I could easily write three or four posts about Patti Smith and, even at that, I would only be scratching the surface of what has turned out to be an enormously impactful life. Poet. Singer. Photographer. Lover. Mentor. Feminist icon. Mother. Humourist. Sister. Artist. The list of attributes is endless. Usually when one talks about those who were pioneers in their field, we talk about the path blazed forward for others to follow. In the case of Patti Smith, not only is she a pioneering figure in the world of the Arts in America but she is also directly responsible for inspiring the careers of so many artists, musicians, actors and writers who have followed in her wake. The scale and breadth of her life is such that I doubt I can do her justice in one single post such as this. Instead, I will focus solely on one album of hers called Horses and one song called “Gloria” while adding a pinch of her life and a dash of her accomplishments as time and space allow. I will do my best to give you all a sense of who Patti Smith is and why she is so beloved by so many and why she actually transcends the genre known as Punk music. We tend to toss around terms such as “legend” and ‘hero” as if they are candy, but in her case, these words are most appropriate indeed. Here is the story of a song and of the woman who sang it. Here is Patti Smith.
It all began in a book store in New York City. When one thinks of the Arts scene in any given city or town, we often think of theatres, art galleries, concert halls and the like. However, when a community has a vibrant Arts scene, we also must talk about cafés where acoustic music is strummed and poems read aloud, alley ways were graffiti artists use the city as their canvas, street corners where buskers will sing you a song in return for your spare change and spare time, and we must also talk about bookstores, where lovers of the written word often gather to harvest the language of life. It was in a bookstore in New York city that Patti Smith first gained employment after moving to the city. It was in a bookstore that she got to rub shoulders with other poets and authors and musicians and artists who were part of New York’s burgeoning Arts collective, such as Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine, along with artist Andy Warhol. But most importantly for Patti Smith, it was in a bookstore that she met someone who was to change her life in a most profound way. That person was famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe was a photographer who used the camera to challenge many of society’s moral standards while, conversely, celebrating the human body in ways that had never been publicly seen before. Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith became lovers. Even though Mapplethorpe and Smith ceased being a couple decades ago, she still refers to him as one of the most important people she has ever met. What was special about their relationship was not what Mapplethorpe did for Patti Smith and her career but what they did for each other. Theirs was a partnership of equals in every manner. Both highly creative and artistic. Both bored with the state of the Arts in America at the time. Both willing to push boundaries and create new open spaces for others to find themselves reflected in beauty and positive energy. Together, they gave each other the confidence to push their Art beyond where either thought it possible to go. With Mapplethrope, it was photographing nudes in ways that explored sexuality and humanity as never before. For Patti Smith, it was initially through poetry that she came to become known. Eventually, she added music to her skill set and started performing in public. Her sets were filled, wall to wall, with an integrated combination of poetry and song, all delivered with energy and passion that left Smith, as well as those in attendance, thoroughly spent upon its conclusion. At this time in the 1970s, no one was putting on the types of shows that Patti Smith was, especially not female performers. It was this belief in her Art, at a time when no one else was there to emulate or share the burden of building a scene of her own, that enabled Patti Smith to be spoken of as a pioneering figure in the American Arts scene. She was the first punk rocker. While Patti Smith grew to be much more than a punk rocker, for the sake of this post, let’s start with that and see where it takes us.
In the 1970s, the music scene was in transition. Rock n’ Roll had erupted a full generation prior and been co-opted by the time Patti Smith and her friends appeared. Prog. rock had evolved out of the British Invasion but had begun to groan under the weight of its own self-absorption and pomposity. The protest singers from the Summer of Love had seemingly been cowed into silence by a system that no longer welcomed their emotion and earnestness. Into that musical void came the stirrings of news sounds. Hip Hop was coalescing in neighbourhoods around the city of New York. The techno-laden beats that fuelled the Disco craze could be heard emanating from nightclubs such as Studio 54 as well as from the soundtracks to films such as Saturday Night Fever and American Gigolo. Singers such as Deborah Harry from the band Blondie were combining both forms of music in songs such as “Rapture” and “Heart of Glass” that both received national airplay. Meanwhile, there was a third form of musical poetry or spoken word singing that was gaining traction in New York. That was the work of Patti Smith who, along with bands such as Television and The Ramones, was creating a new sound that eventually came to be known as Punk music.
If Studio 54 was the cathedral built to showcase Disco, then CBGBs filled the same function for Punk music. CBGBs was located in the Bowery Historical District of New York City which is in Lower Manhattan, a short five minute walk from landmarks such as Katz’s Deli and just north of Chinatown. CBGBs was a small club that became home base for Smith, Television, The Ramones and every other punk band that came to play their brand of music in America. In fact, in the 1970s, Patti Smith’s brand of performance art became so strongly identified with this new music movement called Punk that she, along with the band Television *(You can read a previously written post about singer Tom Verlaine from the band Television here) were invited to hold a multi-week residency at the club. It was while performing there that Smith came to the attention of record producer Clive Davis. Davis had recently formed his own record company called Arista Records and was looking for new talent to fill out his musical roster. Davis was completely entranced by the passionate nature of Patti Smith’s performance and signed her to an eight-album contract on the spot. The first album that Smith produced for Arista was called Horses.
