Patti Smith: 'Horses' And The Life Of A Garage-Rock Punk Poet
Patti Smith, punk poet and savior of rock and roll, has lived at the intersection of the world of art, music, and poetry since the 1960s. Her relationships with Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Shepard put her at the center the underground New York scene of the early '70s, and the spoken word poetry on her debut album, Horses, changed the way that we think about who a vocalist is and what it is they do. Standing front and center as one of the most cutting edge artists of the '70s, Smith was arguably the coolest person in the New York City demimonde, and one of the coolest people in the world. In one decade she released a groundbreaking album, befriended one of the most important photographers of the late 20th century, and co-wrote a hit single with Bruce Springsteen.
The world spoke to Patti Smith
Patti Smith was only 16 years old when she discovered a book of poetry by Arthur Rimbaud, a French writer who believed that it was the job of the poet to shake regular people out of their day to day lives. She told NPR:
It immediately spoke to me, and I became overjoyed to find this person, and I have been overjoyed ever since.
After her young discovery, Smith turned to a life of poetry, and in the late '60s she threw herself into performing her work wherever she was. Smith busked and performed on the streets of Paris in 1969, and continued to perform while living in Manhattan. Her performances made her such a name on the New York art scene that she provided the spoken word soundtrack to Sandy Daley's film Robert Having His Nipple Pierced, starring her lifelong friend Robert Mapplethorpe.
Smith's relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe defined her life
The most important person in Smith's young life was the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. As friends, artistic partners, and lovers the duo explored New York City beginning in 1967. After meeting at a bookstore where they were both working, the pair lived together for the next few years, first in a decrepit apartment and then at the Chelsea Hotel when Smith returned from Paris at the tail end of the '60s.
Their time together proved to be one filled with tumult as they struggled with money, with the underground scene in New York, and as Mapplethorpe struggled with his sexuality. Smith refers to Mapplethorpe as "the artist of my life," and the two proved to be inseparable for the rest of their lives. Mapplethorpe's photos of Smith adorn each of her albums, and she contributed to one of Mapplethorpe’s final projects, Flowers, a book of his flower studies, with a foreword which was released shortly after his death. She later said of their friendship:
I met Robert when I was 20, and he was my boyfriend until we were about 24. Then Robert was evolving, and he found he was more homosexually bent. But we stayed close friends for the rest of his life. We spent hours and hours making art together.
In 2008, Smith released "The Coral Sea," a live recording of two performances with Kevin Smith of My Bloody Valentine. The poem at the heart of the piece is the story of M (Mapplethorpe) on a final voyage to see the stars of the Southern Cross before he dies.
Blue Oyster Cult wanted to bring her on as their singer
Many artists stay in their lane, but Patti Smith is not one of those artists. Her life and work intersect with weirdoes, freaks, and even AOR radio gods like Blue Oyster Cult. While dating guitarist Allen Lanier in the '70s, Smith worked on songs like "Debbie Denise," "Baby Ice Dog," "Career of Evil," "Fire of Unknown Origin," and "The Revenge of Vera Gemini." Smith and BOC are an unlikely pairing, not only because they have a song dedicated to Godzilla, but her punk, garage-rock aesthetic is so far from their somewhat proggy, kind of stoned out dinosaur rock about mystical creatures and astronomy.
For a brief period Smith was under consideration to be the singer for the group, but it's probably for the best that didn't happen. But how cool would it be to see that version of the band for a single performance. It would either be the best or worst performance of "Don't Fear The Reaper" ever.
She wrote for Creem and Rolling Stone magazine
A wordsmith down to the bone, Smith's contributions to Creem and Rolling Stone helped shaped the musical landscape of the 1970s, when rock and roll found grit, and punk and garage rock intermingled without a defining through line. Her reviews read like poetry, but would you want anything else from the shaman of rock? She wrote about the Velvet Underground's 1974 live album:
It goes beyond risk and hovers like an electric moth... like Rimbaud we rebel baptism but you know man needs water he needs to get clean keep washing over like a Moslem.
