Patti Smith: The Genre-bending Gender-bender

Year

2014

In an essay published in CREEM magazine, poet and rocker Patti Smith riffed on the legacy of musicians who die young--Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, even Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whom Smith calls "the first rock 'n’ roll star." She wrote about her visit to Morrison’s Paris gravesite: "I sat there for a couple hours. I was covered with mud and afraid to move. then it was all over. it just didn't matter anymore. racing thru my skull were new plans new dreams voyages symphonies colors. I just wanted to get the hell outa there and go home and do my own work. to focus my floodlight on the rhythm within. I straightened my skirt and said good-bye to him. an old woman in black spoke to me in broken english. look at this grave how sad! why do you americans not honor your poets?"

This anecdote cuts to the heart of Smith’s relationship to poetry and music. If Mayakovsky can be a rock star, then Morrison can be a poet. Smith didn’t much care for the distinction between the two. She has managed to move between music and poetry so effortlessly herself that she obliterates the distinction. Smith embraced the rhapsodic, often deranged poets of Vision, the Arthur Rimbaud of A Season in Hell, the William Blake who saw angels in the trees. Poetry was Smith’s first love and helped establish her renegade reputation, while music made her legend.

Smith moved to New York in the late 1960s and, over the next few years, while living with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, established a reputation as a writer of fierce vision and uncompromising originality. She trafficked in the underground theater scene (where she collaborated with playwright Sam Shepard on the play Cowboy Mouth) and published poems in small press editions, which, along with her published rock criticism, established Smith in the New York arts scene of the early 1970s.

Her February 1971 poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church, where rock critic Lenny Kaye joined her for three songs on guitar, opened the door for her future recordings. The two hit it off right away, discovering a shared interest in obscure rock records. Two years later, Smith and Kaye reunited for a concert in celebration of Rimbaud, and the seeds for a band were sown. Adding Richard Sohl on piano the following year, the trio found regular gigs in and around New York.

Tweaking the rock standard "Hey Joe" to incorporate details of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, Smith and band, with financial backing from Mapplethorpe, decided to finally start recording. They laid down the song at Electric Lady Studio on June 5, 1974, accompanied on lead guitar by Tom Verlaine, of the infamous band Television. "Hey Joe" was released with the B-side "Piss Factory" on their self-created label, Mer Records.

The band solidified their New York presence during an eight-week gig at the famed CBGB’s in New York in 1975. Their legend grew and Clive Davis signed them to his upstart label, Arista, to record a full-length album that summer. Returning to Electric Lady, with Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale producing, the band recorded Horses. Despite receiving little radio play, the album nudged into the Top Fifty, and secured a place in rock history as one of the first Do-It-Yourself albums of the punk rock era. The album looks into the rearview mirror and asks, as Smith told Rolling Stone magazine in 1976, "what happened to the Sixties?"

Considered one of the touchstone albums of the art-punk scene, Horses laid down Smith’s vision in simple three-chord songs featuring provocative lyrics. The album kicks off with a liberal rewrite of Van Morrison’s "Gloria," where Smith sings:

Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
meltin' in a pot of thieves
wild card up my sleeve
thick heart of stone
my sins my own
they belong to me, me

Smith often dressed in a man's shirt and tie as both a critique of rock’s obsession with gender roles and as an impersonation of Charles Baudelaire. The poet-critic haunts Smith’s career, from the spontaneous exclamations of "oh Baudelaire!" during her live performance "babelogues," to the gender-bending (at the time) suit and tie. Consider these lines from her poem "picasso laughing," which references, Baudelaire, T. S. Eliot, and name-checking two ghosts:

april is the cruelest month etc. what remains?
brian jones bones, jim morrisons friend jimi hendrix
bandana. sweatband angel. judies garland. the
starched collar of baudelaire. the sculptured cap of
voltaire. the crusaders helmet like a temple itself.
rimbaud's valise. his artificial limb genuflects. surreal
space. brancusi bird brain.

NME magazine described her as "a gifted writer who has reinvented herself as an alien creature, reared on Jean Genet and Rimbaud." Horses was a tent pole to the New York punk rock scene, and is among many critics’ Top Ten albums of the 1970s. Three albums followed, and Smith closed the 1970s with Wave, an album rife with songs about her growing discontent with the trappings of rock stardom. At the end of a European tour in support of the album, Smith took a long leave of absence from the music world to move to Detroit to start a family with Fred Smith, formerly of the punk band MC5.

Smith’s legacy is still being written, so to speak, and though Horses may prove to be her most enduring contribution to music, her poems stand alongside her best recorded work. Among her scores of small and large press collections, most of which include multimedia elements such as Mapplethorpe photographs, are the collected early poems, Early Work, 1970 - 1979 published by W. W. Norton. She also released a large collection of song lyrics, Patti Smith Complete: Lyrics, Notes and Reflections, and the curio Ha! Ha! Houdini, a chapbook-length poem in tribute to the master escape artist, with some editions fittingly padlocked shut (key included).

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