Patti Smith performing in Finland, June 16, 2007 – Wikimedia Commons/Beni Köhler
CAIRO – 30 December 2017: December 30 marks the birthday of the ‘godmother of punk music’, Patti Smith. Egypt Today looks at the life of this rebellious rock icon. Smith revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll by combining poetry and rock to push past the limits of the genre.
Smith was born in Chicago in 1946, and was raised in New Jersey to former Jazz singer Beverly and mechanist Grand Smith. Even as a child, Smith felt that she was born to do great things despite her physical reality as an unpopular young girl who was not especially talented in school. Her vivid young imagination helped her through a difficult childhood. She was bullied by other kids due to her sickly appearance and poor background. The vague sense that she would grow up into something amazing was what kept her going, in spite of the odds.
After graduating high school in 1964, Smith immediately went to work in a factory, a short experience she hated so much that she titled the song about her time there as ‘Piss Factory’, which was her first single alongside the song ‘Hey Joe’. Putting meaningless drudgery behind her, Smith then decided to pursue art, and was set on becoming an art teacher until she was rejected for her refusal to abide by traditions.
Determined as ever, Smith then moved to New York in 1967 and worked in bookstores, where she began writing poetry. Spurred by her love for music dating back to her youth, Smith would eventually team up with her friends, playwright Sam Sheppard, Robert Mapplethorpe the photographer and writer/composer Lenny Kaye to read poetry, which soon would lead to her musical future.
Smith’s 1975 debut album ‘Horses’ is still her most popular work of art to this day, and is one of the most acclaimed debut albums of all time. It was a wild commercial success at the start and loved by the critics too, who praised Smith’s amateur-yet-passionate vocals and relentless energy. At the time, Smith had feared that Rock and Roll was dying, and so she wished to help shake things up and inject some new life in a way that only she could. She was joined by guitarist Kaye, guitarist/bassist Ivan Kral, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and Richard Sohl aka DNV on keyboards to form the ‘Patti Smith Group’.
An ambitious album by a group of young and wildly passionate adults, ‘Horses’ was the start of that fame Smith felt she was destined for her whole life.
The group would then follow ‘Horses’ up with the release of ‘Radio Ethiopia’ in 1976, which is also when her band would be known as the ‘Patti Smith Group’. The group experienced serious new success with their third release in 1978, ‘Easter’, which features the wildly popular single ‘Because the Night’, co-written by Bruce Springsteen.
Following her fourth album, ‘Wave’, in 1979, Smith took a break of the music scene following her marriage to Fred "Sonic" Smith, guitarist of the successful Detroit band MC5. The two spent a happy, quiet life together for over 17 years, raising two children, though she would briefly return in 1988 with ‘Dream of Life’ which she produced with her husband. While not as popular as her golden era, the single ‘People Have the Power’ was a hit, proving that Smith still had the punk fire burning inside even after settling down.
Unfortunately, tragedy would befall Smith during the proceeding five years, with numerous important figures in her life dying one after the other, from her brother Todd, her old friend Mapplethorpe to ‘Patti Smith Group’ guitarist Sohl. Her husband Fred also passed away due to a heart attack in 1994. Smith decided it was time for her to pick up music again, coming back in 1996 with ‘Gone Again’, a triumphant return that proved she was back in business.
Smith brought back Kaye and Daughtery alongside new members Tony Shanahan on bass and guitarist Oliver Ray for ‘Peace and Noise’ in 1997, followed by Gung Ho in 2000. Smith managed to keep up with the times and spoke to a brand new generation of rock ‘n’ roll fans. In 2010 her autobiographical memoir about her career and life, ‘Just Kids’, became a New York Times bestseller, even receiving a National Book Award.