Patti Smith - Outside Society
The Poet Priestess of Punk. That was what they called her. She stormed into New York City in the 1970s as the nascent punk movement was getting under way. She was a sort of female version of Bob Dylan, with her stream of consciousness poems that she would set to music. She watched everything around her and then spat it back out, a musical incarnation of the chaotic beauty of Jackson Pollock, one of her heroes. She was there when Warhol introduced Edie to New York society and immortalized it in one of her loveliest and most famous poems.
Patti Smith was as influenced by the classics (The Stones, The Doors) and by the 60s girl groups as by French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who she idolized. She was an enigma and an open book. A romantic at heart but using harsh vivid colors to paint her words, discarding traditional form and structure, throwing them onto the canvas and leaving them where they lie.
This collection of 18 tunes is really insufficient. A couple of tracks from each album that leaves the die-hard fan stammering "but...but...you forgot..." Yet it does say in the PR notes that it an "entry point" to her music and you got to start somewhere. "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine" she croons in her splintered re-imagining of Them's 'Gloria', opening track to her classic debut Horses. The album was a celebration of the 60s garage bands, 60s pop, poetry, life, death. The big stuff. Choosing just two songs from it was surely painful. 'Free Money' was a safe choice, more easily accessible than 'Land of a Thousand Dances' or the almost painful intensity of the title track. None the less it is a wise inclusion, showcasing the many facets to Smith's music.
Smith's second album, 1976's Radio Ethiopia was a different story. Following on the heels of her critically lauded debut was always going to be difficult. Rawer, meaner and uneven, it nonetheless contains some of her best songs, and the two tracks chosen are spot-on. 'Ain't It Strange', Smith's distorted vocals shaping themselves around the words, terrible and beautiful at the same time. A remarkable performance. 'Pissing in a River' is also just so stunningly gorgeous that it should have the newbie running to buy up everything else she did. Smith's unique voice, at first with just a piano accompanying, then the rest of the band joining in, following slowly behind like a funeral procession as she cries out her anguish: "Spoke of a wheel / tip of a spoon / Mouth of a cave / I'm a slave I'm free / When are you coming? / Hope you come soon."
Third album Easter and things started to take off for Smith and her band which included Lenny Kaye on guitar and vocals. A lot of people screamed "SELL OUT!" after her top ten hit with the Bruce Springsteen-penned 'Because The Night' but who cares. It is a masterpiece (and remains my favorite song of all time.) She was a romantic and this song proves it. Her additional verses were written for new love Fred 'Sonic' Smith of the seminal Detroit band MC5 and her version surpasses that of the Boss's by a New Jersey mile: "With doubt the vicious circle turns and burns / Without you I cannot live / Forgive, the yearning burning / I believe it's time, too real to feel / So touch me now."
Yet Smith was still a punk at heart and 'Rock N Roll Nigger' brings that point home in all its pure unadulterated rock and roll glory: "Baby was a black sheep, baby was a whore / You know she got big / well she's gonna get bigger/ Baby's got her hand on her finger on the trigger." The Patti Smith Group may have been about poetry, existentialism and revolt, but they could kick ass too.
1979's Wave also divided people. Quieter, gentler and not nearly as angry as her previous work, this is Smith's farewell before she quit music to raise a family in Michigan. Once again the songs chosen are no-brainers. 'Dancing Barefoot' is a classic and one of Smith's best songs. Beautiful, haunting, and just because it's accessible don't make it uncool. The lovely 'Frederick' almost sounds like something Kate Bush would perform and is her most overt love song, about as far away from Horses as you could get. Going full circle and coming to a close. "Bye bye, hey hey / maybe we will come back some day."
It would be nearly a decade before she would re-emerge from her self-imposed exile releasing Dream of Life in 1988, which she recorded with Fred Smith as well as former members of her old band including keyboardist Richard Sohl and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. 'People Have The Power' and 'Up There Down There' are both lovely and melodic yet lack the intensity and originality of her earlier work. It would then be another ten years before Smith would return to music. Reeling from the deaths of her husband, brother Todd and band member Sohl, she relocated to New York and released Gone Again (1996), Peace and Noise (1997), Gung Ho (2000), Trampin' (2004) and Twelve (2007). 'Beneath The Southern Cross' is perhaps the best from these later works. Stripped bare with auto-harp and minimalist guitar hanging out in the background, the priestess is back, disregarding form and structure and letting the words land were they may.
The Godmother of punk, that's what they call her now. Wizened, settled, she still has much to say though now her colors are less vivid, less intense and angry. A quiet maturity has come to her which is reflected in her music. Perhaps not as astonishing and forceful as her earlier work, but after over thirty years of telling it like it is Patti Smith has earned the right to do things her way and in her own time.