Patricia Lee (“Patti”) Smith (born December 30, 1946) is an American musician, singer, and poet.
Smith came to prominence during the punk movement with her 1975 debut album, Horses. Called “punk rock’s poet laureate”, she brought a feminist and intellectual take to punk music and became one of rock and roll’s most influential musicians.
Although Smith’s success has been limited in commercial terms (she has never had an RIAA certified record and has had just one Top 20 single), she is often regarded as one of the most influential artists in rock history: Rolling Stone magazine placed her at Number 47 in its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. On March 12, 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha.
Smith was born in Chicago, Illinois, and raised in Pitman, New Jersey. With her formal education temporarily over at 16, Smith went to work in a factory – an experience she found excruciating.
In 1967 she left New Jersey for good, moved to New York City. In 1969 she went to Paris with her sister and started doing performance art. When Smith returned to New York City, she spent the early 1970s painting, writing, and performing spoken-word poetry—frequently at St. Mark’s Poetry Project. In 1971 she performed – for one night only – in the play Cowboy Mouth, with the playwright and actor Sam Shepard (the published play’s notes call for “a man who looks like a coyote and a woman who looks like a crow”).
Smith subsidized her career in these years by publishing rock journalism, especially in Creem magazine. She also wrote songs during this period in connection with Allen Lanier of Blue Öyster Cult, who recorded several songs to which Smith contributed, including “Debbie Denise” (after her poem “In Remembrance of Debbie Denise”), “Career of Evil,” “Fire of Unknown Origin,” “The Revenge of Vera Gemini,” and “Shooting Shark.”
By 1974, however, Patti Smith was performing rock music herself, initially with guitarist and rock archivist Lenny Kaye, and later with a full band comprising Kaye, Ivan Kral (guitar), Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) and Richard Sohl (piano). The band recorded a first single, “Piss Factory/Hey Joe,” in 1974. The A-side describes the helpless anger Smith had felt while working on a factory assembly line and the salvation she discovered in the form of a shoplifted book, the 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations. The B-side was a version of the rock standard with the addition of a spoken-word piece about fugitive heiress Patty Hearst.
The Patti Smith Group was signed by Clive Davis of Arista Records, and 1975 saw the release of Smith’s first album, Horses, produced amidst some tension by John Cale, formerly of The Velvet Underground. The record fused rock and roll, proto-punk rock with spoken poetry and is widely considered one of rock’s greatest debuts. The album begins with a cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” and Smith’s opening words are some of the most famous in rock: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins ... but not mine.”
As the Patti Smith Group toured the United States and Europe, punk’s popularity grew. The rawer sound of the group’s second album, Radio Ethiopia, reflected this. Considerably less accessible than Horses, Radio Ethiopia received poor reviews. However, several of its songs, notably “Pissing in a River, “ “Pumping,” and “Ain’t It Strange,” have stood the test of time, and Smith still performs them regularly in concert.
While touring in support of the record, Smith accidentally danced off a high stage in Tampa, Florida, falling fifteen feet into a concrete orchestra pit and breaking several neck vertebrae. The injury required a period of rest and an intensive round of physical therapy, during which time she was able to re-assess, re-energize and reorganize her life, a luxury that had been denied her in her swift rise to fame.
The Patti Smith Group produced two further albums before the end of the 1970s. Easter (1978) was her most commercially successful record, containing the hit single “Because the Night” – co-written with Bruce Springsteen – which rose to Number Thirteen on the Billboard Hot 100. Wave was less successful, with “Frederick” and “Dancing Barefoot” receiving only minor radio airplay.
Following the release of Wave, Smith, now separated from long-time partner Allen Lanier, met Fred “Sonic” Smith, former guitar player for legendary Detroit rock band the MC5, who adored poetry as much as she did. The running joke at the time was that she only married Fred because she wouldn’t have to change her name. Patti and Fred had a son, Jackson, and later a daughter, Jesse. Through most of the 1980s Patti was in semi-retirement from music, living with her family north of Detroit in St. Clair Shores. In 1988, she released the well-received album, Dream of Life. This album was considered more mainstream than her earlier punk-influenced work.
In 1994 her husband, Fred died of a heart attack, and shortly after she faced the unexpected death of her beloved brother Todd. When her son, Jackson, turned 12, Smith decided to move back to New York. Her son had a band called Back in Spades.
