Born in Pitman, NJ; daughter of a factory worker and a waitress; married Fred "Sonic" Smith (a musician; died 1994); Children: Jackson, Jesse. Addresses: Record Company--Arista Records, 6 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
"My design was to shake things up," Patti Smith proclaimed in a 1996 Rolling Stone interview, to motivate people and bring a different type of work ethic back into rock & roll. The period she was referring to, the mid-1970s, had seen the demise of immmediacy and artistic fire in mainstream rock, which was becoming overrun by spectacle. The birth of what would come to be known as punk, the raw, revolutionary music that challenged rock's complacency, is often traced to Smith and a handful of other pioneers. Hearing Smith's classic album Horses, said alternative rock hero and REM singer Michael Stipe in Spin, was for him a virtual rebirth. "I'd never heard anything like it in my life," Stipe recalled, "like someone had torn my head off and slapped it back on for me. From then on my life was changed." Stipe's experience was typical; many of alternative rock's leading lights were strongly influenced by Smith's work. Though she took a hiatus for much of the 1980s, she returned once during that decade and again in 1996 with albums that summarized her ongoing growth as an artist.
Smith grew up in Pitman, a lower-class, melting-pot town in New Jersey. Until she saw the Rolling Stones on an Ed Sullivan show, she was a huge fan of the popular black groups of the early sixties. "I was just one of a million girls who could sing Ronettes records almost as good as the Ronettes," she told Rolling Stone. After high school she began working in a factory around the same time she discovered the poetry of the French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud. While in junior college, Smith became pregnant and gave up the child for adoption. She moved to New York for a brief period and eventually took off for Paris with her sister to study art. In France she began to have premonitions of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones's death just days before he actually died.
She moved back to New York, living at the Chelsea Hotel, a veritable hotbed of musicians, writers, actors and artists during the early seventies. She began working at a local bookstore where she befriended rock historian/guitarist Lenny Kaye. She also started writing for magazines like Rolling Stone, Rock, and Creem, offering poetry and critical essays. By 1973, three of her poetry books had been published: Seventh Heaven, Kodak and Witt. Friends persuaded her to read her works in public, and, with the accompaniment of Kaye on guitar, she could be heard at New York clubs like Max's and CBGB's, opening for bands like the New York Dolls. After the addition of Richard Sohl on piano, the trio even performed at San Francisco's Winterland.
Clive Davis of Arista Records signed Smith to a recording contract and in 1975 she entered the studio to record her debut LP, Horses. She personally picked the producer, ex-Velvet Underground member, John Cale, "All l was really looking for was a technical person," Smith told Rolling Stone's Dave Marsh. "Instead, I got a total maniac artist." Cale pushed Smith and her band--Kaye and Ivan Kral on guitars and bass, Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, and Sohl on piano--to their artistic limits. Horses is a compilation of Smith's influences. The surrealism of Rimbaud, the violent prose of William Burroughs, and the simple, yet masterful rhythms of the Velvets are all in some way represented on the album.
Horses features six songs co-written by Smith, her band, Blue Oyster Cult guitarist Alan Lanier (her boyfriend at the time), and Television's Tom Verlaine. The other two songs are reworkings of the soul hit "Land of a Thousand Dances" and the Them/Van Morrison tune, "Gloria", both restructured around Smith's poetic vision. Smith became the darling of the in-crowd from coast to coast. Complimentary reviews appeared in Time, Knight newspapers, Mademoiselle, and even Rolling Stone, in which Smith told of another premonition she once had. "I've known I was gonna be a big shot since I was four. I just didn't know it had anything to do with my throat."
Smith charged back into the studio after a triumphant tour of the States to make her follow-up LP, Radio Ethiopia. Unfortunately, the album ended up sounding more like a showcase for a garage band than for Smith's poetry; the result was a sound that often overpowered the nuances of her singing and lyrics. As Charles M. Young observed in Rolling Stone, "The punks present their instrumental incompetence in the spirit of farce and satire. The Patti Smith Group presents it as a holy sacrament."
The album was a financial flop and the band members were forced to find other means to support themselves. Tragically, during the tour to support Radio Ethiopia, Smith fell off the stage in Tampa, Florida, on January 23, 1977, and broke her neck. She spent the following year wearing a neck brace and undergoing physical therapy. She was, however, able to complete another book of poetry, Babel, during the time off.
Smith was back in 1978 and determined to make her music more communicative (i.e. commercial) this time around. Her third album, Easter, contained her only Top 20 hit, "Because The Night", co-written by fellow New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen. Easter makes good on Patti Smith's biggest boast--that she is one of the great figures of Seventies rock & roll, wrote Dave Marsh in Rolling Stone. More importantly perhaps, it focuses her mystical and musical visions in a way that makes her the most profoundly religious American popular performer since Jim Morrison."
