Patti Smith Essay - Critical Essays

Smith, Patti


Patti Smith 1946–

American songwriter, poet, playwright, and journalist. Smith's works have synthesized the influences of French and American literary figures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and rock musicians of the sixties into reflections of her own unique fantasies and visions. Her mergings of passionate stream-of-consciousness lyrics with rock and reggae rhythms, coupled with an exciting delivery in concert, have helped to move the image of the contemporary poet away from an ivory-tower stereotype. She uses powerful imagery in her poetry and song lyrics to frame subjects of violence, anarchy, and eroticism. She can, however, be delicate and sensitive, and often colors her work with religious themes and allusions, as with "Easter," which is based on the first communion of her greatest influence, French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. It is this combination of rawness and tenderness that defines her art and seems to give Smith her greatest appeal. One of her major themes is that of artist as outcast, and she sees her own life as following that tradition. Smith moved to New York in 1967 after dropping out of teacher's college and working in a New Jersey toy factory, which served as the stimulus for her first song, "Piss Factory." She developed a legendary reputation as an unconventional journalist and started writing verses and plays in 1970. She coauthored the play "Cowboy Mouth" with Sam Shepard and began to give readings of her poetry in churches and small clubs, accompanied by rock critic Lenny Kaye on guitar. In 1974 she formed the Patti Smith Group and started setting her poems to music. One of the first performers to appear at New York club CBGB, a spawning-ground for New Wave talent, Smith achieved underground notoriety and cult status for her improvisatory lyrics, intense performances, and tough, cool style. Her work has been criticized for its shapelessness and lack of discipline, especially for the song "Radio Ethiopia," a torrent of words and feedback. She has also been considered pretentious and unoriginal for her conscious emulation of Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, William Burroughs, Mick Jagger, and others, and has been called sexually ambiguous for often writing her poetry from the male viewpoint. Smith has recently become commercially successful with "Because the Night," on which she collaborated with Bruce Springsteen. Her obvious pleasure in this achievement has been criticized, with both fans and critics expressing the fear that this success signals her movement away from her punk roots. However, Smith speaks directly to her young adult audience, and has said that she cares only about their agreement with what she says. She seems to understand their alienation from society and desire for freedom, and delivers her messages with sincerity.

Tony Glover

The four plays in [Mad Dog Blues and Other Plays] all tend to be basic (most with little scenery), and full of street talk and rock-and-roll images….

[The] main reason I got the book is for the second play, "Cowboy Mouth" [which Sam Shepard] co-authored with Patti Smith, who is one of the greatest poets writing in English. (Probably other languages too, but English is all I got covered right now.) The play is heavily auto-biographical; the two characters, Slim the Coyote and Cavale the Crow were played onstage by Shepard and Smith. The premise is basic, and bizarre enough to be real; Cavale has kidnapped Slim from his wife and kid at gunpoint—she wants to make him a rock and roll star. Slim is torn between leaving and embracing her fantasy. The action takes place in Cavale's room…. In the room and their minds they run through all the changes of demon-doomed lovers; they tell each other stories, they play coyote and crow, they curse each other out, they howl at the moon, they collapse from exhaustion. Each author wrote their own character's speeches, and a rough and ragged poetry spurts out….

Words in this play are more than words, they're vehicles for lots of emotion. The whole man-woman thing is dug into, overlaid and under-cut by all the sounds out the window that affect every bedroom, no matter how the air is conditioned….

Try this one out—and keep an eye out for future works by Patti Smith…. (p. 57)

Tony Glover, in Creem (© copyright 1972 by Creem Magazine, Inc.), June, 1972.

Tony Glover

[There's] a new kind of poetry being made—a poetry that exists in equal partnership with the rhythm and sound of music, poetry that needs performing to make it real.

A few poets have realized this to some extent, and there are more and more readings—but Patti Smith, New Jersey swamp child and angel-envisioning rock-and-roll street punk, says that poets are killing poetry.

