We’re big fans of the original punk poet, Patti Smith, here at Far Out. The singer remains a pioneering bastion of creative spirit and expressive performance. Her originality in the mid-seventies sets her apart from the crowd and still makes her a vital contributor even as she enjoys her seventh decade on the planet. That said, it is perhaps when covering the work of others when Patti Smith really shines brightest.
Across a varied and expansive career, Patti Smith has covered some of the most special talents of the music world, lending her unique vocal and impassioned performance to tracks from esteemed artists like Ramones, Bob Dylan, Nirvana, and many more. While it may feel counter-intuitive to reflect on such a unique singer’s adaptations of other people’s songs, the truth is, the way Smith negotiates and connects with the material at hand, is a shuddering reminder of what makes music so beautiful — the people.
The singer, who initially found fame following her mix of poetry and the new punk ethos that was beginning to swell around the trash-filled streets of New York, soon established herself as a far more encompassing artist than her contemporaries. While her album Horses would propel Smith into the relative limelight of mid-70s rock circles, it was her unstoppable artistic drive which endeared her to so many’s hearts and continues to see her as a champion of punk spirit and creative endurance to this day. Yet still, it is her ability to express another artist’s work that shows her true power in the clearest detail.
Patti Smith is, above all else, authentic. It can be seen in her lyrics that are unabashed, charismatic and honest throughout, whether dealing with love or religion, they remain true enough to Smith’s outlook. It can be seen too in her blood, sweat and tears performances. Even her vocal, though not academically perfect by any stretch, is stylistically strong and gripping—it sounds like the Smith’s true inner voice, not one she’s affected for plaudits or pounds.
By being so unaffected and honest with her work has allowed Smith to interpret other’s stories as the audience does and deliver her own rendition deeply rendered with the feeling of connection. It is within her covers of other musician’s songs where she shows she is a true poet — the voice of herself, the voice of her generation.
Patti Smith’s 10 best covers of all time:
‘Let’s Twist Again’ – Chubby Checker
First up on the list is this 1976 cover of Chubby Checker’s ruptured-ACL-inducing hit, ‘Let’s Twist Again’. The pop hit from 1961 clearly resonated with the punk as she gave a rousing performance of the track in this footage. Perhaps it was reminiscent of her childhood in Jersey, dancing to records and readying herself for the world.
The footage comes from a 1976 gig at the Cirque Royal in Brussels and sees Patti Smith not only being interviewed but doing what she does best and effortlessly performing a host of incredible tracks from her brilliant seminal album Horses as well as the incredible cover.
It’s a rare clip that offers a beautiful insight into Patti Smith at, what some might say, is her musical peak. While the rest of punk was trying to torch the music of the past, Patti Smith was paying homage in the most perfect fashion.
‘Like A Rolling Stone’ – Bob Dylan
Patti Smith may well be one of the only people in the world to cover the enigmatic Bob Dylan and do it justice. Whether it’s because of her affiliation with the singer’s city of choice or her lasting friendship with the icon, either way, Smith covers ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ like nobody else.
She remembers of first meeting Dylan that she initially was full of unwarranted bluster and was noticeably rude to the singer. Luckily, he didn’t seem to mind: “A few days later I was walking down 4th Street by the Bottom Line and I saw him coming.” she recalled, “He put his hand in his jacket—he was still wearing the same clothes he had on in the picture, which I liked—and he takes out the Village Voice picture and says, ‘Who are these two people? You know who these people are?’ Then he smiled at me and I knew it was all right.”
This 2005 cover was filmed at Smith’s gig in Montreux, Switzerland, with original Patti Smith Group members guitarist and vocalist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, Television guitarist Tom Verlaine, and Smith’s longtime bassist, keyboardist, and vocalist Tony Shanahan. It is a lush and velvety offering and shows off Smith’s powerful vocal.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – Nirvana
The first entry from Patti Smith’s 2007 covers album Twelve is Nirvana’s 1991 Nevermind classic and anthem for the disenfranchised, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Smith’s cover of the iconic grunge song was unlike any other and while covers of Nirvana are usually lambasted, this one feels potent.
“When Nirvana came out, I was really excited,” Smith once 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’s torments or personal life. I saw the work and the energy, and I was excited by that. It was a tremendous shock — quite a blow to me — when he died.”
Smith’s version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, takes Cobain’s work and swirls it around in her moody, dark-folk world of creativity. At one point, Smith, perhaps naturally, breaks from the formula and adds in her free-flowing poetry to compliment Cobain’s lyrics. While it’s a cover that will likely leave Cobain fans wanting, they often are anyhow, the cover is a gem for Smith’s fans.
‘Pale Blue Eyes’ – the Velvet Underground
Don’t forget, Patti Smith is a badass so, of course, she performed a punk version of Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ in 1976. The song, written by and sung by the late and great Lou Reed, was included on the band’s 1969 album The Velvet Underground.
Smith, who had just released her critically acclaimed Horses in late 1975, was touring the record around the States and Europe when she landed in Stockholm late on in 1976. Warming to the crowd, she performed the Velvet Underground track and incorporated a bit of The Kingsmen’s iconic number ‘Louie Louie’ towards the end of the song’s performance.
