Punk singer and writer, Patti Smith, arrived in New York City in the early 1970s and she had her heart set on becoming a poet and following in the footsteps of her artistic heroes: Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. These two french poets are accredited with being two of the first scribes to work in the ‘symbolist’ tradition, creating elaborate imagery through the prism of hallucinatory visions. Soaked in absinthe and fumigated by the smoke of opium dens, the two poets created a romantic scene that few rockers could turn their back on.
Not so much concerned with drug use (although marijuana was her absinthe), Smith was taken by the sheer beauty of their language and how they touched on the ethereal and the dream-realm with a hefty grounding. There was a sense that one could find the unattainable via new realities by stimulating all the senses, with chemicals or otherwise, to unimagined heights. It was in this ideal where Patti Smith got her start as a poet.
It was also with this influence that Smith approached her songwriting; what began as poetry recitals at the famed St. Mark’s Poetry Project soon transformed into impassioned performances that deluded the sojourned, then on into bouts of transformative elation — those lucky enough to have been in attendance at CBGB’s in the mid-1970s were witness to a new form of punk poetry.
Patti Smith, backed by her band, sang and screamed her fiery words against impressionable audiences. She had married the two styles together, creating a new way of consuming poetry and a brand new way of performing for a crowd. In the words of Patti Smith herself: “I did it for poetry. I did it for Rimbaud…I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll.”
As the music writer Richard Williams so poignantly wrote, Patti Smith “belonged to a time, but she didn’t belong to a movement.” Smith rose to prominence within the punk scene that centred around New York City in the mid-to-late ’70s, but the scene never really defined who she was as an artist. She has continuously been called a punk which can be misleading and limiting.
Patti Smith has always retained integrity in her music as well as her writing. She has published numerous books of poetry in addition to her relatively recent pair of memoirs, Just Kids and M Train.
In the spirit of Patti Smith’s incredible lyrical ability, we decided to take a look at her ten best lyrics.
Patti Smith’s 10 best lyrics:
10. ‘People Have The Power’
“Vengeful aspects became suspect
And bending low as if to hear
And the armies ceased advancing
Because the people had their ear
And the shepherds and the soldiers
Lay beneath the stars
And laying arms
to waste in the dust
In the form of shining valleys
Where the pure air recognised.”
Written by Patti Smith and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, who was also known for his musical career with the influential Detroit band MC5, the single was released in 1988 on Smith’s Dream of Life album. Like John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace A Chance’, Smith’s song is considered an anthem of peace and anti-war.
Smith remembers the feeling surrounding the track, stating: “We had both protested the Vietnam War when we were young. We had been part of the ’60s, where our cultural voice was really strong, and we were trying to write a song that would reintroduce that kind of energy. It’s sad for me but quite beautiful.”
She continued: “It was really Fred’s song — 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. I’ve seen people.”
9. ‘Dancing Barefoot’
“The plot of our life sweats in the dark like a face
The mystery of childbirth, of childhood itself
What is it that calls to us?”
This one is from Smith’s seminal 1979 album, Wave, and tells the story of unrequited and fatalistic love. Allegedly, it was inspired by French artist, Jeanne Hebuterne, who was the mistress of Amedeo Modigliani.
Hebuterne became so distressed after the death of Modigliani; she decided to take her own life. The song, inspired by the duality of impassioned love and suicide, is a meditation of this futile romance’s paradoxical nature, forever doomed to fail; Patti Smith observes the powerful line between birth and death.
8. ‘Redondo Beach’
“Called you on the phone, another dimension
Well, you never returned, oh you know what I mean
I went looking for you, are you gone, gone?
Down by the ocean, it was so dismal,
Women all standing with a shock on their faces
Sad description, oh I was looking for you.”
‘Redondo Beach’ is very definitive as a piece of writing that stands on its own; it was originally a poem, published in her book, Kodak, in 1972. In this piece of writing, Smith once again examines love gone extreme, almost tipping over the edge into the abyss.
Supposedly, Smith wrote the words after she got into an argument with her sister Linda, who disappeared and the poet was afraid she had gone to go harm herself. Because of how the image of harm could be misconstrued, some have interpreted the song as an argument gone awry, and the narrator’s lover commits suicide afterwards.
The beauty in all of Smith’s poetry lies in the ambiguity of its meaning.
7. ‘Because The Night’
“Have I doubt when I’m alone
Love is a ring, the telephone
Love is an angel disguised as lust
Here in our bed until the morning comes.”
One of Smith’s most famous songs of all didn’t actually come entirely from the singer. While Smith wrote the lyrics, Bruce Springsteen wrote the music and its distinctive melody, garnering one of the greatest track of the ’80s as he did.
The collaboration came about when the two artists worked with the same studio engineer, Jimmy Iovine, who had thought that Patti Smith could use a hit single.
Iovine was right. The song would skyrocket Smith to a new level of stardom, as it was widely loved across radioland. As poetic as she always is, the song’s lyrics represent Smith at her mildest in terms of her poetic temperament, but she punctuates that mildness with a passionate performance that undercuts any thoughts of banality.
6. ‘Free Money’
“Every night before I go to sleep
Find a ticket, win a lottery
Scoop the pearls up from the sea
Cash them in and buy you all the things you need.”
