Pioneering Punk poet Patti Smith is one the most influential female artists in Rock history, known not only for being an uncompromising iconoclast at a time when few women in Rock fit that description, but also for maintaining a literate, intellectually curious sensibility that was relatively unusual in the Punk milieu in which she first gained public attention.
While growing up in New Jersey, the teenaged Smith found inspiration and solace in the writing of Arthur Rimbaud and the Beats, and in the music of Bob Dylan, James Brown and the Rolling Stones. After moving to New York City in 1967, she fell in with such future creative heavyweights as photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and playwright Sam Shepard, living with the former and collaborating on the latter’s play Cowboy Mouth. Soon she began gaining local notoriety for her own writing. Having long utilized Rock and Roll imagery and references to iconic Rock lyrics in her poetry, she invited guitarist/critic Lenny Kaye to accompany her on guitar on a series of poetry readings beginning in 1971. Their partnership eventually expanded to a full band, and Mapplethorpe financed the recording of Smith’s seminal 1974 indie single “Hey Joe”/”Piss Factory.” By that point, Smith was already writing occasional lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult.
Smith’s powerful performances at the downtown Manhattan club CBGB stirred considerable interest within the local scene, and Smith won a deal with Arista Records, becoming the first CBGB-nurtured act to sign with a major label. Her 1975 debut album Horses, produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, instantly established Smith as a major artist, mixing Smith’s deeply personal original songs, spoken-word pieces and idiosyncratic reinterpretations of Rock and Roll classics. Despite minimal airplay, Horses sold well enough to climb into the Billboard Top 50.
Radio Ethiopia followed in 1976, but it was 1978’s Easter that brought Smith to a wider audience, thanks to the single “Because the Night, which Smith wrote with Bruce Springsteen. The single and album both hit the Top 20. After 1979’s Todd Rundgren-produced Wave, though, Smith retreated from music to marry and raise a family with ex-MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. She reemerged in 1988 to release Dream of Life, an album co-written with her husband, but afterward she pulled back from music again, although she continued to publish her writings and do occasional poetry readings.
Smith finally returned to music in earnest in 1996 with Gone Again, an album haunted by the deaths of her husband and brother two years earlier, and of Mapplethorpe. A series of energized, personally charged albums — Peace and Noise, Gung Ho, Trampin’, Twelve and Banga — followed, as did 2010’s National Book Award-winning Just Kids, a memoir of her relationship with Mapplethorpe.