"The idea of reading to a bunch of people is really self-centered … it takes a lot to get somebody off when you're reading," she told me…. [I] "figure if you're gonna put yourself publicly, any performer better be able to stand behind his performance—especially a poet. I don't wanna be no simp reading boring intellectual shit to a YMCA …"

There isn't much to worry about that on any count … as [Seventh Heaven] will show. Patti is one of the first poets of rock&roll; she has a literary background, on top of that she's placed the pulse and beat of the stereo and street—to make a modern combination with something for everybody … brain and boogie freak alike. (p. 52)

All of Patti's work is heavily autobiographical, some true, some fantasy, but all very much a part of her world….

The first poem, "seventh heaven" … talks about Eve and all the badmouthing she took after eating the apple:

She bit. Must we blame her abuse her.
poor sweet bitch. Perhaps theres more to the story.
think of Satan as some stud.
maybe her knees were open …

I won't spoil it for you by quoting...

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Stephen Holden

Over the past three years, Patti Smith … has developed into a New York legend. Onstage …, she exudes an inimitable aura of tough street punk and mystic waif, in whose skinny, sexy person the spirits of Rimbaud and William Burroughs miraculously intersect with the mystic qualities of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, the Velvet Underground, the Marvelettes and Mary Wells, to name but a few…. Her improvised raps, often very humorous, combine graphic sexual fantasy with surreal, extraterrestrial visions of violence and supernatural redemption, delivered in ungrammatical streetwise diction whose rhythms she instinctively elevates into stream-of-consciousness poetry….

I hesitate to say it, but I will: Patti Smith is the best new solo artist I've seen since Bruce Springsteen. She seems destined to be the queen of rock & roll for the Seventies. (p. 62)

Stephen Holden, in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1975; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 193, August 14, 1975.

Greil Marcus

The first question about "Horses," Patti Smith's debut album, might be called the Janis question—it comes up whenever a particularly exciting performer has fashioned a distinctive style, attracted a fierce public following, and then steps into a studio for the first time. Either the style informs the record, or the process of making a record causes the performer to alter the style, the result being, more often than not, a garish parody that is forced, hysterical, or both. In that case, the record can be counted on to provide a spurious, instant satisfaction; about a month later, it drops dead. Cheap thrills.

What has happened in Patti Smith's case is something else again. She had made an authentic record that is in no way merely a transcript once-removed of her live show. The record not only captures Smith whole, it offers shadows, perspectives, and shadings that few of her fans could have caught before. (p. 97)

But if the disc captures Smith, it also exposes her. Those new shadows and perspectives that come off the record add power to her music, but they also, after a few listenings, begin to undermine its incantatory momentum. The concepts that lie behind Smith's performance—her version of rock and roll fave raves, the New York avant-garde, surrealist imagery and aesthetic strategy, the beatnik hipster pose, the dark night of the street punk soul, and so on—emerge more clearly with each playing, until they turn into shtick.

Which is to say that after a time one hears points of reference more clearly than a point of view. The brutal, physical details of the self-mutilation in Smith's most ambitious number, "Horses," take one right back to the terminal violence best represented by Bunuel and Dali's [short film] "Un Chien...

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Steve Lake

You'll find Patti Smith, poetess, in the Gotham Book Mart, New York's hippest bookstore, where her slim volumes of manic poetry nestle snugly between volumes of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Goray and Rimbaud. Patti Smith enjoys a literary reputation. Jerzy Kosinki is one of her fans.

I don't feel particularly qualified to assess her poetry. I've browsed through it and wasn't conscious of being in the presence of greatness, but I'm no Harvard poetry professor, that's for sure.

Better, perhaps, that we leave posterity to hassle over Patti's prosody. But Patti Smith, rock singer, is a subject closer to home….

Her interviews liberally compare her to Jim Morrison, William...

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Patti's music [is] a unique combination of fairy tales, gleeful excitement, melodic singing, spitting, unshed tears of childhood, hypnotic reiteration, teasing, dancing, masturbatory fantasies, sheet-metal schooldays and chunks of real 50's and 60's hard-rock songs…. (p. 24)

Patti Smith knows she's got it. On stage, she burns like a white filament dressed in black, spitting, crooning, screaming a volcano of lyrics about sex, U.F.O.'s, horses, internal voyages, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, loneliness, adolescence, beaches, possibilities, Arthur Rimbaud. You have to listen hard to Patti Smith, and that's part of her appeal. She's the first legit, published … poet to move her poetry completely into...

