Watch the Crone
How an Instant Punk Legend Became a Celebrated Arts and Letters Lifer
Now that it's happened, it seems obvious that Patti Smith would one day follow her muse to the writing of a book. Since exploding onto the American music scene in the mid-1970s, Smith's words have always taken center stage. The opening line of her debut album Horses—"Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine"—lives forever not because of its musicality or Smith's vocal delivery, but because of its literary power and genius placement at the top of a rock song that builds into an unhinged cover of Van Morrison's "Gloria."
A deep connection to text has been part of Smith's art from the start. As a fledgling artist, she immersed herself in what she considered "sacred texts"—Blonde on Blonde, Let It Bleed, Electric Ladyland, the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud—studying the drives and totems of the rock canon. To make her own art, Smith drew more than inspiration from her heroes. Beyond mimicry, Smith plugged into something deep and mythical about what rock means and is capable of doing, and about what's made humans want to bang out rhythms and scream since the void went flash. Following the Zen instruction on emulation ("Don't do what I do—seek what I seek"), young Smith identified the work of Dylan and Hendrix and the Stones as exemplars of what the rock 'n' roll impulse can accomplish and lit out on her own path, accompanied by the words and spirit of the libertine poet Rimbaud. (Why pinch from Jim Morrison when you can pinch from the dude he's pinching from?)
The results were immediately explosive. After the half-rock/half-performance-poetry single "Hey Joe"/"Piss Factory," in 1975, Smith unleashed the legendary, still-startling Horses, and she has remained queen of her own musical universe ever since. Patti Smith's influence is felt far and wide, but not even the best of her emulators (Michael Stipe, PJ Harvey) can touch her. Michael and Polly may be successful managers of lightbulb factories, but Patti Smith is Thomas Edison.
The enduring value of Smith's music is by now common knowledge. Horses gets the majority of the ink, because it came first and remains frighteningly brilliant. (The pair of word-drenched love songs in the middle—"Free Money" and "Kimberly"—still compose my favorite stretch of Smith on record.) But there's extraordinary music to be found across her oeuvre, from 1978's brilliant-from-start-to-finish Easter to 1988's cruelly underrated Dream of Life to 2012's mystical Banga.
But, of course, the most significant of Smith's recent accomplishments is her 2010 memoir Just Kids, which tells of her life in early-'70s New York with Robert Mapplethorpe, earned excellent reviews, and ultimately won her the National Book Award. Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One had proved that rock stars can write seriously good books, and Smith's Just Kids carried on what I hope will be a continuing tradition. (Get to work, Springsteen and Morrissey.)
But where Dylan's Chronicles (brilliantly) trafficked in the same type of wordplay and mythmaking found in the man's songs, Just Kids finds Smith in a completely new mode of expression: plainspoken, direct, almost stringently concise (especially compared to the cross-dimensional word torrents found in her songs). Where the best parts of Chronicles captured how deep the Dylan myth runs, the best parts of Just Kids rip Smith's otherworldly rock goddess image to shreds. In one key scene, Mapplethorpe reveals his homosexuality to Smith, who can't hide her initial shock and disdain. (The moral: Smith wasn't born Patti Smith Mother Poet Spirit, just a girl from New Jersey, who grew up in the 1950s and learned as she went along.) Despite her near-beatification by fans, Smith has always sought to assert her humanity, whether it meant withdrawing from rock to raise a family or explicitly explaining what people see when they look at her: "Some strange music draws me in, makes me come on like some heroine." Or is it heroin? Whatever the case, it's from 1979's "Dancing Barefoot," and it's still the best description of Patti Smith there is.