In 1975, rock and roll caught a glimpse of what lay ahead when Patti Smith—a bohemian New York poet and punk-rock artiste—released her debut album, Horses.
Its inspired garage-band amateurism flew in the face of increasingly slick rock production values. Smith’s lyrics were street poetry that nodded toward Beat Generation and French symbolist poets, as well as literate rockers like Jim Morrison and Lou Reed.
Horses arrived at a time when rock and roll needed a jolt from its unadventurous rut and upwardly mobile arena-rock pretensions. John Cale’s arty, unretouched production gave the album the feeling of a raw musical chiaroscuro. The opening lines of the first track, “Gloria,” found Smith intoning a seeming heresy: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Horses contained vivid, disturbing imagery that poured from Smith in impassioned torrents (“Land,” “Birdland”). The musicians proudly flaunted a garage-rock aesthetic, while Smith sang with the delirious release of an inspired amateur who knew her voice conveyed more honest passion than any note-perfect rock professional.
Smith was born in Chicago and grew up in southern New Jersey, where she worked a factory job, studied to be a teacher and plotted her escape from an uneventful life via poetry and rock and roll. She fled to New York in 1967, where she worked in bookstores, wrote poetry and hooked up with such fellow art-boho misfits as photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, playwright Sam Sheppard and music scribe Lenny Kaye. (Smith herself would try her hand at rock journalism, writing for such magazines as Creem and Rolling Stone.) Smith and Kaye brought street poetry and rock guitar together at a memorable 1971 reading in New York. Such events sewed the seeds 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.
Smith has stated that her intention during those formative years “was merely to kick a little life into what I perceived as a dead poetry scene. I was trying to kick poetry in the ass.” She was no less provocative when it came to the rock scene, which she felt was dying on the vine. “I seriously worried that I was seeing the decline of rock and roll,” she explained. “My design was to shake things up, to motivate people and bring a different type of work ethic back to rock and roll.”
Her accomplices included guitarist Kaye, guitarist/bassist Ivan Kral, keyboardist Richard “DNV” Sohl and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, a.k.a., the Patti Smith Group.
Smith followed Horses with the even more experimental and extreme Radio Ethiopia, but her forward momentum came to a halt in January 1977, when she fell from the stage of a Florida coliseum, suffering back, neck and facial injuries. A lengthy period of recuperation sidelined her during the breakthrough year for punk rock and the do-it-yourself aesthetic she helped promulgate. However, 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.
Having won the battle, if not the war, Smith retired from public view following her fourth album, 1979’s Wave, and its accompanying tour. The Todd Rundgren-produced Wave included “Dancing Barefoot” and “Frederick,” songs that celebrated her romantic union with Fred “Sonic” Smith (former guitarist with the MC5), whom she married in 1980. Little was heard from Smith in the Eighties, as she settled down to family life with her husband and 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.”
Over the next five years, however, Smith lost a series of close friends and relatives, including her brother Todd, husband Fred, bandmate Sohl and fellow artist Mapplethorpe. In 1996, she released the highly personal and elegiac Gone Again, on which she eloquently sang of time, loss and mortality. This triggered a public resurgence for Smith, who re-formed her band with Kaye and Daugherty and newcomers Oliver Ray (guitar) and Tony Shanahan (bass). The group recorded Peace and Noise (1997), containing incantatory meditations on big themes, and Gung Ho (2000), a more worldly album that hailed the can-do spirit of religious and political leaders Smith held in high esteem.
A two-disc career overview entitled Land (1975-2002) came out on Arista in 2002, and Smith inaugurated a new chapter in her career that same year by signing with Columbia Records. Her first release for the label, Trampin’(2004), found the Patti Smith Group and the artist’s commitment to “three-chord rock and the power of the word” fiercely intact.