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by Kyle Sanders
Patti Smith is one of the most extraordinary icons in music history. In 1975, her debut album Horses introduced the world to an artist of raw talent and hypnotic energy who would serve as a major contributing component to the punk movement in New York City. Not easily placed within a specific genre, her mix of poetry and rock music defined her as an artist among few peers, yet would lay the groundwork for other aspiring musicians to follow.
Having recently performed at the Nobel Prize ceremony in honor of Bob Dylan, it's difficult to imagine that she's turning seventy on December 30th. A Chicago native, Patricia Lee Smith was born during a huge snowstorm on a day which she claims her father had to help a taxi driver navigate the treacherous conditions of Lake Shore Drive while her mother was in labor. To celebrate her seventieth year of life, Smith will be performing at the Riviera Theater with her band and grown children backing her eclectic set list. In honor of her birthday, here's a list of seven (one track per decade, naturally) essential tracks from Smith's extensive discography:
Patti's love song that "ignites the light in a single name" for husband Fred "Sonic" Smith. Patti isn't known for writing songs that are romantic in the literal sense, but it's hard to deny her yearning of the late MC5 guitarist on this track, oozing a sense of desperate longing between two lovers living miles apart. This longing would be the reason why she would leave New York City for Detroit, and considering how synonymous Smith is with the NYC punk scene, that love was incredibly strong.
One of the most peculiar song titles I have ever come across, this track finds Patti contemplating what choices to make that will undoubtedly impact her life ("Should I pursue a path so twisted?/Should I crawl defeated and gifted?"). Add in the memorable chord progressions set to Patti's howl of "Come...come...come..." and you've got a moving ballad that builds to an emotional climax.
After a hiatus from the music scene, mourning the deaths of her husband Fred, her brother Todd, former bandmate Richard Sohl, and friend Robert Mapplethorpe, this rhythmically catchy song seems almost out of place. Yet good thing it made the cut, because it's a stinger regarding how the creative soul can whet the appetite of the public's hunger for more product: "And I laid upon the table, another piece of meat/And I opened up my veins to them and said 'c'mon, eeeeeeeeat!'" Smith's snarling growl is as sharp as ever, providing a welcome return from an artist that was greatly missed throughout the early nineties music scene.
Another track from an album inspired by Fred Smith, "Dancing Barefoot" is Patti's expression of love not just for Fred, but also for God and people. "Here I go and I don't know why/I spin so ceaselessly/Could it be he's taken over me?" Patti ponders. With this track, we are certainly taken over by Patti's mystic verses.
This was the first song that officially introduced me to Patti Smith (technically, it was "Because the Night"--but it was the live 10,000 Maniacs cover from their Unplugged album, so it doesn't count), and it could not have been a more perfect introduction. For a young teen, I found her lyrics inspiring and moving--Smith speaking of the power of one and the strength of all, the ability of the people to create change and spark revolution. It's no wonder this song is often referenced during an election year (especially as one as tumultuous as this year's): "The people have the power/The power to dream, to rule/To wrestle the Earth from fools/Well it's decreed, the people rule." How could you not be inspired?!
The song that launched Smith's career, this cover with additional lyrics by the punk rocker served as a crying call from Patti, introducing her to a marginalized generation plagued by the aftermath of Vietnam, and awakened a music scene on the cusp of New Wave explosion. With the introductory lyric "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine..." Patti set the world ablaze as an artist who would become the essential "Godmother of Punk."
Political correctness aside, Smith's controversial track was meant to reinvent a word historically used as an insult and unite her disenfranchised followers to treat it as a badge of outsider status ("Outside of society, IS WHERE I WANNA BE!"). Unfortunately, that reinvention didn't necessarily take effect, but it doesn't hinder the overall power of the song. Between her howling vocals, pulsating guitar riff and grungy drum beats, this sound, best encapsulates Smith's artistic contributions to the history of rock and roll and stands as a great testament to why she's such an influential artist.
Happy Birthday Patti!
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