While the track has been covered by a number of well-known figures within the music industry over the years, Patti Smith’s version gained notoriety as she performed the song live from the 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Smith, famously close friends with Lou Reed, has never been shy to show her admiration for the Velvet Underground frontman. “His consciousness infiltrated and illuminated our cultural voice,” she said when she was chosen to give a speech while Reed was added to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Lou was a poet, able to fold his poetry within his music in the most poignant and plainspoken manner. Oh, such a perfect day.”
‘Everybody Hurts’ – R.E.M.
Whether it is Bob Dylan or Nirvana, Smith has an uncanny ability to be able to mould someone’s song into a piece that sounds like one of her own. This 2007 cover of R.E.M’s ‘Everybody Hurts’ is a testament to that and a reminder of Smith’s searing connection.
As unique and potent as you are likely to find, Michael Stipe’s crystal polished croon is replaced by Smith’s vulnerable and accessible tone, marking her out as a continued voice for the downtrodden and desperate. It allows the grand rises and sullen falls to connect with greater volition and with it Smith fully establishes the emotion of the song, if there was any doubt.
Smith’s cover of the iconic track is spellbindingly beautiful. The cover was completed as part of Smith’s fantastic 2007 album Twelve and ranks highly among the best tracks on the LP.
‘Hey Joe’ – Jimi Hendrix
A sort-of folk song from the sixties, ‘Hey Joe’ my remain as one of Smith’s most famous covers. Taking on the song that the late great Jimi Hendrix had made his own in 1966 was always going to be a big task but Smith was clearly up to it and, frankly, she knocked it out of the park.
Smith’s a clear fan of Hendrix too, even noting his lyrical talents on one of her favourite songs ‘1983… A Merman I Should Turn To Be’: “If I had to take a lyric and put it on my tombstone, I would take Jimi Hendrix, ‘Hooray I awake from yesterday’. Every day I think of that line. It gives me hope, it also reinforces how wonderful it is to be alive, no matter how rough things are.”
Many people were struck when in 1974 the release of ‘Hey Joe’ as the A-side to her song ‘Piss Factory’, was so different from the Hendrix one they all knew and loved. It was because Smith used the blues arrangement of Roy Buchanan’s version to add a new engaging slant on the song. It certainly works a treat and puts Patti Smith in command of a classic Hendrix song.
‘My Generation’ – The Who
Before Johnny Rotten was spitting on anything that resembled an establishment, Smith was creating rock and roll designed to agitate, performed to perfection, and filled with the impassioned intelligent destruction. Her album Horses is a testament to that and works as proof that Smith was living it while others just wrote about the lifestyle.
One such track on the album ‘Gloria’ remains today one of the most engaging moments on the album. A cover, or more rightly, an adaptation of Them’s song ‘Gloria’, the single from the landmark album was released in 1976, complete with a B-side live cover of The Who’s groundbreaking song ‘My Generation’. It was the youth anthem of the sixties, it symbolised the removal of their parents’ shackles in the most brilliant way.
It is this idea that Smith takes, chews up, spits out and displays for all to see. It is that notion that is the epitome of punk. This is not an unadulterated outpouring of emotion, nor homage to the generation prior, this is a carefully cultured and deliberate destruction of everything before it. Even if it did lay along the same lines.
When Hilly Kristal, the legendary owner of punk venue CBGB’s in New York (not the evil twin brother of Billy Crystal), finally had to give in on the financial demands of a small music venue and close down CBGB’s there was one woman determined to make sure the venue got the send-off it deserved.
It was also a chance to not only pay tribute to the iconic venue but its inhabitants. After all, they made it what it was. The Ramones must’ve been the first name on the list for Smith to cover.
Here, she performs a medley of Ramones and while we figure out how she learned all those different chords patterns… it provides some brilliant entertainment.
‘Gimme Shelter’ – The Rolling Stones
At the same night in 2006, closing the grimy doors of CBGB’s Smith also gave a special performance of one of the artist’s foremost influences—The Rolling Stones. Covering ‘Gimme Shelter’ with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea on bass, she adds her own unique viewpoint on the iconic song.
The vocals are off the charts and the electrical charged that swirled around the dirgy room for one last time is tangible throughout.
Arriving on such a famous stage could intimidate some people but, for Patti, it was a home away form home and she destroyed the stage with her bruning performance.
‘White Rabbit’ – Jefferson Airplane
Another such undying influence on Smith was likely the incredibly powerful vocalist Grace Slick, lead singer of subversive hippy overlords Jefferson Airplane, and the vocal on the iconic song ‘White Rabbit’. As part of Twelve Smith shows off her ability to jump on a classic song and make it her own, while still paying homage to the original. It means she’s one of the best in the business at doing a cover the right way.
Listen below to her cover of Jefferson Airplane’s counterculture classic, ‘White Rabbit’. The song’s trippy nature is perfectly gobbled up by Smith’s subversive style of performance as she does her best to match up Slick’s incredible style. Smith rises to the challenge.