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Music / Patti Smith

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The Godmother of Punk, 1976. Photo by Lynn Goldsmith.

"We created it. Let's take it over."
Patti Smith, ending her cover of "My Generation"

Patricia Lee "Patti" Smith (born December 30, 1946) is an American singer-songwriter and published poet who helped form a foundation for the American version of Punk Rock with her ambitious 1975 album Horses. This distinction has to be made here, as on a tour to Britain in 1976, what might otherwise have been a fruitful collaboration was scuppered by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols' sneering on-stage reference to Horses, horses, fucking horses! It had been envisaged that the British and American versions of Punk be brought together with Patti fronting the Pistols in a few covers, but Rotten's clear disdain for what he saw as pretentious twaddle, combined with Smith's reciprocal criticism of the Pistols' lack of basic musical talent, killed that nice sentiment and entrenched the separation between the two schools of Punk.note 

She has many popular songs, including but not limited to "Because the Night," "People Have The Power," "Dancing Barefoot," "Gloria," "Redondo Beach," and "Free Money." "Dancing Barefoot" was covered by U2 and appeared as the B-Side to "When Love Comes to Town", gaining almost as much radio airplay as the A-side.

She has several books out, including some early poetry chapbooks and the monumental Babel from 1978. Her brief 1992 memoir, Woolgathering, is about her childhood mystical experiences, and The Coral Sea from 1996 is a tribute to her lifelong friend and artistic collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe. 2005's Auguries of Innocence is also a poetry collection, including themes of current events and tragedies. In 2010, she won the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids. A sequel, M Train, appeared in 2015, followed by Year of the Monkey in 2017. Also in 2017, Devotion is about how and why she writes. The New Jerusalem (2018) is a William Blake —like epic prose poem about the relationship between art and faith, illustrated with her art and photos.

She was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 2005. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. She received the PEN Literary Service Award in 2020, given to "an important writer whose critically acclaimed work has drawn a wide audience and who helps us to understand the human condition in original and powerful ways." In May 2022, she was awarded the Legion of Honor, France's highest and most important distinction.

Not to be confused with '80s singer Patty Smyth of Scandal.


  • Horses (1975)
  • Agents of Fortune (Blue Öyster Cult, 1976) on which Patti was a guest artiste and provided or co-wrote four songs.
  • Radio Ethiopia (1976)
  • Easter (1978)
  • Wave (1979)
  • Dream Of Life (1988)
  • Gone Again (1996)
  • Peace And Noise (1997)
  • Gung Ho (2000)
  • Trampin' (2004)
  • Twelve (2007)
  • Banga (2012)
  • The Perfect Vision Trilogy with Soundwalk Collective:
    • Mummer Love (2019)
    • The Peyote Dance (2019)
    • Peradam (2020)

"Jesus Died for somebody's tropes but not mine":