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Steve Simels

[If] ever there was an adult record, ["Horses"] is it. It's a fiendishly difficult piece of work, and I suspect that as a result it's going to polarize people like crazy, which is too bad, because for all its overreaching, I can't remember a first album that exhibited such overwhelming potential.

What it boils down to is whether or not we are willing to admit that rock means anything more than "it's got a good beat and you can dance to it."…

And so, either you'll be simply knocked out by what Patti is attempting with "Horses"—the mating of "traditional" poetic diction (in her case the Symbolists and the Beats) with the diction of rock and creating an appropriate musical...

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John Rockwell

Patti Smith is the hottest rock poet to emerge from the fecund wastes of New Jersey since Bruce Springsteen. But Smith is not like Springsteen or anybody else at all.

Springsteen is a rocker; Smith is a chanting rock & roll poet….

For Smith, the words generate everything else. Her "singing" voice has an eerie allure and her "tunes" conform dimly to the primitive patterns of Fifties rock. But her music would be unthinkable without her words and her way of articulating them—and that remains true even if they are occasionally submerged in sound. Patti Smith is a rock & roll shaman and she needs music as shamans have always needed the cadence of their chanting.


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Paul Nelson

If critics are having nightmares these days, one of the worst of them will undoubtedly be about not liking "Horses," Patti Smith's ubiquitous debut album. Without missing a beat, the nation's linotypers seem to have shifted from Springsteen to Smith, and there is no escaping this strange New Jersey Nightingale. Sneakers are out, Rimbaud is in, and I feel so poeticized I could die. However, after listening to the record a dozen times, not only do I not like "Horses," I never want to hear it again—these days a difficult admission to make.

"Horses" is so clearly a classically idiosyncratic "first" album that perhaps the artist's subsequent records will illuminate its not inconsiderable virtues...

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Marianne Partridge

Patti Smith certainly has one hell of a lot to answer for. Not only does she unashamedly use her band as a backcloth for her pretentious "poetic" ramblings, but she simultaneously comes on as the saviour of raw-power rock and roll as it struggles to survive the onslaught of esoteric rock. In other words, she's into the myth-making business. And in this, her second album, the myth is exposed … as cheap thrills. At least "Horses" had the dubious privilege of a rabble-rousing version of Them's "Gloria," but on "Radio Ethiopia" all the cuts are by Patti and Band…. An inarticulate mess. (p. 24)

Marianne Partridge, in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), October 23,...

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R. Meltzer

[There] really ain't no way I'm gonna be anything but thrilled to my shorthairs by a Patti LP and [Radio Ethiopia is] no exception. Altho the last one was a bit less grave cause y'know her live show (still—when it's on—the best by a cunny since Billie Holiday and best by either gonad group since James Morrison's prime) has its moments of excruciating gravity but it's also got her laffing it up and spitting on the stage. Like the title cut's great and tense and all that but it could've extracted a wee bit more from the lesson of the Fugs' "Virgin Forest" (y'know like even the first experiment in self-conscious homogeneous length hadda yield to the inevitability of self-parody and...

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Dave Marsh

On [Radio Ethiopia] Patti Smith lays back, refusing to assert herself as she did on last year's Horses. The key is in the billing: on Radio Ethiopia, her group dominates. But while Smith can be an inventive, sometimes inspired writer and performer, her band is basically just another loud punk-rock gang of primitives, riff-based and redundant. The rhythm is disjointed, the guitar chording trite and elementary. Even at best ("Distant Fingers," for instance), the Patti Smith Group isn't much more than a distant evocation of psychedelic amateurs like Clear Light.

Smith seems to lack the direction necessary to live up to her own best ideas—the song-poem structure of the first album...

