Peace and Noise: A Patti Smith Retrospective
Listen to the playlist in one of the following services as you read along. The YouTube list includes more live versions.
Born in Chicago in 1946 to working class parents, Patricia Lee Smith was raised first in Philadelphia and then eventually New Jersey in a religious environment (her mother was a Jehovah’s Witness). She would break free of those bonds and flee college to the possibilities of New York City in the last years of the 1960s. She would become part of the avant garde music and arts scene. She lived in the famous Chelsea Hotel with provocative photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who would provide most of the photos and album covers for her work. She was known as a passionate, edgy and acerbic poet and occasional singer, drawing on the beat poets of the 50s and 60s as a comparative style. Her uncomplicated fashion sense, lack of make-up and disheveled hair set her apart from her contemporary female artists but put her at home in the emergent arts community in New York. As she moved into music and performing, she became a rare and forceful female presence among the New York arts scene and is often referred to as one of the first female punk rockers.
- Piss Factory
- Redondo Beach
- Ask the Angels
- Pissing in a River
- Because the Night
- Rock n' Roll Nigger
- Dancing Barefoot
- People Have the Power
- My Madrigal
- Waiting Underground
- Glitter in their Eyes
- Mother Rose
- Stride of the Mind
- My Blakean Year
- April Fool
- This is the Girl
- A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall
Piss Factory (1974)
She began performing with guitarist Lenny Kaye, forging a creative partnership that would last on-and-off until this day. They formed a band, The Patti Smith Group, and began performing around the legendary New York music clubs such as Max's Kansas City and CBGB's, both of which would birth the nascent American punk scene. During the mid-70s at CBGB's you could see acts such as Patti, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, and The Ramones.
"Piss Factory" is the B-side to band's first single, which was a cover of the rock classic "Hey Joe." This is a good example of the spoken word performances that Patti would do early in her career before moving into a purely melodic and structured song format. Her passion, anger, and social commentary are evident here as she recounts her frustration and dreams from when she worked in a factory.
Redondo Beach / Horses (1975)
The band signed to a label and released their first album, Horses, now considered a rock classic (especially the Mapplethorpe photo of her on the cover) and a progenitor of the burgeoning punk music sound. It was produced by John Cale from Velvet Underground. Still incorporating spoken word performances, the poetry was more injected into the songs as much as carrying them, such as the intro to the band's cover of the 'Them' (Van Morrison's original band) song, "Gloria," which included caustic lyrics from her poetry such as "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." What was clear at this point was Smith was a consummate talent, not just as a songwriter, but also as a singer as her distinctive and strong voice developed and became the signature of her music. I have no qualms acknowledging my appreciation of her music is largely based on a knee-buckling infatuation with her voice. Much of her music can be pretty basic, but once she sings it comes alive. "Redondo Beach" is a great example of this. This album would also be known for the epic song, "Land", an almost ten-minute romp of rock, punk and poetry.
Ask the Angels; Pissing in A River \ Radio Ethiopia (1976)
The band's second album was rawer and moved closer to the punk sound we are more familiar with from the era (and that now sounds tame compared to what is commonplace today). Punk brought energy, unpolished guitars, heavy bass lines and shouted lyrics, all often delivered at furious paces, and was unlike anything anyone had heard from rock bands at that point. There were very few females, but Patti created a space for those that dared to tread down that path. Radio Ethiopia is notorious for the title track, another ten-minute experiment in noise and chaos. "Ask the Angels" is one of the greatest punk songs of the era, and “Pissing in A River” is a slower, blues-based ballad that still carries the raw passion of Patti’s emotive and suggestive lyrics.
