SMITH, PATTI (1946– ) Singer
Considered by many the mother of alternative rock music, Patti Smith was born on December 31, 1946, in Chicago, Illinois, but spent most of her youth in Pitman, New Jersey. Growing up in a blue-collar family, she became a fan of pop music, especially the songs of Little Richard, the Ronettes, and Martha and the Vandellas. She had equal enthusiasm for the work of the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, which she discovered in high school. Smith attended Glassboro State Teachers College but dropped out when she discovered she was pregnant. She gave up the child for adoption and moved to New York City briefiy before heading to Paris to study art. She hoped to become a painter, but as she developed a cartoon-like style, she discovered she was more compelled by words than by images. Smith returned to New York, determined to devote herself to writing.
Living at the Chelsea Hotel, Smith became acquainted with the leading figures of New York’s avant-garde, including Andy Warhol and William Burroughs. She became romantically involved with playwright Sam Shepard, with whom she cowrote the play Cowboy Mouth. In addition to three books of poetry, she also wrote poems and essays for Rolling Stone, Creem, and other music magazines. In May 1971, Smith started giving poetry readings accompanied by guitar music played by her friend Lenny Kaye. Music became increasingly important in her performances, especially after she started a relationship with Allen Lanier, the keyboardist for the band Blue Öyster Cult. With Lanier’s encouragement, Smith began experimenting with writing songs and developing more confidence as a performer. By 1975, Smith was backed by a five-person band, billed as the Patti Smith Group, and making regular appearances at top rock clubs, such as Max’s Kansas City and CBGB.
Onstage, Smith was animated and charismatic, stunning audiences used to the far more demure style of most female singers of the day. In Mademoiselle, writer Amy Gross described her shock at seeing “this 27-year-old skinny punk who hammered out dirty poetry and sang surreal folk songs. Who never smiled. Who was tough, sullen, bad, didn’t give a damn. . . . I felt both ravaged and exhilarated.”The Patti Smith Group was considered one of the most exciting bands in New York’s underground scene. But largely because of Smith’s unconventional style and looks, no record company wanted to sign them. They finally were given a contract by Clive Davis at Arista Records. In the fall of 1975, the label released Smith’s first album, Horses, featuring on its cover a portrait of Smith by her friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Universally hailed by critics, it was one of the most auspicious debuts in popular music history. Smith’s rough and gritty vocalizations on Horses unexpectedly found a large mainstream audience and became a powerful infiuence on future generations of rock artists. Citing the album’s importance in his own career, Michael Stipe of REM once wrote, “I bought Horses the day it came out, and that was the end of one chapter of my life and the beginning of another.”
After a successful tour, Smith issued her second album, Radio Ethiopia (1976). The record was a disappointment commercially and critically. Many of Smith’s admirers believed she was becoming too self-conscious because of her new status as a rock star. Smith herself came to agree, after she fell from a 12-foot stage onto her head during a 1977 performance. Having broken her neck, she spent her long convalescence reevaluating her art and coming to terms with her stardom. On her return to performing, she told a journalist of her new sense of confidence, saying “I feel equal to anyone in rock ‘n’ roll.” Smith was at the top of her form with her next album, Easter (1978). It featured her only top 20 hit, “Because the Night,” which she cowrote with fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen. Suffering by its comparison to Horses and Easter, her next album, Wave (1979), was not as well received.
In the 1980s, Smith surprised her fans by giving up performing and recording. With her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, the former guitarist for the bands MC5 and Sonic’s Rendezvous, she moved to Detroit to start a family. She devoted herself to raising their children, Jesse and Jackson, though she continued to write poetry for herself. Smith considers this period out of the public eye as her most creatively productive years. In 1988, Smith returned to the recording studio to produce Dream of Life, but the new album failed to find an audience.
In the early 1990s, Smith suffered a series of personal catastrophes. At 45, her husband, Fred, died suddenly from a heart attack in 1994. His death was soon followed by those of her brother Todd and old friend Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith poured her grief into a new album, Gone Again (1996), which she had begun working on with her husband before his death. Returning to New York, Smith moved away from personal material, instead dealing increasingly with political subjects in her next two albums, Peace and Noise (1998) and Gung Ho (2000). In a 1997 interview in The Progressive, she expressed her continued faith in the power of her chosen art form: “Rock ‘n’ roll is great because it’s the people’s art. It’s not an intellectual art. It’s totally accessible.”
Bockris, Victor, and Roberta Bayley. Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Smith, Patti. Patti Smith Complete: Lyrics, Refiections & Notes for the Future. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Gung Ho. Arista, CD, 2000.
Horses (1975). Arista, CD, 1996.
Masters: The Collected Works. Arista, CD set, 1996.