I was asked recently to provide an introduction to Patti Smith, some sort of a primer. I was happy to oblige. I’m expanding the text this morning to provide the same content to needy people at large.
I think a person could pick up any of Patti’s records, listen to them, study them, and find great enjoyment. However, I recommend that Patti’s first 4 albums are the important part of her catalogue, and really, a person could live on just her first 3. For your edification, I’ve selected one indicative song from each of those first 4 albums.
A brief bio, from my memory, might be useful to the listener. Patti was an artist, generally, in her early days in NYC, living with Robert Mapplethorpe. She started presenting original poetry at readings around the Village, and soon asked Lenny Kaye to accompany her on guitar. Eventually she ended a show, I paraphrase, ‘we’re looking for a drummer to join us. You know who you are.’ When Jay Dee Daugherty introduced himself, a band started to form.
When listening to Patti Smith, you can feel that sort of background and genesis: she’s a poet first. Many of the songs are spoken word or sing-song (I’ll point that out to you). The music is not mere accompaniment, but is built to work around her voice and around the structure of the words. To really groc the Patti Smith Group, I think it’s important for you, eventually, to discover this in your listening. (Some records are credited to ‘Patti Smith’ and some are attributed to ‘The Patti Smith Group’; forgive me, I use the two interchangeably here, because she has had many of the same musicians with her since the start.)
After she reached stardom, she married Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith from MC5 fame, and they moved to Detroit to raise a family. After some deaths in her life, she moved back to New York and we’ve seen a re-emergence in her work.
OK, here’s your primer.
“Redondo Beach” (from Horses, 1975)
She tells a really sweet story about this song in one of her books. After a nasty/silly fight with her younger sister, she went for a walk looking for her. There were crowds around at the beach after a young woman did not return from the waves. Fearing the worst, Patti wrote this poem, and then her sister walked into the apartment. Dig the reggae guitar.
“Poppies” (from Radio Ethiopia, 1976)
This is essential Patti Smith Group, spoken-word-singing, story-telling, poetry, guitar playing around her voice, cool parts, overlays, slow-spooky, sexy rhythm.
“Because the Night” (seminal track from Easter, 1978)
“Love is an angel disguised as lust”
This is the song that broke her through. This song was the moment that she and Robert were waiting for; they both thought they were both destined for greatness. Robert would soon have his moments, too, with blunt, scary, fascinating black and white photography.
“Dancing Barefoot” (from Wave, 1979)
Almost another lifetime ago, it seems, at Seattle’s arts festival, Bumbershoot, I went to the “secret stage” and out walked Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye. They flew in from Berlin just to play this half-hour set. Warm, sunny, beautiful weather, and everyone dancing barefoot. I’ve listened to this record the least of her important first-four, but there is some stuff on it.
In addition to her music, I love her books – memoirs, poems, photographic essays – she’s a well-rounded and, I think, wonderful artist. Warm, welcoming, and heartful; she’s a human, a superstar, and a shaman. Check her out.
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