banality that had begun to infect rock and roll. Smith and Kaye soon recruited Ivan Krahl, Richard Sohl and the drummer who broke up the rhyming pattern, Jay Dee Daugherty.
The band’s simple grungy melodies formed the perfect bludgeoning bed for Patti’s iconoclastic intellect. The five-piece soon began to stir up the settling dust of rock and roll in a raucous ruction of searing originality. The spit and sawdust soil of New York’s iconic dive bar, CBGB’s, proved to be the perfect flower bed for the band to boom and blossom into an act that would change the world.
Under the recommendation of New York’s foremost guitar forebearer, Lou Reed, the band were soon signed up. They entered the studio with Lou Reed’s former Velvet Underground bandmate, John Cale, on production. On November 10th, 1975, their course of the cultural history-changing debut, Horses, seized the tailwind of rock and spun it off in an amorphous new storm.
As Patti Smith once told NPR, “I was consciously trying to make a record that would make a certain type of person not feel alone. People who were like me, different… I wasn’t targeting the whole world. I wasn’t trying to make a hit record.” In short, that is what every musical youth movement has been about in history – the outward expression of the insular realm that illuminates a generation’s attitude in one unifying blow.
Horses inspired everyone from Nick Cave and his Bad Seed’s bandmates to R.E.M. and all-girl groups like Hole. The record created a space for rumination within the riotous milieu of punk without losing any of its cutthroat visceral edge that seethed out from youth’s ungrateful tongue and it is this has proved an abiding influence forevermore.
Punk recrystallised rock and roll with a respectful nod to the past and a pithy sideways slur of “we’ll take it from here, thanks”. It was born from an attitude that having something to say was more important than proficiency and Patti and her bandmates had plenty to say. As fellow punk poet laureate, the mad doctor of Salford, John Cooper Clarke said, “Lyrics became important for a while in the late Seventies. Patti Smith was a poet and a rock star, as much one as the other, the distinctions were a bit blurred and then you get swept up in it. Punk poet, it’s a good enough term.”
In short, punk made guitars fun again. As fellow seminal seventies rocker Richard Hell explains in his brilliant book, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, “What other intelligent way to live is there but to laugh about it? The alternative, also respectable, is suicide. But how could you do that? Not only would it betray a woeful lack of humour, but it would keep you from finding out what was going to happen next.” The Godmother of Punk has always been about what happens next in an ever-evolving career, and it is with this finger to the pulse attitude and passion for self-expression that Patti Smith saved rock and roll.