“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.”
As opening lines go, that takes some beating. The cover had already suggested something very different with its stark, unglamorous, unkempt, aggressive, rebellious, black and white picture of the singer. Some people called it androgynous but it wasn’t really. Whatever other people might have thought, Patti Smith most assuredly thought of herself as a woman even if she symbolised a different, much more challenging type of femininity for many.
That opening line embodied so much of what the cover picture projected. Some people have called it punk but the opening line of Horses encapsulated an insouciance, swagger and intelligence that was much broader than people thrashing guitars, screaming lyrics and sticking safety pins in unlikely places.
In any case, the desire to articulate her experience was far removed from the inchoate adolescent fury of so much punk. Right from the start, Smith was aiming for something more poetic and intellectual than anything envisaged by the likes of John Lydon.
The perception of her as a rebellious presence is also a facile stereotype that narrows who she is and what she was trying to achieve. She wasn’t just trying to be a rock and roll/punk performer. As she remarked in an interview with Variety: “Even in the ‘70s, I was a bookworm. I like to read books, drink coffee and write poetry. I was in some ways boring.” Not that you could ever call her that.
The part about writing poetry strikes home in a lot of ways because, for the most part, that seems to be what she’s trying to do with her “songs”. Many of them fall somewhere between our notions of songs and our perception of poems. There are echoes of beat poetry, along with Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Rimbaud and others. Of Rimbaud, she once remarked: “I had devoted so much of my girlish daydreams to Rimbaud. Rimbaud was like my boyfriend.”
Sometimes I listen to all her lyrics, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I only know snatches. Sometimes I’m bemused at the direction they take. I can listen to Birdland or Horses and find myself entranced by their otherness (and her performance) and the ambition that seeks to marry what can appear to be almost stream of consciousness with rock and roll. I can see why others might view it as pretentious but that ignores the sheer conviction that underpins so much of her work.
A couple of days ago I listened to Piss Factory, the B side of her debut single, released in 1974, a year before Horses arrived. It’s got a driving piano/guitar backing and the words combine the rhythms and stylings of beat poetry with the attitude and rebellion of rock. It’s a classic rock song about working in a factory but refusing to knuckle under and accept your fate, to capitulate to the roadmap of a life defined by the factory walls. A song of defiance, of the refusal to be crushed by limitations.
“But I will never faint, I will never faint
They laugh and they expect me to faint but I will never faint
I refuse to lose, I refuse to fall down
Because you see it's the monotony that's got to me
Every afternoon like the last one
Every afternoon like a rerun next to Dot Hook
And yeah we look the same
Both pumpin' steel, both sweatin’
But you know she got nothin' to hide
And I got something to hide here called desire
I got something to hide here called desire
And I will get out of here.”
At the end of the song she sings:
“I'm gonna be somebody, I'm gonna get on that train, go to New York City,
I'm gonna be so bad I'm gonna be a big star and I will never return,
Never return, no, never return, to burn out in this piss factory
And I will travel light.
Oh, watch me now.”
When Smith sang that song, she was a 28 year old woman, but it articulated so forcefully the way she had felt at 16 – and how so many others had and have felt too. Although she was accepted as part of the nascent punk rock scene, she wasn’t a punk rocker, she was far more than that, she was (and still is) a writer and performer. In any case, if you released an album that had two songs stretching to more than nine minutes, you couldn’t really be called a punk rocker.
Smith has always been challenging, strange, difficult to listen to sometimes, (just try the title track of her next album, Radio Ethiopia) but it has always been rewarding. Most people know her from her biggest (and only) hit, Because The Night, which she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen. But there is an awful lot more to Patti Smith than that. In fact, the part of Patti Smith represented by that song is so infinitesimally small it would be a sin to stop there.
Not that it matters much to her. Smith has always carried on doing her own thing, making her own path. Sometimes, it can be fun to follow her down that path, sometimes it feels more like hard work and sometimes it feels like she’s shouting at you to stop following her.
At the end of the 70s, she married Fred “Sonic” Smith, once of MC5, retiring for around 14 years to a life of domesticity on a farm and to bring up their two children. She reappeared briefly in 1988 with the thumping Dream Of Life, produced by her husband and Jimmy Iovine. One of the songs on that album, People Have The Power, became a theme song of sorts for the 2004 Vote For Change campaign. Naturally, having been written by Smith (and her husband), the song was far from a straightforward political polemic. It’s anthemic but poetic too. It’s like a stirring hymn calling people to make their voices heard.
I was dreamin' in my dreamin’
Of an aspect bright and fair
And my sleepin' it was broken
But my dream it lingered near
It’s hard to imagine any stadium rockers starting a song like that.
People have the power
The power to dream, to rule
To wrestle the earth from fools
It's decreed the people rule
It's decreed the people rule.
Listen, I believe everything we dream
Can come to pass through our union
We can turn the world around
We can turn the earth's revolution
We have the power
People have the power
People have the power
People have the power.
She was right then and she’s right now.
To get a sense of how stirring, joyful and, yes, powerful the song can be, you should take a look at the video below of Smith performing People Have The Power with Choir! Choir! Choir! In New York City in 2019.
Below that you can find a video of Smith doing what she does best, only months shy of her 70th birthday, in Hyde Park 2016 with two songs from Horses.
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