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 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.
Hey Joe/Piss Factory – 1974
This is perhaps one of our favourite covers from Smith. Her first release has her covering the Jimmy Hendrix original and pushing the track into a new light. But 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.
Gloria: in excelsis deo – 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: in Excelsis deo’ with its opening line: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” has always stuck with us.
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 for the “right to create from a stance beyond gender and or social definition, but not without a responsibility to create something of worth.”
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Twelve 2007
Not a Patti 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 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.
Rock N Roll Nigger – Easter 1978
‘Rock n Roll Nigger’ is Smith’s anthem to the outsiders. In it, she herself identifies as a ‘nigger’ and suggest that the song is redefining the word to mean artist-mutant which transcends social and gender boundaries.
This idea of the song being written for outsiders was further solidified when Marilyn Manson decided to cover it on his 1995 album, Smells Like Children, and they suggested that its outsider status was applicable to both them and their fans. Smith’s use of the word and self-identification as a ‘nigger’ has her rejecting a culture which did not encapsulate her values and experiences.
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. Smith is, in our opinion, trying to honour the beauty of such a love, while also highlighting its fatalistic nature.
The lyrics of this song are so beautiful and tragic that it is definitely the standout track from the 1979 album.
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 across the world. 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 Lovine 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.
If you’re a fan of Smith let this list soothe you, if you’re not yet a fan, let the list empower you.