Because the Night; Rock n’ Roll Nigger \ Easter (1978)
By the third album Smith and her band were recognized as influential leaders of a new vanguard of music in America, but like their peers in New York hadn't broken through to mainstream success or regular radio play. As they were completing the recording of their new album, which would be less punk-driven and moving to a more straight-ahead rock sound (Patti had time to contemplate their future direction while recovering from a serious injury after falling off a stage during a performance), their producer Jimmy Iovine was also working on Bruce Springsteen's new album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, in the same studio. He mentioned to Springsteen that Smith’s album was great but lacked a single, a song that could get the band more attention and turn people onto this great music. Bruce, by then one of the world's best-known rock musicians and a voluminous writer of songs (he would write dozens of songs for each album, most getting discarded by the final track listing) offered up an unfinished song that he knew wasn't going to fit onto the new album. The cassette was taken to Patti who listened to the song, and feeling inspired by the longing for her new beau, Fred "Sonic" Smith of the acid-rock band Mc5, finished the lyrics and recorded the song with the band. "Because the Night" would become their first hit single and bring Easter the attention it deserved, making it one of the most notable rock albums of the era.
Also, of some controversy on this album is the song "Rock n' Roll Nigger" for its use of the derogatory term. Smith is setting herself in the song as an outsider, dealing with her increased exposure and people's reaction to her, "Baby was a black sheep. Baby was a whore / Baby got big and baby get bigger / Baby get something. Baby get more / Baby, baby, baby was a rock n’ roll nigger." As always, Patti would challenge and provoke, the very qualities that set her apart.
Frederick; Dancing Barefoot; Revenge \ Wave (1979)
The band's fourth album wouldn't be as successful as the previous but was another great collection of songs. "Frederick" was a minor hit and "Dancing Barefoot" is my favourite song of Patti's. The band is more refined now, putting more nuance, musicianship, and layers into the music. Patti as always sounded terrific and brought back some of her spoken word elements. “So You Want to Be (a Rock n’ Roll Star)” delivered another rough and ready rocker, “Citizen Ship” was a grandiose rock ballad, and “Revenge” was another fantastic example of how Patti’s voice could take a basic music track and lift the song to dramatic and raw level of expression.
People Have the Power \ Dream of Life (1988)
In 1980 Patti married Fred Smith (the joke was she married him so she didn't have to change her name) and surprisingly stepped away from music, living in their home north of Detroit and raising their son and daughter. She wouldn't release her next album, now as a solo artist though with contributions from her husband, until almost ten years later. It included the anthem, "People Have the Power," no doubt inspired after eight years of the Reagan presidency: "I awakened to the cry / That the people have the power / To redeem the work of fools / Upon the meek the graces shower / It' s decreed the people rule." On this album the punk edge is gone and her voice and music are reflective of her different place in life, generally more subdued with standard blues arrangements and her voice is less aggressive (though no less emotive).
My Madrigal \ Gone Again (1996)
Waiting Underground; 1959 \ Peace & Noise (1997)
In 1994 Smith was devastated first with the death of her husband from a heart attack and then by the unexpected loss of her brother. She decided to return to New York and not long after was encouraged by her musician friends to begin recording again. This resulted in the album Gone Again in 1996. It is an album marked by death as a theme, as the album includes a tribute to the recently departed Kurt Cobain of Nirvana in the song "About a Boy," and is influenced by other recent losses such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Sohl (a member of The Patti Smith Group). The album also includes the last recorded performance by Jeff Buckley, who would die a year later. “My Madrigal” is a beautiful ballad that exemplifies the themes of the album, lamenting the loss of her husband, “We waltzed beneath motionless skies / all heaven's glory turned in your eyes / we expressed such sweet vows / oh, till death do us part.”
That album and the follow-up in 1997, Peace & Noise, would also see the return of Lenny Kaye to her music. However, in this era she seemed less certain, her music was more introspective and melancholy, and therefore down tempo and less engaging. That doesn’t mean there weren’t great tunes, but the thrill of her early albums had been replaced with the need to appreciate her on her music’s terms as much as her representation as a female ground breaker. “Waiting Underground” is another of her bluesy ballads, marked with a nice piano-guitar combo that catches the ear.” “1959” offers a straight pop-rock song about the invasion of Tibet and was the single from the album. Kaye has a great style and I love his playing in this song (I’m always a sucker for strumming guitar).