There’s no doubt that Smith’s career’s biggest album so far has to be the seminal 1975 effort Horses. There are plenty of good songs on the record, and, in fact, we’d probably argue that the LP deserves to be listened to as one singular piece, as it was intended. But there’s a raw intensity to ‘Free Money’, making it one of the most memorable songs on the album.
Starting life out as one of Smith’s poems, the song is another track that is open for interpretation.
Aside from any thematic direction, the song is sincerely one of Smith’s best vocal performances. It also offers a clear pathway from the landmark album release to the explosion of punk a few years later. Here, Smith is laying the foundations of an entire genre.
5. ‘Piss Factory’
“Sixteen and time to pay off
I got this job in a piss factory inspecting pipe
Forty hours thirty-six dollars a week
But it’s a paycheck, Jack.”
This started as a poem about her time she worked at a baby buggy factory, and it expresses her disdain for the mundanity of the work and promises the reader, and herself, that her ambitions won’t get crushed underneath the mediocrity of modernity.
The lyrics stay as a poem, in that she reads the lyrics as opposed to singing them. ‘Piss Factory’ is the B-side to her take on the classic ‘Hey Joe’, an old blues song that Jimi Hendrix covered as well. Smith admires Hendrix tremendously, having said about the guitar wizard in an interview with Forbes: “When I was a young girl, I met him once. I saw him a few different times in places I was having dinner or something. But I got to talk to him once about 50 years ago. And for a young girl, he was everything you would want in your rock and roll star.”
But the flipside to the Hendrix homage arguably says more about Smith as it not only opens up her personal life to her audience but ensures that it is a life we can all understand. Hell, it’s probably a life we’ve all led.
4. ‘April Fool’
“We’ll burn all of our poems
Add to god’s debris
We’ll pray to all of our saints
Icons of mystery
We’ll tramp through the mire
When our souls feel dead
With laughter, we’ll inspire
Then back to life again.”
The song appears on Patti Smith’s eleventh album, Banga. This beautiful lyric showcases Smith’s incredible eye for the rhyme, meter and structure of a well-formulated poem, proving that she can do more than write free-verse.
One of the featured guest performers is fellow post-punk veteran, Tom Verlaine from Television. As per usual, Patti Smith pulled the title of the song from literature — this time, from one of Nikolai Gogol’s books.
The song is a perfect demonstration of the technique that provides the foundation for Smith’s curated chaos. Though many of her early songs felt like guttural gasps for air, this song is measured and punched through with precision.
3. ‘Space Monkey’
“Blood on the TV ten o’clock news
Souls are invaded heart in a groove
Beating and beating so out of time
What’s the mad matter with the church chimes
Here comes a stranger up on Ninth Avenue leaning green tower indiscreet view
Over the cloud over the bridge sensitive muscle sensitive ridge.”
‘Space Monkey’ appeared on Patti Smith’s commercial breakthrough record, Easter. Blue Oyster Cult Keyboard player, Allen Lanier, makes an appearance on this record but, in truth, the song is all about Smith’s fearsome lyrics.
These lyrics portray the side to Smith’s writing that is very much inspired by beat poetry and literature. There are some slight Christian undertones in this song, as religious themes permeate the entire album of Easter but, otherwise, the album is a sincere and authentic reflection of Smith’s esteemed literary mind.
Not one of her most famed songs, ‘Space Monkey’ is a distillation of what makes Smith so alluring.
2. ‘Break It Up’
“Car stopped in a clearing,
Ribbon of life, it was nearing.
I saw the boy break out of his skin.
My heart turned over and I crawled in.
He cried, “Break it up, oh I don’t understand.”
‘Break it Up’ appears on her seminal debut record Horses, and the song is about none other than Jim Morrison. The Doors singer appeared in a dream she had after Smith visited his tombstone at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Smith elaborates on this; it is an excerpt taken from one of her books of collections of lyrics: “I had this dream. I came in on a clearing. There were natives in a circle bending and gesturing. I saw a man stretched across a marble slab. Jim Morrison.”
She continued: “He was alive with wings that merged with the marble. Like Prometheus, he struggled, but freedom was beyond him. I stood over him chanting, break it up break it up break it up… The stone dissolved and he moved away. I brushed the feathers from my hair, adjusted my pillow, and returned to sleep.”
It’s one of Smith’s more literal pieces as it opens up on such specific imagery, but, despite being so heavily ingrained in reality, it also shows Smith’s uncanny ability to transcend terra firma and make music for the heavens.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine
Meltin’ in a pot of thieves
Wild card up my sleeve
Thick heart of stone
My sins my own
They belong to me, me.”
Before Patti Smith wrote her own words to the beginning of the classic Van Morrison song ‘Gloria’, the singer had written a poem, called ‘Oath’, which contained her first iconic opening lines to her song: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”
Patti’s take on the Morrison song packed such a punch that just really took the world by storm at the time. Michael Stipe of R.E.M, for instance, recalled how: “It tore my limbs off and put them back on in a whole new order.” It’s a feeling that many artists can attest to.
Smith’s visceral line refused to be confined to the poetry sessions surrounding the Big Apple, where such provocative statements were allowed and encouraged. It put the singer in the firing line for conservatives across the country, but rather than be scared or even bothered by such a thing — Smith relished in it.
It was the whole reason she got on the stage in the first place.