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(Credit: Stephen L Harlow)

Music

The vital importance of Patti Smith

Some describe Joni Mitchell as the feminine answer to Bob Dylan because of her similarities in style and influence on the folk-inspired drive in singer-songwriter based music in the late 1960s and ’70s. Others will say Patti Smith is the female Bob Dylan for her sheer individuality and singular impact on not just the musical landscape but the cultural revolution of the 20th century. Personally, I would side with the latter; Smith has been one of the most important female icons in rock music for over five decades and has shown that true musicianship means pushing the boundaries of convention and broadening minds.

However, despite the obvious flattery of being compared to Bob Dylan, it is, of course, unfair to cast Smith so far under his large shadow; she is a powerful figure in her own right. I often think of Dylan when thinking of Smith simply because of their close professional and musical relationship that blossomed in late 1960s New York City.

In an interview with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Smith reflected on her first-ever meeting with Bob Dylan. She explained that the first meeting with one of her biggest songwriting idols was fearsome as she took to the stage with the fresh knowledge that the freewheelin’ troubadour was in the building. “Somebody told us he was there. My heart was pounding,” she explained. We often dream of meeting our heroes, but when we do, the encounter can be decidedly strange and romantic images of cool, calm and collected can go right out the door.

Smith continued, explaining her first encounter with Dylan following the show, “I got instantly rebellious. I made a couple of references, a couple of oblique things to show I knew he was there. And then he came backstage, which was really quite gentlemanly of him. He came over to me, and I kept moving around. We were like two pit bulls, circling,” remembers Smith, noting her punk roots. “I was a snot-nose. I had a very high concentration of adrenaline. He said to me, ‘Any poets around here?’ And I said, ‘I don’t like poetry anymore. Poetry sucks!’” and from that moment on, the two remained close friends and creative influences on each other – history had been made.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Smith rose to reasonable prominence in New York as a spoken word poet. Her avant-garde word arrangements made for an enigmatic lyrical artwork while the energetic, quirky delivery gave something novel that intrigued and drew people in. Smith was an all-round creative and so naturally gravitated to the famed artist’s retreat, the Hotel Chelsea, in 1969 where she would live for a while with her boyfriend, the now-famous photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. One of Smith’s earliest recorded releases was a spoken word soundtrack for Sandy Daley’s art film Robert Having His Nipple Pierced, which starred Mapplethorpe. 

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Over the early 1970s, Smith would continue to surf the bustle of New York City and found herself involved in a multitude of artistic duties, whether it was writing, acting, singing or painting. Her most notable activity included an appearance with Wayne County in Jackie Curtis’s play Femme Fatale, and lyrical contributions to the rock group Blue Öyster Cult for whom she contributed on ‘Debbie Denise’ (inspired by her poem ‘In Remembrance of Debbie Denise’), ‘Baby Ice Dog’, ‘Career of Evil’, ‘Fire of Unknown Origin’, ‘The Revenge of Vera Gemini’ (on which she performs duet vocals), and ‘Shooting Shark’.

By 1974, Smith was up to her waist in rock music, an area she had before only dipped her toes into as a small segment of her eclectic interest in the arts. She began performing music alongside guitarist, bassist and rock archivist Lenny Kaye and used her poetic lyrics to give a unique and energetic style of rock that had a predated resemblance to punk. Shortly, they recruited a fully-fledged band and recorded their first single, ‘Hey Joe / Piss Factory’, which gave a more artful rendition of the rock standard on side A with a spoken word piece about a fugitive heiress named Patty Hearst. A court later heard that Hearst had been incarcerated against her will, and had been repeatedly threatened with execution and raped. On the B-side, the narrative shifts to the story of Smith’s youth as she describes the alienation she had experienced while working in a factory assembly line. Towards the end, she expresses the salvation she dreams of achieving by escaping to New York.

Smith’s breakthrough to global recognition came with the release of her 1975 album Horses. The album was recorded with her band known as The Patti Smith Group. The avant-garde rock album was released by John Cale, formerly of The Velvet Underground, who had seen true artistic potential in the group. In 1996, Cale described Smith as “someone with an incredibly volatile mouth who could handle any situation”, and that as the producer for Horses he wanted to capture the energy of her live performances; he noted that there “was a lot of power in Patti’s use of language, in the way images collided with one another.” He described their working relationship in the studio as “confrontational and a lot like an immutable force meeting an immovable object.”

Smith’s music on Horses launched her into mainstream success, but the album has since become legendary due to its important role as an early inspiration to the punk movement. The album was made all the more iconic by Mapplethorpe’s evocative photograph of Smith used on the front cover which has now become one of rock’s most powerful images. 

Over her the next five years, Smith would consolidate her position as a rock icon with the release of hit singles ‘Because the Night’, ‘Dancing Barefoot’ and ‘Frederick’ and her most commercially successful album to date Easter (1978). Her poetic style of songwriting and delivery was a huge influence on countless subsequent acts, especially over the late 1970s and ’80s. Most recognisably, her style can be heard in the music of new-wave icons Blondie. 

Smith’s impact as a songwriter and a leading figure of the punk-rock movement is undeniable. It’s also important to remember that she was one of the earliest women to enter the heavier realm of punk, something she did with exemplary confidence. Her legacy inspired a generation of female rock artists to follow their passion. 

Smith’s stance on feminism seems more passive than it is active, though; as she once said: “Most women writers don’t interest me because they’re hung up with being a woman, they’re hung up with being Jewish, they’re hung up with being somebody or other,” she said. “Rather than just going, just spurting, just creating. These women get so caught up with their heritage that they can never really spiral out.” It appears Smith is a believer in leading from the front – be the change you want to see in the world rather than getting “hung up” on things. Whether or not you concur with Smith’s sentiment, her brazen attitude is something to be admired.

Listen to ‘Gloria: In Excelsis Deo’ from Patti Smith’s masterpiece Horses below.