There aren’t many stars of the stage or screen that can rightfully stand under the spotlight and declare themselves 100% authentic. While Patti Smith would likely never attempt such a thing, seeing the fallacy in doing so, it’s hard to recognise another singer or songwriter who has operated with such transparency as a bastion for the creative mind and the unfettered expression of it.
Patricia Lee Smith is, without doubt, one of the most vital performers in the world of music and perhaps thanks to her roots in the beat poetry of her salad days, she has always given as much of herself to her audience as possible. Channelling her poems into songs was one leap of faith that saw Smith reign supreme and, below, we’re taking a look back at ten of the singer’s most triumphant moments as we share our ten favourite Patti Smith songs of all time.
Starting out in the music scene with just an electric guitar backing her incredible poetry, Patti Smith quickly assembled a fanbase completely captivated by her visceral performance. Unflinching and unwilling to bend to demand, Smith created a brand new sound and, in many ways, laid down the foundations of punk rock in New York. It was her attitude, her no holds barred approach and her unshakable sense of self that guaranteed her a place on the musical mantle.
Smith has rightly become a figurehead for the entire rock scene with her devotion to creativity and, unlike many of her punk counterparts, has never seen the end of her own pulsating era as an end to either her or anybody else’s need and desire for expression. Lyrically, Smith is one of the finest in punk history but her general songwriting deserves to be appreciated too.
Below, we’re bringing you ten of our favourite Patti Smith songs of all time.
Patti Smith’s 10 best songs:
10. ‘Dancing Barefoot’
‘Dancing Barefoot’ is dedicated to Jeanne Hebuterne, a French artist and mistress of Amedeo Modigliani. Here, Smith’s lyricism shines through, and her mystical lyrics depict a love of Shakespearean calibre. It’s reported that Hebuterne was so devastated by the death of Modigliani that she ended her own life two days after he passed on.
In our opinion, Smith is trying to honour such a love and its beauty while also highlighting its fatalistic nature. This song’s lyrics are so beautiful and tragic that it is definitely the standout track from the 1979 album and works as one of the singer’s most gorgeous moments.
9. ‘Dream of Life’
By the eighties, the aggression of punk had largely been gobbled up by commercialism. Patti Smith may have been at the forefront of a movement that helped to bridge the gap for many angry adolescents, but she suffered similarly as rock ‘n’ roll struggled to make an impact in the new world of lycra and leg warmers.
Following Wave Smith had chosen to break up her band and hold off recording for nearly a decade. They returned with Dream of Life and tried to rally against the demands of the decade. The title track is one of the best from the album and showcases Smith at one of her most solemn moments.
8. ‘Peaceable Kingdom’
Patti Smith has continued to find herself a searing career in the 21st century and, through an apative array of talents, she has found herself still as vitally important as ever. In 2007, Smith would release Twelve an album comprised entirely of covers but a few years prior she released the fantastic LP, Trampin.
On that record landed quite possibly one of Smith’s most beautiful pieces. “I wanted to tell you that your tears were not in vain, but I guess we both knew we’d never be the same,” sings Smith, offering a moment of authentic balance and a poignant piece of songwriting.
7. ‘Paths That Cross’
By and large, the eighties were a rough place for those acts who had founded the punk movement in the late seventies. The bands had largely either burnt out, faded away or turned their attentions to ascending the charts. All except Patti Smith who, instead, turned her music inwards and delivered some of her most personal music. Dream of Life her album from 1988 is proof of that.
There’s a beauty that comes with seeing the softer side of a previously perceived diamond in the rock and, on ‘Paths That Cross,’ Smith’s gentle moments come to the fore. Like any great art, the song is widely open to interpretation, just as many of Smith’s finest poems were too.
6. ‘Hey Joe/Piss Factory’
This is perhaps one of Patti Smith’s greatest ever. Her first release has her covering the Jimi Hendrix original and pushing the track into a new light. However, the B-side ‘Piss Factory’ is something all in its own.
Originally written as a poem, this represents her change over from simply being a poet to being a musician. This was the beginning of what would become a career of combining poetry and music, putting her up there with her own heroes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, marking her out as an artist above all else. The rawness behind her debut EP is incendiary and the description she gives to this time in her life, in Just Kids, her memoir which is a must-read.
Smith was an outspoken major fan of Hendrix, pawing over his work from a very young age. “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,” Smith once explained in an interview with Forbes. “He was beautiful, intelligent, hungry. Just to look at him was an experience, I’m talking about when I was in my early 20s. But he was quite something.”
5. ‘Free Money’
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 which 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.
4. ‘People Have The Power’
Patti Smith has never been far away from politics. In fact, only recently she labelled Donald Trump’s time as president of the United States as “a terrible atmosphere to live in,” the singer also widely supported Greta Thunberg’s climate action. It means that there is no surprise such a unifying song came out of her creative mind.
Taken from Dream of Life back in 1988, the song offers some very forthright opinions on the next step for the oppressed: “People have the power to redeem the work of fools/ Upon the meek the graces shower; it’s decreed, the people rule.” Things kick up a notch on the final verse as Smith begs the people to understand the power they have at their disposal. It’s a song for the ages.
3. ‘Redondo Beach’
1975’s Horses was undoubtedly filled with some of the most visceral and volatile sounds the world had ever heard, but there was one song that managed to lay the foundations for the future and harken back to the past — ‘Redondo Beach’. The song is one of the most jovial on the album as it recalls the summers spent languishing in the ocean’s lapping waves.
There are loose themes of lesbianism in the song and more than a hefty dose of reggae but by mixing all of them up together, with an extra helping Smith’s attitude. You essentially get all the ingredients for The Clash’s own watermark record, London Calling. Of course, Smith would never fully explore this side of her output but, for one shining moment on her debut record, Patti Smith brings sunshine, warmth and a heartfelt bop.
2. ‘Because The Night’ – Easter (1978)
We contemplated in great detail whether to include this song on this list, but what would it look like without perhaps her most famous song? Written by Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, this song catapulted her from punk poet of New York to musical genius known to many; for this reason, it holds the ultimate place in this list.
The song rose to 13 in the Billboard Hot 100 charts and brought ‘Easter’ into houses worldwide. But it also illustrates her progression as an artist due to her collaboration with Bruce Springsteen. In what is probably her best-known track—though many may not even know it is Patti singing it. Springsteen was recording in New York at the same time as Smith and shared a connection in sound engineer/producer Jimmy Iovine who brought them together to collaborate on this song. Springsteen allegedly struggled with the track before Iovine suggested he hand it over to Smith to perform, to which Bruce responded something along the lines of: “if she can do it, she can have it.”
She could and she did.
Smith’s debut album Horses, released in 1975, cannot be missed off the list—but picking a single track is beyond challenging. The song ‘Gloria’ with its opening line: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” has always stuck as one of the greatest opening lines of any song or album.
Smith’s combination of the poem ‘Oath’ with the Van Morrison classic ‘Gloria’ illustrates that no artist is alone and no artist is quite like Patti Smith. Her constant use of material from other musicians who inspire her is a reminder that inspiration comes from those we admire, working in tandem with our own creativity.
When asked about the song, Smith once said it represents the “right to create from a stance beyond gender and or social definition, but not without a responsibility to create something of worth.” For us, there is no moment in her canon that more accurately defines the great Patti Smith.