"Three chord rock merged with the power of the word."
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So Patti Smith described her music on the 1975 release of Horses, her celebrated debut album; and so she has continued to blend the spoken and sung arts in incantatory fashion with her latest work, Gone Again. Impossible to categorize, moving easily between the literary and musical worlds, always unpredictable and impassioned, she is an idiosyncratically unique performer who has always remained true to her artistic vision.
Born in Chicago and raised in Woodbury, New Jersey, just across the state line from Philadelphia, Patti's mother, Beverly, was a jazz singer cum waitress. Her father, Grant, worked at the Honeywell plant; she was the oldest of four siblings: her sisters Linda and Kimberly (the latter plays mandolin on Gone Again's "Ravens,"), and brother Todd. Unable to find her place in high school society, she took refuge in the images of Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, James Brown, and the Rolling Stones. Dropping out of Glassboro State Teacher's College, she headed for the bright lights - big city of New York.
When she arrived in town, she met an art student named Robert Mapplethorpe and they moved in together. Patti found a job as a bookstore clerk at the Strand and Scribner's. In 1969, she traveled to Paris with her sister Linda, working on the street as a performance artist, and making her first forays into the visual arts. Returning to New York as the seventies got underway, she rebounded between the back room at Max's Kansas City and the Hotel Chelsea. Encouraged by such as Dylan cohort Bobby Neuwirth and blues virtuoso Johnny Winter, Patti made a name for herself in underground theatre (starring in such plays as Jackie Curtis' Vain Victory at the Cafe La Mama), and collaborating with the playwright Sam Shepherd, with whom she co-authored Cowboy Mouth. She was also writing poetry.
On February 10, 1971, she opened for Gerard Malanga at a Poetry Project weekly reading at St. Mark's Church on the Lower East Side. She was joined for three songs by Lenny Kaye, a rock writer and record store clerk whom she had met through an article he'd written for Jazz and Pop magazine about "Accapella" music, the unaccompanied doo-wop of the Philly-New York corridor. Discovering they liked the same type of obscure records, and knowing that he played guitar, she added his rhythmic chording to her chant-sung poetry, though there was little sense of where it might be heading.
Patti continued performing as a poet/actress over the next two years, opening for the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center, writing songs for The Blue Oyster Cult, "reviewing" records for Creem and Rock magazines, and publishing her first volumes of poetry, Seventh Heaven and Witt. In November of 1973, she and Kaye reunited for a "Rock `n Rimbaud" performance at Le Jardin off New York's Times Square, and the seeds for a band were sown. They were accompanied by a succession of piano players, culminating in the arrival of Richard "DNV" Sohl in the Spring of 1974. As a trio, they began to play more regularly, a curious blend centered on Patti's improvised wordplay, between free rock and free jazz, original songs mingling with strange cover versions that were used as counterpoint and segue.
One of these, Patti's version of "Hey Joe," taking as its backdrop the Patty Hearst kidnapping, became her first recorded work. Going into Electric Lady Studio on the evening of June 5, 1974, the group attempted to see if the electricity they were generating live could be translated to vinyl. Helped out by Tom Verlaine (of the new band, Television) on lead guitar, funded by Robert Mapplethorpe, and released on their own Mer Records, the result was one of the first indie-rock DIY singles. The b-side was the prophetic "Piss Factory," which told of Patti's stint as an assembly line worker and her vow to travel to New York: "Watch me now!"
Buoyed by an energetic New Band scene centered around CBGB's in New York, the group - Patti, Lenny, and DNV - traveled to California in the fall of `74, playing the Whiskey in L.A. and the Filmore (on audition night) in S.F. When they returned east, they felt their sound needed filling out, recruiting guitarist Ivan Kral, a Czech refugee. It was this combination that played CBGB's for eight weeks in the spring of 1975, honing their concept and ultimately attracting the attention of Clive Davis, who signed them to his fledgling Arista label that summer.
Drummer Jay Dee Daugherty had overseen their sound at CBGB's and had sat in with them several times. He joined the band in time to record their debut album, with John Cale at the producer's helm. Recorded at Electric Lady, Horses was released in November 1975. It contained Patti's incantatory reworkings of rock classics like "Gloria" and "Land (Of A Thousand Dances)", more traditional song forms (the reggae "Redondo Beach," "Free Money"), and streams-of -unconscious poetry ("Birdland"). It cracked the American Top 50, paving the way for a new generation of art-rat-punk.
