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Patti Smith's love for Leonard Cohen and the problem with aspiring "rock poets"

Rock ‘n’ roll is a strange beast. It is an all-encompassing spirit that is as much of a way of life as it is a musical mode. Understandably then, it takes its inspirations from a whole host of areas from across the creative disciplines. A mesh of ideas, and in many ways a set of contradictions, rock ‘n’ roll has given us some of the most refreshing and interesting music ever released.

In fact, the majority of modern advances in music were first made in rock. We’re not just talking about the music itself but the attitudes, and the cultural change they brought. If we briefly mention Little Richard, The Beatles, punk and Kurt Cobain, you heed what we mean. As well as being a vast spectrum that has many subgenres, rock is the definition of creative intersectionality.

One of its core facets is its deep-rooted relationship with literature, opening the listener up to authors we never would have heard of, and often this is life-changing. Authors inspire musicians, and then they inspire you, simple. In fact, the amount of literature that has influenced music, in general, is dizzying.

As rock usually involves lyrics, and discusses every human emotion and thought possible, it comes as little surprise that rock specifically owes a lot to literature. Many of our musical heroes are well-read individuals, who are equally as well-versed in the many different worlds and universes that literature creates, providing their music with another means of transporting both the musician and the literature away from the mundanity of everyday life. Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Joe Strummer, Joni Mitchell — the list of musical icons influenced by literature is innumerable, and a whole thesis could and have been written on it.

If we want to scratch even further under the surface, we see that rock has cultivated an almost symbiotic relationship with poetry over the years. The aforementioned heroes and the likes of Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen were deeply indebted to the realm of poetry. Cohen probably the most of all, and he even started his creative career as a poet before eventually moving into music.

There’s a yin and yang relationship between rock and poetry that needs no real discussion. In briefly mentioning this association though, you will have noticed that we missed out Patti Smith, who is hailed as the ‘punk poet laureate’.

A true wordsmith of the modern age, Smith has influenced everyone from Madonna to Johnny Marr. This extensive and glamorous list of disciples has given her an air of respect that is only superseded by Dylan and Cohen. Like Dylan and Cohen, she is a profoundly cerebral wordsmith, and her works are so touching. They manage to marry themes from both society and fiction, creating unique magic that many have tried and failed to imitate.

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Given that she is so well-respected, Smith’s opinions aren’t to be taken lightly. In her 2010 memoir, Just Kids, she provided a take that many aspiring musicians need to hear. She discussed the ilk of musicians she comes from such as Dylan, Cohen and Joni Mitchell, and how many try to latch onto its power in a bid to secure fame.

She discussed how these sycophants nearly killed “rock poets” off by not listening to the work of Leonard Cohen. Although this seems very severe, she explained why: “Any musician who described himself or herself as a poet who didn’t answer to the name Leonard Cohen virtually guaranteed disappointment. Too many self-styled rock poets had nearly killed the phenomenon.”

In ascribing the title “self-styled”, Smith makes her point very clear. It is as fitting today as it was back in the 1970s.

If you want to make it big or to have any palpable form of success, you need to be well versed in the greats. No one is good enough at the start to just make it instantly. Put the work in, travel, listen to the works of the greats and maybe, one day, you’ll sit in the same gilded halls as Smith, Cohen and Dylan.

Listen to Patti Smith give some advice to aspiring “rock poets” below.