Patti Smith, a rock critic and aspiring Bob Dylan-fixated poet from South Jersey (born in Chicago in 1946) only truly found herself when she began to sing her intense verse.
Attitude of the “don’t fuck with me” variety had been conspicuously missing from rock for years, and Smith challenged the prevailing mood of bloated self-indulgence with a look and sound that fanfared the emerging punk aesthetic.
Already responsible for three volumes of poetry – Seventh Heaven (1971), Kodak (1972) and Witt (1973) – and a regular contributor to Creem magazine, her debut album Horses (1975) sounded primitive but reached the Top 50.
Produced by ex-Velvet Underground guitarist John Cale and featuring Lenny Kaye (guitar), Richard Sohl (piano), Ivan Kral (bass), and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) with a guest appearance from fellow CBGBs activist and Television main man Tom Verlaine (on Break It Up) Smith summoned her disparate inspirations – Blake, Baudelaire, beat poetry, Dylan, Hendrix, The Doors – to fashion a wild, part-improvised punk poetry.
With her off-kilter delivery, Patti had a catch in her voice that made her sound as if she was permanently on the verge of breaking down into tears or erupting with rage.
Horses was championed by critics and became a moderate commercial hit, peaking at #47 on the Billboard charts.
Three subsequent LPs did reasonably well. While Radio Ethiopia (1976) was perceived as self-indulgent, Easter (1978) included a surprise hit single in Because The Night (co-written with Bruce Springsteen) – which deservedly reached the UK Top 5 – and is widely regarded as her best work.
Wave (1979) appeared to suffer from a lack of preparation but taking Dylan and Jim Morrison as her inspirations, Smith expanded the palette of poetic rock with the singer as wide-eyed guide, her female perspective amping up the intensity.
In Dorset, a young PJ Harvey would later take notes.
Smith married former MC5 guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and retired from performing for much of the 1980s. She resumed recording in 1988 with Dream Of Life which contained her customary call-to-arms idealism and respect for rock and poetic tradition.
Fred Smith died of a heart attack in November 1994 and shortly afterwards, Patti faced the unexpected death of her brother Todd.
In 1996, Smith recorded Gone Again, which featured the song About a Boy, a tribute to Kurt Cobain. Peace and Noise followed in 1997 (with the single 1959 about the invasion of Tibet) and Gung Ho in 2000 (with songs about Ho Chi Minh and Smith’s late father).
In 2004, Patti Smith released Trampin’ which included several songs about motherhood, partly in tribute to Smith’s mother, who had died two years before. It was her first album on Columbia Records.
On 15 October 2006, Smith performed at CBGBs with a 3½-hour tour de force to close out the music venue. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2007.
Her 11th studio album, Banga, was released in June 2012.