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Robert Christgau

Patti Smith is in trouble. She's caught in a classic double bind—accused of selling out by her former allies and of not selling by ner new ones. Maybe she's just too famous for her own good. Habitues of the poetry vanguard that provided her initial panache, many of whom mistake her proud press and modest sales for genuine stardom, are sometimes envious and often disdainful of her renown as a poet, since she is not devoted to the craft of poetry and they are. Music-biz pros both in and out of her record company, aware that her second album, Radio Ethiopia, is already bulleting down the charts, are reminded once again that print exposure is the least reliable of promotional tools in an aural medium, not least...

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Albert H. Johnston

Rock star Patti Smith is one of the newer phenomena on the far-out youth scene, one of the most brilliantly gifted pop performers and poets since Dylan. Here [in "Babel"], in a single volume that includes her photos and line drawings, are her poems, prose sketches and other lyrical outpourings composed during the period of her rise to rockstardom—a collector's item, most likely, and certainly a mind-boggling expression of the surrealist temper that will have some readers shouting bravo while others pull out the plug. This is post-Dylan discothèque writing steeped in the cocaine mystique, savage and invincibly poignant, a volcanic spewing of image and metaphor and immures the sacred in the obscene and profane. Smith...

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Rochelle Ratner

[Babel is composed of] fast-paced, visionary poems and prose poems, but the fact that the visions seem to be drug-induced makes them frequently difficult to follow. It's hard to separate Smith the writer from Smith the cult figure (a difficulty which she herself seems all too conscious of—when she succeeds, it's almost in spite of herself). The writing includes everything a cult figure needs: drugs, sex, the wrestling with religious concepts. Most of her best poems fall into this last category: even if she sets herself up as a martyr at times, there are other poems which convey a real sense of struggle in the search for meaning…. The emphasis on orgiastic rites makes it inappropriate for many, but the book...

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Jonathan Cott

The writer Grace Paley once talked in an interview about the fact that many women missed the sense of boyhood when they were children, "the freedom and excitement of boyhood," and that girls would try "to invent some kind of risky, boyhood life for [their] girlhood—which creates imagination, which means imagination."

Patti Smith—poet and rock-and-roll star—accepted her boyhood life right from the beginning. "Female. feel male," she wrote in her little book "Seventh Heaven." "Ever since I felt the need to choose / I'd choose male."…

A kind of cross between Alice in Wonderland and Huck Finn—a working-class kid who took off from the New Jersey backwater to become a poète...

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Ken Tucker

Patti Smith's pretensions are as important to her as feedback—both give the music the kind of kick and quirk that makes falling off a stage a transcendent experience. Her unwarranted assertions are grandiose, self-serving, impossible but noble. They hold out cosmic solutions, received philosophy, and, especially on Easter, lavish hope. Frequently they don't even fuck up the music; their profusion of exhortation, drivel, hallucination, and poetry complements the verve and, increasingly, the wit of the loud music played by the Patti Smith Group.

However all-inclusive they may seem, Smith's pretensions have never extended to matters of technique, and thematic coherence is not something you look...

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Charles M. Young

Patti Smith has set about creating a movement to free the world through rock & roll. Her personal charm, when she wants it to be, is enormous. Her followers are increasing every day, and they are among the most ardent anywhere…. She is a poet for the people….

Patti Smith's detractors think Radio Ethiopia, a loosely defined organization of her supporters, amounts to a Kiss Army for intellectuals who like to be mystified by poetry without capital letters. They think she is a fool. Because she cultivates the look of a possessed poet, she can say things like "the word art must be redefined" and get away with it. Her fans, in fact, eat it off a stick. And she is happy to feed them, so long as they...

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Simon Frith

"Wave" is a much better record than I expected, but to explain why I'll have to go back a bit.

Patti Smith's problem is that what was touching in a rock fan is obnoxious in a rock star. Her desperate faith in the cleansing spiritual power of rock 'n' roll was inspiring as long as she was on the outside. "Horses" was a gripping debut album that rekindled the rock faith of even the most jaded critics. What Patti the poet brought to her versions of "Gloria" and "Land Of A Thousand Dances" was less lyrical than emotional vision. She reminded us (in 1975, just prepunk) that rock 'n' roll was primarily a musical feeling.

Unfortunately, inevitably, once Patti had made it … she...

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