Patti Smith is a bonafide icon and one of the most influential creatives of all time. Many have tried and failed to imitate the mystique of the heroine we all know as the ‘Punk Poet Laureate’, which tells you a great deal about the quality of her artistry. Unique to her lived experience, Smith’s extensive back catalogue is a varied yet thrilling journey.
Smith is an essential part of New York and America’s complex cultural musical DNA. After working on a factory assembly line on arrival to New York, she performed spoken word poetry anywhere and everywhere, and later, she formed the Patti Smith Group.
While her relationship with Television’s Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith caused her to put her singing career on hold, after his death, she made an incredible return, publishing an array of immensely successful books and poetry collections. In addition to this, Patti Smith toured the world on an almost constant basis.
One facet of Smith’s career that really stands out is her relationship with many of America’s most lauded musicians, and this makes her tales so captivating. She’s seen and done it all, and duly, she speaks with a wisdom worthy of the Oracle of Delphi. She helped signal punk’s advent and toured with Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, a wild, self-generating musical road trip unlike any the world had seen at that point.
Her thoughts on the music of others are also brilliant. An avid listener with an extensive knowledge of music, there’s no genre that Smith is afraid of delving into. In 2014, she was even kind enough to list her favourite songs for some of the most critical events in life during an interview with ShortList. In the list, Smith picked tracks from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Martha and the Vandellas and Little Richard, to name but a few. Smith’s collection is a clear reflection that the classics never go out of style.
Another question posed to Smith that caught our attention concerned which lyrics are the most important to her. Innately, Smith found it hard to choose: “Well there’s a million of’ em…so it would change, like ten minutes from now. So I didn’t know how to answer this, I thought I’d see what I say,” she replied.
In the end, though, she picked three songs, selecting Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ and the lyric “I got nothing, Ma, to live up to”, The Beatle effort ‘Strawberry Fields’ and Lennon’s line “nothing is real and nothing to get hung about” and the line “hooray I awake from yesterday” from Hendrix’s ‘1983… A Merman I Should Turn To Be’.
It’s interesting that Smith singled out the track ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ as one of her all-time favourites. The seven-minute take from Dylan’s first electric album Bringing It All Back Home features some of the most memorable lyrical work from ‘The Bard’. From one countercultural poet to another, there’s no surprise that Patti Smith loved Dylan’s work on this track.
The picture that Dylan paints on ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ is a stark one. Some of the most well-known lines are “He not busy being born is busy dying,” “Money doesn’t talk, it swears,” “Although the masters make the rules, for the wisemen and the fools”, and “But even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.”
The lyrics display Dylan’s frustration at hypocrisy, consumerism, commercialism and how war is always at the forefront of modern American culture. Classically Dylan, the lyrics do not just exist in the political realm either. He discusses existential concerns as well as personal experiences. Although it’s taken from the album where Dylan went electric, the song is acoustic and is more like early Dylan than the commercial behemoth he was at that point in 1965, another reason why it is so cherished.
Organic and intellectual, you can see how ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ had an effect on Patti Smith and many others of her generation, for that matter. When she came into her own as a poet and musician, her songs would also touch on a wide variety of topics with a deft perception that imbued her work with a density that remains refreshing today.
Listen to ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ below.