Smith released her fourth album, Wave, in 1979, but the magic seemed to be gone. It was a directionless effort with only one real gem, the song "Dancing Barefoot." The rest of the album, according to Robert Christgau in Christgau's Record Guide, was "as listenable as Radio Ethiopia." Her creative well appeared to have dried up and, after her marriage to former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, she went into retirement for nine years to raise a family.
In 1988 Smith re-emerged with the album Dream of Life. Fred provided guitar layers and co-produced the album with Jimmy Iovine; former band members Daugherty and Sohl also appeared. In the age of MTV and record executives pushing everything off as 'the next big thing,' Robert Palmer observed in Rolling Stone: "What may be most striking about Dream Of Life is that there is no product here at all, only music."
Dream of Life fared poorly in the marketplace, but it was an important album for Smith, who told Spin that during its creation, "Fred taught me a lot about singing and he instilled a lot of confidence in me." She added that "What I achieved in the 80s out of the public eye was the development of my skills." These skills-- particularly her ability to crystallize painful experiences in prose--were put to the test over the next few years. Smith lost a number of the people who mattered most to her, starting with her artistic soulmate and dear friend Robert Mapplethorpe, a celebrated and controversial photographer who died of AIDS. His passing motivated a novel, as well as parts of songs that would end up on her next album, as did the 1994 suicide of musician Kurt Cobain of the group Nirvana. Smith told Spin that Cobain's was "the first band in years that I really loved. Its just kind of typical of me to pick the band that would be beautifully tragic. They were the band I felt a lot of hope for, for the whole music scene." She added that she and Fred wept like parents upon hearing of Cobain's demise. An anthology of Smith's poetry from the 1970s was published that same year by Norton.
Smith began work on a new album, but was devastated by her husband's death of a heart attack in 1994, as well as by the loss of keyboardist and close friend Sohl. Yet with the encouragement of her brother Todd, who also died shortly thereafter, Smith returned to the album, much of which had been co-written with Fred. The result was 1996's Gone Again. "While this is unquestionably Smith's most heartfelt album," wrote Tom Carson in Rolling Stone, "the core of Gone Again isn't sorrow, it's resilience." Smith seemed to second this judgment when she told Details, "I don't want to talk to the people while merely burdened with grief and sorrow. I want to bring them something positive."
Smith's return to the spotlight brought several positive things to light: one was that her work--and her late husband's--had inspired a whole generation of artists, including Stipe of REM, Courtney Love of Hole, PJ Harvey, and Sonic Youth. Smith was able to honor the Velvet Underground during their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 by reading a poem and performing one of their songs. And most of all, her continued artistic vitality and grace after so much loss suggested she would inspire anew. "I've experienced a lot of personal sorrow," she insisted in Spin, "but I still feel constant amazement at how beautiful life is."
by Simon Glickman
Patti Smith's Career
Gave poetry readings during early 1970s; singer, songwriter, recording artist, 1975-79, 1988--.
- Selective Works
- Horses, Arista, 1975.
- Radio Ethiopia, Arista, 1976.
- Easter, Arista, 1978.
- Wave, Arista, 1979.
- Dream of Life, Arista, 1988.
- Gone Again, Arista, 1996.
- Witt: A Book of Poems, Gotham, 1972.
- Seventh Heaven, Telegraph, 1973.
- Ha! Ha! Houdini, Gotham, 1977.
- Babel, Putnam, 1978.
- Also author of Kodak.
April 27, 2004: Smith's album, Trampin', was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_5/index.jsp, April 29, 2004.
July 11, 2005: Smith received the Commander of the Order of the Arts and Letters from the French government. Source: Yahoo! News, http://news.yahoo.com, July 11, 2005.
- Christgau, Robert, Christgau's Record Guide, Ticknor &; Fields, 1981.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden, Harmony Books, 1977.
- Rock Revolution, by the editors of Creem magazine, Popular Library, 1976.
- The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock &; Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1976.
- The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh with Jim Swenson, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
- What's That Sound?, edited by Ben Fong-Torres, Anchor Press, 1976.
- Periodicals Details, July 1996.
- Newsweek, June, 17, 1996.
- Rolling Stone, February 12, 1976; January 13, 1977; July 28, 1977; April 20, 1978; July 27, 1978; August 25, 1988; February 22, 1996; June 27, 1996; July 11, 1996.
- Spin, June 1996.
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