Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Patti Smith
“No one expected me. Everything awaited me.” ― Patti Smith
As the calls for rock ‘n’ roll’s funeral seem evermore deafening, we are doing our bit to help educate our readers on some of the genre’s greatest ever artists and, perhaps most importantly, their foundational figures. While some of these acts are rightly known as icons, we’re a little concerned that they will remain just that—icons. For us, the real pleasure of such stars is the art they created so we are handing out a crash course in some of music’s finest, this time we’re bringing you the six definitive songs of the punk pioneer, Patti Smith.
As we aim to offer up a little insight into the icons of the 20th century, we’re distilling their back catalogues into just six of their most defining songs. The tracks that offer up the first steps in getting to know the music and the person behind the legend, not just the most famous songs we all know and love.
As far as artists go, few are as prolific as Patti Smith. There is mastery and creativity in everything she does, to the point where she could probably scribble on an old receipt and create something beautiful.
Her career, like her life, is vast. When she moved to New York, she slept on doorsteps and was practically homeless but still managed to create a life for herself, which combined her love of music, literature and art. Her life seems to be filled with serendipity and chance encounters, from meeting Jimi Hendrix on a fire escape at a party to writing a poem for Janis Joplin. Her book Just Kids, paints a picture of a world which was much smaller and simpler.
Choosing six songs which define Smith’s career is not an easy feat. She combines poetry with music so beautifully that all of her songs can be taken as either. Her lyrics are magical, her music is raw and unapologetic, and her voice is not what one might call pristine, but it is beautiful in its imperfection. Her coverage of songs written and performed by other artists illustrates that she is not without her own inspirations and she masters the art of taking something which already exists and making it her own.
With this in mind, we have tried to include a combination of original material as well as covers to choose the six definitive songs of her career.
Six definitive songs of Patti Smith:
‘Hey Joe/Piss Factory’ (1974)
This is perhaps one of Patti Smith’s greatest ever. Her first release has her covering the Jimmy 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, 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.”
She added: “He was such a great loss because he was only 27 years old. He was going to evolve in magnificent places. His ambition to create a new language through music and to work with all kinds of musicians from all over the world, and just develop a language of peace, as he called it. When I was younger I just loved him, I loved his songs, I’d daydream about him. But at this time in my life, as an artist, I appreciate him even more deeply. But also I never get tired, I’ve never outgrown him. There is some music that I loved when I was younger that I can listen to nostalgically. But I don’t listen to him nostalgically. I’m taken away, swept away by it still.”
‘Gloria’ – Horses (1975)
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 with me.
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. 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.”
‘Because The Night’ – Easter (1978)
We contemplated in great detail whether to include this song on this list, but what would a definitive list of Patti Smith songs 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 Lovine 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.”
Trying to define an artist like Patti Smith in
just six songs is pretty close to impossible. Her wealth of songs, poetry and
prose make her one of the most mercurial artists of her generation and beyond. Each
has its own story and places her, along with her literary works, among the
great writers and musicians of our time.
‘Dancing Barefoot’ – Wave (1979)
‘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.
‘Dream of Life’ – Dream of Life (1988)
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.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – Twelve (2007)
Not a Patti Smith original but what is so magical about when artists cover songs written by other musicians is their personal interpretation, and Patti doesn’t disappoint. The song, originally composed by Nirvana and released on their second studio album, Nevermind, is reimagined by Patti on her album Twelve. Her version is raw, powerful and stripped back; full of emotion and anger.
What Smith does so beautifully and gracefully, through her performance of other artists’ songs, is a highlight that no artist is alone in their creative force. Her work takes inspiration from other artists, from authors and musicians. She shows that no one is alone in their art, that all who create are connected in inspiration and creation. I think this is something that has always been prevalent in her career and continues to be a driving force in what she writes and composes. Smith’s interpretation of the Nirvana classic allows the poignant lyrics to shine through and it is a reintroduction to a song known to most.