Thoughts on Patti Smith

Patti Smith was a little before my time. Definitely WAY outside the bounds of my Midwestern sensibilities by the time I became aware of her during my high school years.

Smith was that punk performer, the one in New York who urinated onstage and yelled her lyrics in a hoarse voice and didn’t shave under her arms. She was the real-life inspiration for Gilda Radner’s drugged-out, angry robotic-deranged “Candy Slice.”

Not at all my kind of person.

I did really like her one big radio hit, though, “Because the Night.” And I was always kind of intrigued (and puzzled!) by the bits and pieces about her life that sifted randomly into my consciousness. She was good friends with Robert Mapplethorpe. She had been in a long-term relationship with actor/playwright Sam Shepard. She got married, retired from her music career, and moved to Michigan to raise her kids. What an odd mix!

In his own memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life, Clive Davis (Chief Creative Officer of Sony Music Entertainment and former president of both Columbia Records and Arista Records) recounts his discovery of Smith and the ups and downs of her unusual career. I read his book a couple years ago, and two things he said about Smith have stuck with me.

First was Smith’s style, as projected in the cover of her first album, Horses.

The cover photo was a black-and-white portrait of Smith shot by Mapplethorpe. It was “direct and daring, with a hint of androgyny and an air of insolence.”

It really captured Patti. It exuded a rumpled confidence, the horse-pinned blazer flung over her shoulder Sinatra-style, the pale gray background, the look straight into the camera, daring you to open the album jacket and discover what’s inside. I admit, at first I was conflicted about the image; I was aware of its power, but with my label-president concern, I thought it might confuse the uninitiated . . . . Who was she, and what was she projecting? Whatever reservations I had, I dismissed them quickly: If I was going to have faith in Patti and her music, I was going to trust her artistic instincts thoroughly. And obviously those instincts were, in this case, genius. That photograph is a work of art that absolutely conveys her point of view, and like the album itself, the cover of Horses is now regarded as an undisputed classic. There’s a reason for that. Patti is obsessed with imagery, drawing on poetry, film art, and fashion to enhance her music. She saw herself as a convergence of all these influences, the poets she devoured, filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, and all her rock heroes. She also demolished every cliché about what a woman playing rock music should sound, act, and look like. She’s been a groundbreaking artist in every regard.

That picture of Smith immersing herself in other art and synthesizing all those influences into something new—I really liked it and found myself wanting to know more about her.

Here was the other thing Davis said in his book that stuck with me. Smith fell off a stage during a Tampa, Florida, performance in 1977, breaking her neck and forcing her to take time off for a long period of recuperation. When she was ready to resume her career, she decided to call her “artistic resurrection” Easter, giving that title to her 1978 album. Davis says:

Something one should know about Patti: She always wanted a hit. She came off as the ultimate rebel, a creature of the demimonde, without a commercial thought in her head, but she grew up in an era when all her heroes, from Dylan to the Stones, were on the radio, and she wanted to be on WABC-AM also. She wanted to sit on the sofa on The Tonight Show and trade quips with Johnny Carson. Those were goals she shared with me, and while I never would have taken the route of trying to find that hit song by an outside writer for her, or pushing her toward a more pop-friendly producer, I was ecstatic when I heard that one of the key songs on the new album would be a collaboration with Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce was working on the album that became Darkness on the Edge of Town, and as was his process, he demoed many, many songs before paring them down to the ten that would make the cut. One that he’d begun but hadn’t finished was a dramatic, erotic rock ballad called “Because the Night.” When Bruce found out from Patti’s producer, Jimmy Iovine, that the album they were recording didn’t have an obvious single, Bruce gave Jimmy a cassette of the unfinished track. Building on Springsteen’s demo, with Patti adding personal lyrics of her own (she’s said that the line ” Love is a ring, the telephone” came from waiting at home for her new boyfriend, Fred Smith, formerly of the MC5, to call), the Springsteen-Smith composition became a track that instantly stood out. At one of Patti’s comeback shows, before Easter was ready for release, Bruce joined her onstage to share vocals on the new collaboration, and the audience reaction made it clear that we had the elusive hit. The track was beautifully performed and produced, with a great hook, the ideal marriage of Patti’s poetic language and Bruce’s urgency and dynamics. It was thrilling. When it came out as a single, worked persistently by Arista’s promotion team, it rose to number thirteen and Patti finally got the chance to hear herself on Top 40 radio.

There’s something quite endearing to me about the image Davis paints of this punk rebel yearning for these prosaic 1970s markers of achievement—the “hit” record, the Tonight Show interview with Johnny Carson, getting a song played on Top 40 radio. So very contradictory and human!

And here, just this past week, I’ve read excerpts from Smith’s new memoir in both The Guardian (here) and The Wall Street Journal (here) that have caused me to think of her in an entirely new way.

As a woman I might have become good friends with, had our paths ever crossed.

What a good writer Smith is! And how simply—yet profoundly—she gets right at the heart of human experience.

This paragraph from her book, M Train, quoted in the Wall Street Journal article was so in sync with my own feelings it made me cry:

“We want things we cannot have. . . . I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.

Wow, Smith totally nails it. That’s exactly how it is. Now I absolutely have to read M Train, not to mention Just Kids, Smith’s earlier memoir about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe (which won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction).

Maybe it’s the contractions of time and space that happen as we get older, I don’t know. No, I never liked Smith’s music—and still don’t, actually, except for “Because the Night.” But now I’m beginning to love her as a writer and a fellow adventurer in this somewhat absurd journey we all make through life.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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One Response to Thoughts on Patti Smith

  1. We tend to judge performers by their performances, don’t we? Even writers by their writing. When, in their “real” lives they can be very different than what we projected on them. 🙂

    Like

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