When speaking about her musical journalism career in 2019 she downplayed her work with some of the most important publications of the '70s:
I wasn’t very prolific. I did review some records… some blues artists – The Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix. I just did reviews of records that I liked, to help make a living. Really, I was a poet and a writer but I do love rock’n’roll, and writing about rock’n’roll in 1970 was rather new.
Her relationships are legendary
Patti Smith could never be defined by her relationships, but her romantic history is littered with some really fascinating performers and artists. We already know that she dated and worked on her image with Mapplethorpe and afterward dated Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult. She also had an affair with playwright Sam Shepard (who was married) before writing the play "Cowboy Mouth" with him. She clearly knows that it's important to stay friends with your former lovers, you never know who'll help you out in the future. In 1980, Smith married former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, moved to Detroit, and had two children. After he passed away in 1994, Smith moved back to New York, started recording again and hit the road.
She took a blues classic and twisted it into modernity for her first single
After spending the early '70s surviving on cash from record reviews and spoken word performances, Smith released the single "Hey Joe," a cover of the Billy Roberts track (made famous by Jimi Hendrix) with additional lyrics about Patty Hearst, her treatment by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the way the public considered her scum in the fall out from her return to normal life. Originating as a poem, she combined with a performance of "Hey Joe" while recording with Lenny Kaye while recording in Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios. On the B-Side is "Piss Factory," a song about Smith's time working at a factory making baby buggies, an experience she worried would destroy her ambitions.
"Horses" was fueled by tension
Working with John Cale of the Velvet Underground as well as her long time musical partners Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty, Ivan Král, and Richard Sohl, Smith set out to make an album that made people like her feel connected to something. Smith recalls that the recording sessions for Horses were fraught with tension between her and Cale, who she believed was trying to make the group sound more commercial. She later explained that while clashing with Cale she found inspiration in their tension:
In my mind I picked him because his records sounded good. But I hired the wrong guy. All I was really looking for was a technical person. Instead, I got a total maniac artist. I went to pick out an expensive watercolor painting and instead I got a mirror. It was really like A Season in Hell, for both of us. But inspiration doesn't always have to be someone sending me half a dozen American Beauty roses. There's a lotta inspiration going on between the murderer and the victim. And he had me so nuts I wound up doing this nine-minute cut that transcended anything I ever did before.
The photo on the cover of "Horses," Smith standing in a stark black and white room, was taken by Mapplethorpe and it's become on the most recognizable images in rock and roll.
Her biggest hit came courtesy of Bruce Springsteen
As much as she's described as a poet and a shaman, Smith does have the critically-acclaimed discography to back up her recording career. "Gloria," her cover of Them's ear splitting anthem burnt down and rearranged around her poem "Oath," but her biggest hit was handed to her by Bruce Springsteen. While Smith was recording her album Easter with Jimmy Iovine, The Boss was working on Darkness on the Edge of Town. He was tracking a song called "Because the Night" but couldn't quite nail the verses. Iovine stepped in to take away Springsteen's headache and help Smith out at the same time. He explained:
Now, Bruce was very understanding and very flexible, because he realized that this was my first real break as a producer. Anyway, one night whilst we were lounging around the Hotel Navarro in New York I told Bruce I desperately wanted a hit with Patti, that she deserved one. He agreed. As he had no immediate plans to put 'Because the Night' on an album, I said why not give it to Patti. Bruce replied, 'If she can do it, she can have it.'
Smith says that she was not only reluctant to record the song, but even listen to it. Iovine gave her a tape of the song and bothered her every day until she finally put it on. She describes the moment as magic:
So I get my little portable cassette player, and I put it on, and I remember looking at it, just staring at this cassette player, waiting for the phone to ring… it’s in the key of A, my key; anthemic; great beat. I listen to it, and I remember it, all by myself, standing there. There are certain things in my past I can’t remember, but this I can remember second by second. I stood there, and I shook my head, and I might have said it out loud: 'It’s one of those darn hit songs.'
The melding between the two artists was the perfect marriage, and the track remains one of the greatest rock anthems of the '70s.