Born on December 30, 1946, Patti Smith grew to become a bohemian New York poet and punk rock artiste whose 1975 debut album, Horses, stood in daring, unapologetic contrast to the slick, arena-rock ready production and pretension of the era. Smith's street poetry and her group's garage-band aesthetic formed the foundation on which the later punk rock explosion was predicated. Smith was raised in southern New Jersey, employed in a factory and studied to be a teacher before making the paradigm shift to the art of writing and rock and roll.
When she arrived in New York in 1967, she connected with fellow art-boho misfits, including photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, playwright Sam Sheppard and music scribe Lenny Kaye. She and Kaye brought music and poetry together, giving Smith's poignant perspective a soundscape to build upon. It was the seed for the Patti Smith Group, which formalized their union of poetry and rock with a nearly two-month house gig at CBGB in early 1974. Early on, Smith turned to American record producer and music industry executive Clive Davis.
"When I came to Clive, I was really awkward, arrogant, couldn't really sing. I had pretty clumsy movements," said Smith at the 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions. "I had a lot of guts, not a whole lot of talent; but he had faith in me, and let me go out of the gate, just a colt, and stayed with me." Horses was released a year later in 1975, recorded with guitarist Lenny Kaye, guitarist/bassist Ivan Kral, keyboardist Richard Soul and drummer Jay Dee Dougherty, and produced by John Cale.
"The opening to 'Gloria' might be one of the greatest moments in American music," said Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack De Le Rocha, who inducted Smith into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. "The shadow line and the space within it speaks to us like a dark gospel, and then you hear that voice, and you think 'nothing can be this haunting and nothing can be this healing at the same time.'
"And then the words: 'Jesus died for someone’s sins but not mine' – delivered like someone who’d left the church that was repressive America and burned it to the ground. The body of the song becomes a celebration of the outsider. It possesses a chaos that only Patti can summon, and only she can control. She sings, screams, howls, chants so attuned to the moment that anticipating the next one is an impossibility. The breath between her words is as powerful as the words themselves, and by the end of the song, a couple of things were made apparent: punk seeds had been planted, the culture will be changed forever, and it would be hard for me to ever listen to Van Morrison again." Smith followed Horses with the experimental and extreme Radio Ethiopia, but back, neck and facial injuries sustained from a fall during a 1977 concert in Florida sidelined Smith amid the breakthrough year for punk rock and the do-it-yourself aesthetic she helped promulgate.
Smith came back strong in 1978 with Easter, an album of renewal and resurrection that focused her verbal gifts and raw power into succinct, hard-hitting songs. The first album production for Jimmy Iovine, Easter yielded a Top 20 hit, “Because the Night.” The song was cowritten with Bruce Springsteen, who’d been recording in an adjacent studio, and it furthered Smith’s unlikely yet well-deserved conquest of the rock mainstream. 1979’s Wave was produced by Todd Rundgren and preempted a retirement from public view, as she settled into family life with husband (and former MC5 guitarist) Fred "Sonic" Smith and their two children in Detroit. In 1988, Smith resurfaced with Dream of Life, which included considerable involvement from her guitarist-husband and contained the rousing anthem “People Have the Power.” She released the highly personal and elegiac Gone Again, singing eloquently of time, loss and mortality in 1995. Smith continued to record through the late 90s and 2000s, with Peace and Noise (1997), containing incantatory meditations on big themes; Gung Ho (2000) and Trampin’ (2004).
"Patti’s spirit ultimately proved too restless for radio and far too threatening," said De La Rocha. "She seemed far more interested in creating transcendent, poetic moments than fashionable hits, because she had already carved her legacy into something much deeper. The movement she helped define explained why people like me, who related more to Bad Brains more than we did to the Eagles; why we championed the Clash and hated Ronald Reagan; and why we dropped our textbooks and picked up Sonia Sanchez, Alan Ginsberg and Langston Hughes. Expanding rock’s boundaries, Patti Smith, the poet, revealed truth regardless of the political and social consequences."
In 2007, Smith released a cover album entitled Twelve, which featured a rowdy reworking of the Rolling Stones' classic anti-war polemic "Gimme Shelter." In the clip below, Smith performs "Gimme Shelter" during the 2007 Inductions, when she was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Patti Smith is among the featured artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's Women Who Rock exhibit on display through February 26.