Patti Smith Biography

Patricia Lee Smith, 30 December 1946, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Smith was raised in New Jersey and became infatuated by music, principally the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. After relocating to New York City in 1967, she lived with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe for a period. Her initial talent focused on poetry, rock journalism and art, while her first major label recording was a version of a Jim Morrison poem on Ray Manzarek’s (both Doors) solo album. Her early writing, captured on three anthologies, Seventh Heaven, Kodak and Witt, was inspired by Arthur Rimbaud and William Burroughs, but as the 70s progressed she was increasingly drawn towards fusing such work with rock. In 1971, Smith was accompanied by guitarist Lenny Kaye for a reading in St. Mark’s Church, and this informal liaison continued for three years until the duo was joined by Richard Sohl (piano) in the first Patti Smith Group. Their debut recording, ‘Piss Factory’/‘Hey Joe’, was in part financed by Mapplethorpe, later responsible for many of the artist’s striking album portraits. The a-side’s graphic description of Smith’s time working in a factory gave an early indication of her intent, while the b-side featured a version of the rock standard (popularised by Jimi Hendrix) with an additional spoken-word interlude.

By 1974 the unit had become one of the most popular acts at New York’s pivotal CBGB’s club. Ivan Kral (bass) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) were then added to the line-up featured on her Arista Records debut, Horses. This highly lauded and epoch-defining set, produced by John Cale, skilfully invoked Smith’s 60s mentors but in a celebratory manner. The album’s opening track, a cover version of Them’s garage rock classic ‘Gloria’, featured an additional spoken-word intro in which Smith claimed ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins... but not mine’. By simultaneously capturing the fire of punk, Smith completed a collection welcomed by both old and new audiences.

The 1976 follow-up Radio Ethiopia was perceived as self-indulgent and the artist’s career was further undermined when she incurred a broken neck upon falling off the stage early in 1977. A lengthy recuperation ensued but Smith re-emerged in July with a series of excellent concerts, and the following year enjoyed considerable commercial success with Easter. This powerful set included the relatively straightforward pop song ‘Because The Night’, co-written with Bruce Springsteen, which deservedly reached the UK Top 5, but her fourth album Wave failed to sustain such acclaim. She had previously collaborated on three Blue Öyster Cult albums, with then partner Allen Lanier.

Smith then married former MC5 guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, and retired from active performing for much of the 80s to raise a family. She resumed recording in 1988 with Dream Of Life, which contained the artist’s customary call-to-arms idealism (‘People Have The Power’) and respect for rock and poetic tradition. Following a series of tragic events in her life, triggered by the death of her husband she returned in 1996 with what was seen as an exhortation album, Gone Again. Intense and melancholic, in time it may well be seen as one of her finest albums.

Smith’s next album, the following year’s Peace And Noise, reunited her with Kaye and Daugherty from the Patti Smith Group alongside co-writer and guitarist Oliver Ray and bass player Tony Shanahan, and marked a return to the more spiky sound of her earlier material. She retained the same musicians on the excellent Gung Ho (2000), from which ‘Glitter In Their Eyes’, ‘Strange Messengers’, and ‘Boy Cried Wolf’ captured a songwriter at the peak of her still formidable powers.

The album proved to be Smith’s last for long-term label Arista as she relocated to Columbia Records for 2004’s stridently political Trampin’. The following year’s deluxe edition of Horses featured a live version of the album recorded at the Smith-curated Meltdown festival in London, England. Released at the start of 2007, Twelve was a strangely lifeless collection of cover versions, notable only for a bold bluegrass reworking of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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