An American Artist: Five songs that made Patti Smith a hero

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“I’m an American artist, and I have no guilt,” Patti Smith declares in ‘Babelogue’, her spoken word piece that serves as a kind of manifesto for her life. She’s a pleasure seeker, a seeker of wisdom, a maker of musical chaos and a million other things. By very nature, Smith is hard to pin down. No words do her justice beyond one: artist.

It can often feel intimidating to attempt to dive into the career of an icon. With an expansive back catalogue and a whole history to learn, it can seem too daunting to start. When it comes to Patti Smith, the woman known as the Godmother of Punk, that is expanded tenfold as her repertoire includes poetry, novels, albums, spoken word performances, improvisations and beyond. Born out of the New York poetic scene and then landing in the punk one, Smith’s story is one of real purpose and a tireless commitment to her art.

She calls her art ‘work’ and labels her gigs as ‘jobs’. This is an homage to the idea that it’s not enough to be a writer or a performer. You have to put in the time to practice, get better and be truly dedicated to the craft of it all. That’s what makes Smith such a fascinating figure. Unlike other punk figures who seem to be all carnage and the energy of that one show above all else, her own attitude is underpinned by a studious streak. Smith is just as much a disciple as she is a leader, spending her years sitting in the classrooms of Arthur Rimbaud, Allen Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix, Sylvia Plath and countless other names from music and literature. 

All of that culminated in a once-in-a-lifetime artist. There is no one else in the world like Patti Smith. Her trajectory to icon status has followed no one else’s path but her own and has developed step by step on a ladder of unique and fascinating moves.

Tracing that climb, here are five songs that map her career. As a perfect starter pack for new fans, or a brief overview of what she’s made of, these tracks made her a legend.

Five songs that made Patti Smith an icon

‘Hey Joe’

“Honey, the way you play guitar / Makes me feel so / Makes me feel so / Masochistic.” As the first song the world ever heard from Patti Smith back in 1974, she took on the track that Jimi Hendrix made famous with her own poetic flare. Before the music comes in, Smith recites a poem, merging the track’s themes with new news as she writes a tale about the fugitive heiress Patty Heart. In this version, she casts the wanted woman as Joe before raging into a roaring version of the track.

Covering someone else’s song might seem an odd way to start a career, but for Smith, it was a perfect step. Before this, she’d done a few poetry readings and gradually added music in, representing that here as her musical partner, Lenny Kaye, keeps her time with a chugging guitar as a kind of metronome. And what of Hendrix? This one was a personal choice. 

In Just Kids, she writes about sitting outside one of her first rehearsals, too afraid to go in. That’s when Hendrix himself appeared. She said, “He was everything you would want in your rock and roll star. He was beautiful, intelligent, and hungry. Just to look at him was an experience.” He gave her the courage to go inside as they spoke. By the time she left, it was in the news that he’d died. When it came to recording her first EP as a band, they chose to do it at Hendrix’s studio and to honour him with his song.

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‘Land: Horses / Land Of A Thousand Dances / La Mer(de)’

There are few debut albums as powerful as Patti Smith’s. The 1975 album, Horses, made her a star. It perfectly captures the artist in all her vibrant greatness, from the seductive punk of ‘Gloria’ to the poetic ode to Jim Morrison on ‘Break It Up’.

But the most fascinating track on the album comes in the form of this nearly ten-minute-long jam. Within the track, Smith merges William S. Burroughs references, a cover of the rock standard ‘Land Of A Thousand Dances’, a mocking take on a 1950s dance track and free-wheeling improvisation. Across the hi-octane, swelling track, she brings in such an insanely wide array of her different influences and lets her musical spirit wander around the terrain of her brain as her exciting band follows her lead.

“Go Rimbaud!” she ends up yelling, becoming a new battle cry for literary punks everywhere as Smith solidified her position as their ruler. A perfect antidote to the meaninglessness that seems to represent a lot of the genre, Horses was rich with interpretations that we could spend years unpicking.

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After Horses made her a star, Smith could have simply done whatever it would have taken to stay on top. Instead, she went off and made the strange and somewhat alienating Radio Ethiopia that threw off the tag-along fans looking for a simple new poster child for ‘women in music’. She wasn’t going to be their doll or their role model. She was on her own path.

She then landed on Easter, a record that merged the initial spirit of Horses with a healthy dose of the difficulty of her second album. It also was proof of her anthemic potential. These songs sound just as good in a small NYC basement venue as they would on huge festival stages, especially as it houses the mega-hit ‘Because The Night’ when she finished off a song Bruce Springsteen was struggling with, making it look so easy.

But the track to pay attention to here is ‘Easter’. In the album’s gatefold, she included the communion picture of poet Arthur Rimbaud and his brother Frederic. On this track, she borrows deeply from the language of her favourite writer and the influence he gave her. Mixing symbolism, religious imagery, almost hymn-like instrumentals, and eventually her own custom-written prayer-like poem, it’s a flawless example of the true punk poet Smith is. 

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‘People Have The Power’

But Patti Smith isn’t all big words and poetry. You don’t have to have an English degree to engage with her work, and she routinely simply wants to engage with the people. On her ultimate political anthem, ‘People Have The Power’, she does exactly that.

This track marks a very different moment in Smith’s life. After her 1979 album Wave, the musician essentially disappeared and took an extended hiatus to move away and raise a family with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. It wasn’t until the 1988 album Dream Of Life that she reemerged, with this rock number as her reintroduction. This song, and the whole record, stands as a memorial to her and her husband’s incredibly collaborative relationship as the only album they got to make together. With her unique vocals and lyrical styling merged with Fred Smith’s more classic rock guitar style, the track is a stadium-ready ode to their love.

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‘Beneath The Southern Cross’

After Dream Of Life, Smith disappeared again, but for a sadder reason. In the mid-1990s, her life became marked with grief. In quick succession, she lost her brother, Todd Smith, her husband and the man that she considered her creative soulmate, Robert Maplethorpe.

To get through the losses, a team of her closest friends and collaborators gathered around her and encouraged her to work through it. She toured with Bob Dylan and then moved back to New York, where her music career started. Gone Again is an album of sharp and visceral bravery. Surrounded by a crack team of musicians who cared about her, like Lenny Kaye, Tom Verlaine, John Cale, her sister Kimberley and even Jeff Buckley, it’s a gentler beast.

‘Beneath The Southern Cross’ represents this beautifully, marking her change from her raging punk youth into a more life-worn, wise figure. With the same poetic sentiment and unique performance style, it’s an incredible tribute to those she’s lost as she returned to the career she’s still working away at today.

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