After the deaths of her husband and brother, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Allen Ginsberg (whom she had known since her early years in New York) urged her to go back out on the road. She toured briefly with Bob Dylan in December 1995 (chronicled in a book of photographs by Stipe). The next year, she worked with her long-time colleagues to record the haunting Gone Again, featuring, “About a Boy”, a tribute to Kurt Cobain. Smith was a great fan of Cobain’s, but was more angered than saddened by his suicide. She was quoted in Rolling Stone, “When you watch someone you care for fight so hard to hold onto their life, then see another person just throw their life away, I guess I had less patience for that.” That same year she collaborated with Stipe on “E-Bow the Letter,” a song on R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which she has also performed live with the band. During this period, she returned to New York.
Since the release of Gone Again, the Patti Smith Group has recorded three new albums: Peace and Noise (with the single “1959,” about the Chinese invasion of Tibet) in 1997, Gung Ho (with songs about Ho Chi Minh and Smith’s late father) in 2000, and Trampin’ in 2004 (which included several songs about motherhood, partly in tribute to Smith’s mother who died in 2002). This last album, Smith’s first with a new label (Sony), was critically acclaimed and returned her to the Billboard 200 for the first time in years. A boxed set of her work up to that time came out in 1996, and 2002 saw the release of Land, a two-CD compilation that includes a memorable cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”
In August 2005 Smith and the band opened the German RuhrTriennale and played two shows in the festival’s renowned songwriter’s concert series, Century of Song. Amongst unusual versions of her own material she performed very personal renditions of Phil Spector songs and classics by Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. The next morning she held a literary lecture about the poems of Arthur Rimbaud and William Blake. On this occasion she also talked about the difference between (song) lyrics and poems.
On July 10, 2005, Smith was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Culture Ministry. In addition to her influence on rock and roll, the Ministry also noted Smith’s appreciation for Arthur Rimbaud.
During the course of her career, Smith has published a number of books of poetry, including 1980’s Babel; Patti Smith Complete, a collection of her lyrics; Early Work, collecting a number of the small poetry volumes and broadsides she published in the early 1970s; and The Coral Sea, an extended elegy to Mapplethorpe. In 2003 her artwork was exhibited in Pittsburgh at the Andy Warhol Museum.
In January, March and May 2006 she gave several performances at the Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria, as part of Christoph Schlingensief’s multimedia exhibition “Area 7 - Matth㴳expedition”.
In September 2006 she gave two performances of The Coral Sea Sessions: An Evening of Poetry and Music in Remembrance of Robert Mapplethorpe, which was recorded for a possible future record release. The central part of the performance was a reading of the poem, “The Coral Sea”, accompanied by music by Kevin Shields.
Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 12, 2007. Smith dedicated her award to the memory of her late husband, Fred. Smith gave a performance of the Rolling Stones’ classic, “Gimme Shelter”, a song she termed a great anti-war song. As the closing number of 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction evening, Smith’s “People Have the Power” was used for the big celebrity jam that always ends the program.
Smith premiered two new protest songs in London in September 2006. Louise Jury, writing in The Independent characterized them as “an emotional indictment of American and Israeli foreign policy”. One song (“Qana”) was about the Israeli airstrike on the Lebanese village of Qana, the other (“Without Chains”) about the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
Jury’s article quotes Smith as saying, “I wrote both these songs directly in response to events that I felt outraged about. These are injustices against children and the young men and women who are being incarcerated. I’m an American, I pay taxes in my name and they are giving millions and millions of dollars to a country such as Israel and cluster bombs and defense technology and those bombs were dropped on common citizens in Qana. It’s terrible. It’s a human rights violation.”
“Without Chains” is about Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen who was born and raised in Germany, held at Guantanamo for four years. Jury quotes Smith, “He is the same age as my son, Jackson. When I read the story, I realized how I would feel as a mother if my son had been taken away at the age of 20, put into chains, without any hope of leaving, without any direct charge.”
Banga (2012) is Patti Smith’s first collection of original material since 2004’s critically-acclaimed Trampin’. The album was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York City and produced by Patti Smith and her band: Tony Shanahan, Jay Dee Daugherty and her long-time collaborator Lenny Kaye. Featured guests include Tom Verlaine, Jack Petruzzelli, Smith’s son, Jackson, and daughter, Jesse Paris.
Inspired by Smith’s unique dreams and observations, Banga’s poetic lyrics are a reflection of our complex world a world that is rife with chaos and beauty. Praised for her storytelling abilities, Smith has crafted an album that captures a wide range of human experience. There is an exploratory spirit in the songs that make up Banga, including a melodic overture imagining the voyage of Amerigo Vespucci to the New World in 1497 (“Amerigo”), a rock song for the people of Japan in the wake of last years earthquake (“Fuji-san”), a classic ballad in memory of Amy Winehouse (“This is The Girl”), an improvised meditation on art and nature (“Constantine’s Dream”), as well as a birthday song written for her friend, Johnny Depp (“Nine”).