After successfully touring America and Europe, sounding a "wake-up call" to the legions of aspiring guitarists waiting in the wings, the Group returned to the studio in the summer of 1976 to record Radio Ethiopia with producer Jack Douglas. Featuring a more rock-based sound - as in "Ask The Angels," and "Pumpin" - even as the title cut heralded a field where anything could and should happen, the band's touring was cut short when Patti fell from a stage in Tampa, Florida, during "Ain't It Strange," cracking two vertebrae in her neck and taking an enforced convalescence.
The time off was spent preparing a volume of poetry, Babel; and Easter, the 1978 release which not only gave the Group its first Top 20 hit- "Because The Night," a collaboration between Patti and Bruce Springsteen- but its most succinct statements of principle yet, from "Twenty Fifth Floor" to "Rock and Roll Nigger." The maiden production of Jimmy Iovine, the album became a worldwide hit, and Patti and the band toured America & Europe throughout much of that year.
But with so many of their artistic and idealistic goals accomplished, the end was inevitably in sight. In 1979, Patti released Wave, produced by Todd Rundgren, which seemed to complete her seventies' saga. Even while the band's cover of "(So You Want To Be A) Rock And Roll Star" spoke of her disenchantment with the trapping of rock stardom, "Dancing Barefoot" and "Frederick" were inspired by the new love in her life, Fred "Sonic" Smith, ex-MC5 guitarist and leader of Detroit's Sonic Rendezvous Band. In the fall of 1979, after performing what would be a farewell concert before 70,000 fans in a Florence, Italy soccer stadium, Patti waved "bye, bye, hey hey" to her Group persona and moved to the Motor City. She married Fred on March 1, 1980.
They lived a quiet, private life in a Detroit suburb, with their children Jackson (now 14) and Jesse (9), concentrating their energies on raising a family and following their musical muse. In 1988, they released Dream of Life as a symbol of their creative work together. It featured "People Have The Power" and "Paths That Cross," the Smiths' tribute to the infinite positive possibilities within us all, as well as a lullaby to children everywhere in "The Jackson Song."
Patti continued to write, releasing a compendium of her seventies' poetry in Early Work (Norton); Woolgathering (Hanuman); and beginning a novel. She and Fred created songs together, with an eye to recording in the summer of 1995, until Fred's death of heart failure on November 4, 1994; among his last accomplishments was to teach Patti her guitar chords. The passing of her brother, Todd, of a heart attack a month later, further brought home to her how slight is our time on this earth. She worked through her grief with song, as singers have done immemorial, in memorium.
She had given a handful of performances, mostly poetry - her summer, 1993, reading in Central Park attracted several thousand fans - over the years. Yet increasingly she felt the need to perform, to reconnect with her audience not only for them but herself, and she began appearing in out of the way venues, from Ann Arbor to Toronto, to understand how to present her music in a modern setting. She gathered her longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye, and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, and added bassist Tony Shanahan, a New Jersey musician who had worked with both Kaye and John Cale, to provide live backing. Another Central Park reading in 1995, an impromptu appearance at New York's Lollapalooza on the second stage, and tour of the west coast both in poetry and full rock mode - all helped her find her stage presence again. She contributed tracks to the Ain't Nothin' But A She Thing album (a version of Nina Simone's "Don't Smoke In Bed") and the Dead Man Walking soundtrack (Oliver Ray's "Walkin' Blind").
In the summer of 1995, she entered New York's Electric Lady studios to begin recording her sixth album. Produced by Malcolm Burn and Lenny Kaye, Gone Again features old friends like Tom Verlaine and John Cale, new friends like keyboardist Luis Resto and guitarist Oliver Ray, guest appearances by singer Jeff Buckley, cellist Jane Scarpantoni, and mandolin player Kimberly Smith; and the inimitable Smith magic of song and the spoken word.
A meditation on passage and mortality, Gone Again celebrates life's illumination, and our place in the celestial heavens. As the poet Allen Ginsberg says, "Light a candle, and continue the dance."
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