  • Ambiguous Gender: The cover of Horses, photo by Robert Mapplethorpe. Patti's relatively deep voice adds to this.
  • Band of Relatives: In recent years, her band includes her son Jackson, and occasionally her daughter Jesse as well.
  • Continuity Nod: "Radio Baghdad" (2004) to Radio Ethiopia (1976)
  • The Cover Changes the Gender: "Hey Joe". "Gloria" is notable for averting this trope.
  • The Cover Changes the Meaning: "Gloria," "Land," and "Hey Joe". The introductory section of "Gloria" was written by Patti Smith, and a spoken word piece was added to "Hey Joe" about Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army.
  • Cover Album: "Twelve" is entirely full with covers.
  • Cover Version:
  • Drugs Are Bad: "Poppies", "Horses" (perhaps ironically, she claims "Horses" is the only song she's ever written on acid). While Patti liked marijuana in the 70s, her one acid trip was at a party where she was (probably well-intentionally) dosed. She describes several incidents where people assumed she shot heroin and she had to explain she's terrified of needles.
  • Drugs Are Good: Patti loves Bob Marley and studied RastafarI which uses herb as a sacrament. She respects psychoactive drugs as associated with the sacred, with "jazz musicians or Hopi shamans", not something to be taken casually or for kicks.
  • Driven to Suicide: "Redondo Beach".
  • Epic Rocking: Most of her albums have at least one song pushing 10 minutes, frequently based around her poetry. "Radio Ethiopia" from Radio Ethiopia, for example.
  • Fever Dream Episode: Patti had scarlet fever and other illnesses as a child during which she had visions and experiences she related to her siblings later. This happened with her non-illness dreams as well. (It's in Woolgathering.) As an older adult (M Train, Year of the Monkey) she seems to have become hypersomniac (thus the Must Have Caffeine she describes), dozing off anytime, anywhere, and sometimes unsure if an experience she's having is a dream, reality, or both. She specifically references Alice and Down the Rabbit Hole a few times, and she occasionally has conversations with Animate Inanimate Objects.
    [After seeing innumerable promos for Cracker (which has Robbie Coltrane) on ITV, then running into Coltrane in a hotel lobby:] —Can you imagine the odds of such an encounter? I say to my floral bedspread.
    —All things considered, odds-on favorite. But you really should have conjured John Barrymore.
    A worthy suggestion but I had no desire to encourage a continuing dialogue. Unlike a channel changer it’s literally impossible to turn off a floral bedspread.
  • Genre Mashup: She may technically be a Punk Rock artist, but she's touched on and/or been influenced by Beat Poetry / Spoken Word, Proto Punk, Reggae, Folk, Country Music, Funk and Soul-influenced Rock, borderline-New Wave Pop, Garage Rock, Noise Rock and Psychedelic Rock, among others. She recorded a version of the Willard Robison torch song "Don't Smoke in Bed" and used to play Debussy's "Syrinx" on clarinet in the middle of shows, reminding the inevitable hecklers that "punk" is an art form that lets you do, or use, anything you want, especially if it's different. Playing classical music at a rock concert qualifies.
  • Grief Song: Much of her mid-90s material, after her husband, her brother, and one of her band members died almost at the same time. Gone Again is all about this. Her cover of "Don't Smoke in Bed" likewise.
  • Hairy Girl: the cover of her Easter LP shows Patti flaunting natural armpits.
  • Incoming Ham: Arguably the opening lines of the opening song on her debut album.
    Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine/Meltin' in a pot of thieves/Wild card up my sleeve/Slick heart of stone/My sins my own/They belong to ME. ME.
  • Inn Between the Worlds: In M Train, Patti's neverending quest for coffee leads her to the Silver Moon Cafe in New York's Chinatown, which turns out to be a very small tea shop with a four-item menu. Lulled by the scent of oolong, she orders a combo and receives some tea and steamed buns with delicious filling; she notices that the waitress flips the door sign to "Closed" as soon as she leaves, though there are other customers inside, and she's convinced that if she turns around the shop itself will disappear.note 
  • Intentionally Awkward Title: "Piss Factory," "Pissing in a River," "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger"
  • Intercourse with You: "Because the Night"
  • Ironic Echo: Patti's collaboration with the Blue Öyster Cult, Revenge of Vera Gemini from Agents of Fortune, is built around the ironic echo; Patti's lines, coming in slightly behind Albert Bouchard's, are sardonic echos that subtly twist the meaning.
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: Patti's beloved cats are all through her book M Train, especially Cairo, a runt Abyssinian (her name comes from the fact that she's the color of the Pyramids). She even tells us when Cairo throws a hairball in the middle of the night or urps next to her pillow.note Cairo Smith lived to be almost 22, the equivalent of 104 in human years, departing September 23, 2023. She made frequent appearances in Patti's Substack films, and Patti says she still sometimes sees a wisp of her presence.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Redondo Beach" sounds upbeat, but the lyrics are likely about a girl who drowned herself after a quarrel with the narrator.note 
  • Lady Looks Like a Dude: She is well known for her androgynous look.
  • The Lancer: Lenny Kaye, who's been her guitarist since her very first gig in 1971.
  • Money Song: "Free Money"
  • The Muse:
    • Patti may have been the life-model for "Suzie", the character who steps in and out of many Blue Öyster Cult songs, as a fiery, independently-minded strong woman answerable to nobody who takes no shit from anyone.
    • She also inspired the KT Tunstall song Suddenly I See, which is dedicated to her.
    • Grant Morrison has stated she's the visual inspiration for Doom Patrol's Crazy Jane.
  • Must Have Caffeine: M Train reveals Patti's abiding love for coffee and her need for it at frequent intervals. (It's also part of her lifelong Arthur Rimbaud identfication/connection as he was a coffee importer.) She describes the coffee she's had on her travels and her devastation when the Greenwich Village sandwich/coffee shop Cafe 'Ino (where she wrote much of M Train) closed for good. The owner gave her "her" table and chair. She describes lifelong fantasies of starting her own cafe. There's a warm moment in Year of the Monkey where she visits her former guitarist Oliver Ray (the poet who gave her her beloved black coat) at his coffee roaster in Arizona.
  • N-Word Privileges: "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger", although she uses the term to mean "social outcast" rather than with outright racial connotations.
  • Nightmarish Factory: Patti's first job after leaving school, in the deadly heat of a factory foundry inspecting pipe at The Piss Factory.
  • Protest Song: There's a few, especially in her post-90s work - "Radio Baghdad", "1959",
  • Proto Punk and Punk Rock: Horses was the first album released by a band from the New York Punk scene, and by extension one of the first Punk Rock albums released, period. She was a huge influence on many later bands as well, though her sound is unconventional by Punk standards (see the above trope).
  • Rousing Speech: "People Have The Power", "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger"
  • She's Back: Between 1980 and 1995, she basically retired from rock music to raise her kids. Then she picked up where she left off.
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Radio Ethiopia" supposedly refers to poet Arthur Rimbaud's dying wishes. Patti has felt a connection with Rimbaud since she was 16, when she stole a copy of Illuminations since she couldn't afford the 99c it cost (about $8.50 today).note  "Piss Factory" mentions James Brown. "About a Boy"'s title references Nirvana's "About a Girl".
    • Banga is a series of portraits of historical and fictional people and events, including Emperor Constantine, Amerigo Vespucci, and Katniss Everdeen.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Way over there on the idealistic side. To give you an idea, one of her more famous songs is called "People Have the Power".
    I believe everything we dream can come to pass through our union/ We can turn the world around, we can turn the earth's revolution!
  • Spoken Word in Music: Frequently, especially live where songs can turn into long semi-improvised rants.
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Lenny Kaye always sings the second verse of "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger", and also usually gets to sing a solo number during concerts.
  • Survival Mantra: her take on the 23rd Psalm in Privilege (Set Me Free)
  • Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names: in the song Citizen Ship, about immigrants arriving in New York, Patti's spoken, or rather rudely shouted, interlude involves turning to the other band members and Americanising the more difficult to spell Slavonic names.