Horses was released just prior to the release of The Ramones’ first album. For many this means that Patti Smith’s album has become recognized as the first punk music album in American history. Smith says that the name for the album came as a result of the void which she and the disco lovers and the rappers had all sought to fill with their own unique sounds. Patti Smith said that at that time in the city and in the country, the previous musical voices had become stilled for a variety of reasons. She took it upon herself to help pull the Arts scene together again. Smith considers the work that she and Deborah Harry and Donna Summer and Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa and others did as being like plow horses working the barren land, hence the name of her album became Horses.
From that album came a host of songs that ranged from covers to original works. In all cases, these songs have served as inspiration for everyone from Kurt Cobain from Nirvana, to Michael Stipe from R.E.M., to Morrissey and Johnny Marr of The Smiths, to some of the most respected female singers of my generation such as P.J. Harvey, KT Tunstall and Courtney Love, who all, to a person, point to Horses as being the album that made them want to form bands and/or helped them create some of their own iconic songs. What made the songs on Horses so inspirational to so many young listeners was the confidence with which Smith performed and the honesty of her lyrics. For many of those who would point to her as an inspiration and a mentor, Patti Smith’s passion for language and for the subject matter made her voice seem brave at a time when courage was a form of superpower. It also helped those impressionable young singers feel seen, often for the first time in their lives. Being gay or from a minority group or being female were all banners that Patti Smith waved proudly and fiercely through her music. To those listening for the first time, it sounded like subversion of the highest order. It sounded like exactly what rock n’ roll was meant to be. One of the songs from Horses that first gained airplay and helped inspire others was a song called “Gloria”.
“Gloria” was originally written by Irish super star Van Morrison when he was a member of a band called Them. Morrison was just a teenager when he wrote this song about sexual awakening. When Patti Smith sang “Gloria”, she put her own unique spin on the song. When she recorded the song as an album track, she altered some of the lyrics to better represent her own sensibilities. But, more than that, she began the song by incorporating into it a few lines of her own poetry. With this track, Smith began what would become a standard operational principle of hers of taking songs written by others and altering them in ways that respected the original version while allowing her to put her own stamp on the song. A perfect example of this can be found in her most commercially successful song “Because the Night”, which was given to her to sing by Bruce Springsteen. Even though the song was written by The Boss, when Patti Smith sings it you can tell that it is a Patti Smith song. In any case, Patti Smith took Van Morrison’s great song and made it her own. “Gloria” was song one, side one on Horses. It was the first song that many people listened to when they heard the album, so in many ways, it was the first punk music song ever recorded in the United States.
The final aspect of Horses that is impactful is its album cover photograph. The album cover shows Smith dressed in a plain white dress shirt, black jacket slung haphazardly over her shoulder. The photographer was Robert Mapplethorpe. During the session, he snapped several shots of Smith posing for the camera. As he was snapping away, he suddenly stopped and declared that he had captured the look he was after and the shoot was over. Patti Smith didn’t quite understand what Mapplethorpe was talking about. What it turned out to be was a photo of Smith looking completely relaxed and totally androgynous. The photo became a feminist landmark because it declared for all to see that Patti Smith was not going to submit to being judged as a singer on the basis of her body parts. The world could judge her on the merits of her work, just as they did for the many male musicians who release music into the world. The Mapplethorpe photo is perfectly simple, yet it spoke volumes about who Patti Smith was and what she stood for. It is not surprising to find modern day female singers donning the now iconic white shirt/black tie or suspenders look made famous by Smith as an homage to her for opening doors that might have remained shut otherwise if not for her efforts back in the 1970s.
I will close this post with a bit of biographical information. Eventually, Smith and Mapplethrope parted company. However, they remained close companions until Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989. In Mapplethorpe’s posthumously released book of photography entitled Flowers, Patti Smith contributed a personal essay. She also won the National Book Prize for Non-fiction in 2010 for her book called Just Kids, which chronicles her time spent with Robert Mapplethrope as a couple. However, Robert Mapplethorpe was not the only love in her life. In the mid-1980s, Patti Smith married singer Fred “Sonic” Smith from the band MC5 *(You can read a previously written post about MC5 here). Both Fred and Patti Smith loved poetry and believed in the power of music to influence public discourse. They ended up having a couple of children together. Their son went on to marry Meg White, the drummer for The White Stripes. Patti Smith is still actively creating Art. I have a book of her photography called A Book of Days sitting beside me as I type these words. She continues to exhibit her photos, publish her poems and sing her songs, alone or as part of a collaboration with others. She is a creative life force the likes of which the world rarely sees. Patti Smith is a treasure, and we are all blessed by our association as humans on this planet.
As I stated off the top of this post, what I have presented today is a mere hint of who this amazingly accomplished woman actually is. If you are intrigued at all by her story, then by all means, avail yourselves of the Internet, of YouTube, of bookstores, record shops and libraries and do a deeper dive of your own. Patti Smith is well worth getting to know.
The link to a video for a live performance of the song “Gloria” by Patti Smith can be found here.
***For me, this video is the essence of rock n’ roll. It is passionate and intense and filled with energy. She starts out with her own poetry and transitions nicely into song as time goes on. I find this performance to be mesmerizing. There is a lyrics video that can be found here but, to be honest, it pales in comparison to the live version. Watch both videos if you can.
The link to the official website for Patti Smith can be found here.
The name of this series was taken from a lyric to a great song called “Boxcar” by the band Jawbreaker. I would appreciate it if you could show this band a little love by heading over to their website and checking out their videos, merchandise and maybe even scoring some concert tickets for yourself while you are there. Jawbreaker is a great band and I thank them for the use of their lyrics for my post. The link to their website can be found here.
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