Personalities | Patti Smith | Seventies | Rock

Unorthodox, uncompromising, Patti Smith was a seminal figure in the New York punk movement and has remained a touchstone for later generations of rock artists. Born on 30 December 1946, Smith was raised in southern New Jersey by her atheist father and Jehovah’s Witness mother.

Leaving school at 16 she had brief, unsatisfying stints working in a factory and studying at a teaching college before she fled to New York in 1967 and immersed herself in the underground arts scene. She was inspired by the music of The Velvet Underground, the writing of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and – after a trip to Paris in 1969 – Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud and Antonin Artaud.

The Poetic Punk

Smith started writing poetry and in 1971 met Lenny Kaye, a walking rock and roll encyclopedia and guitarist who started accompanying her to poetry readings. She wrote several volumes of poetry, a play with Sam Shephard, articles for Creem Magazine, lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult, sleeve notes for Todd Rundgren and recited a Jim Morrison poem on a solo album by Ray Manzarek. In 1974 she released an independent single, ‘Hey Joe’/‘Piss Factory’ – punk poetry set to rock music – featuring Kaye, keyboards player Richard Sohl and guitarist Tom Verlaine who had recently formed Television. She augmented the group with bassist Ivan Kral and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and joined Television at a two-month residency at CBGBs club at the beginning of 1975.

Smith signed to Arista Records and released Horses (1975), produced by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale. The album opened with the line ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine’ and included the poem ‘Redondo Beach’ and distinctive covers of rock classics like ‘Gloria’ and ‘Land Of A Thousand Dances’. It was defiantly avant-garde but still made a brief appearance in the US Top 50.

The Patti Smith Group toured Britain and Europe before releasing Radio Ethiopia (1976), working with Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas who gave the album a harder feel with guitar solos, although the experimental spirit was never far beneath the surface and came to the fore on the 10-minute title track. However, the album was less successful than Horses and early in 1977 Smith’s career came to a temporary halt when she fell off a stage in Tampa, Florida, while performing a whirling dervish dance and broke her neck. She spent nearly a year in a neck brace and undergoing physical therapy.

A Reluctant Star

Easter (1978) was a more commercial album (Smith preferred to call it ‘communicative’), a Top 20 success in the US and UK. It was produced by Jimmy Iovine who caught the instinctive rock and roll passion in Smith’s vocal style while leaving room for spontaneity and suspense. It featured the hit single (No. 5 in the UK, 13 in the US) ‘Because The Night’, a Bruce Springsteen song written during sessions for Darkness On The Edge Of Town but not released.

Wave (1979) was produced by Todd...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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