Glitter in their Eyes \ Gung Ho (2000)
Now a matriarch to many of the artists and sounds dominating modern rock music, Patti's return to regular performances was celebrated and she guested on many albums (e.g. “E-bow the Letter” by REM in 1996) and did covers of many current artists' songs that she appreciated. While her albums, like many artists in the second half of their careers, didn't chart too highly though were all generally well-received and entrenched the passion of her die-hard fans. "Glitter in their Eyes" is a wonderful tune that showed she still 'had it' and could make an edgy rock tune with the best of them. The song was completely contemporary and returned some of the edge of her earlier work.
Mother Rose; Stride of the Mind; My Blakean Year \ Trampin' (2004)
Another solid album, mixing folk, poetry, and rock. She remained consistent in her sound and her art, while keeping her music fresh and modern. The album version of "My Blakean Year" featured the full band, but I liked this acoustic version I've selected to show her performing in a more stripped-down style (YouTube playlist only) - to which so much of her music lends itself. It also gives a taste of her personality and humour. Her subtle melodic changes in “Mother Rose” revealed her vocal talent and maturity with her ability and was a tribute to her mother, who had passed two years prior. “Stride of the Mind” (great song title) almost begged to picture her back on the stage of CBGBs, riding a snarling guitar riff from Lenny.
April Fool; This is the Girl \ Banga (2012)
In In 2007 she released the album Twelve, a collection of cover songs of many classic rock artists as well as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” In 2008 she recorded a live album, The Coral Sea with Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine. It’s two performances, one in six parts and the other in four parts, and is Smith reciting her poem in tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe, “The Coral Sea,” accompanied by Shields’ atmospheric guitar. Patti was also inducted to the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, performing the Rolling Stone's "Gimme Shelter" at the induction ceremony.
In 2012, she released her latest album, Banga, of which I was thrilled to catch her on tour when she played at Massey Hall in September of 2013. It was a fantastic show that built in energy to a huge finale performance of "Land" and "Gloria" and made it hard to believe we were watching a woman approaching her 67th birthday. That night she performed "This is the Girl" from the album which was a remembrance of Amy Winehouse in the same spirit in which "About A Boy" had been for Kurt Cobain. “April Fool” is a solid pop song that includes guitar from Tom Verlaine of Television. The title track also included Johnny Depp on guitar and drums and several songs included her son Jackson (who married Meg White of the White Stripes in 2009). The album is a solid offering from a veteran and accomplished artist.
A Hard Rain's a-Gonna-Fall (2016)
I’ve included this in the YouTube playlist as a fairly recent and intriguing part of Patti’s story. In 2016 Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for literature and in his irascible way refused to attend the awards ceremony. Patti had already been asked to perform in tribute to him and chose to perform this Dylan classic. The performance was notable for her vocal stumble and eventual pause during the performance, citing her nervousness for the occasion. She would eloquently express what she went through shortly after in a New Yorker article. This was the contemporary Patti, who seemed immersed in gratitude, reflection, and humility that contrasted sharply with the Patti of her younger career. Still outspoken, she however balanced it with the wisdom of a long and poignant career.
Patti Smith's career is not prolific or overwhelming. Between her and her band she's released just eleven albums in 43 years and nothing of her archive would be considered ground breaking or notable after 1979, though "People Have the Power" is often drawn upon for performances seeking inspiration and rallying. She certainly has several songs and a couple albums considered classics of the rock genre, but nothing of the canon that many other artists have compiled (music writer Bob Lefsetz routinely complains about her inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, feeling her career didn’t achieve the required threshold). But as an artist, a woman, and a poet she was revolutionary, incendiary, inspirational, influential, and truly one of the creative forces of an entire genre of music - punk - that would launch yet another handful of musical styles and blow the modern era of rock and pop music wide open. Her story is not complete, but she's already left a legacy worthy of tribute.