By the time I was born Patti Smith had already released several full-length records, her debut album preceding me by more than twenty years. The seventies were undoubtedly the poet and musicians’ most creative years with four album releases. So how did the tune, the poetry, and the badassery of Patti Smith find its way into a millennial ears and heart?
Admittedly my father, with his impeccable music taste and enormous record collection introduced me not only to Patti Smith but to several other artists who still flicker across my headphones (on a volume he would probably scold me for) on daily basis, from Led Zeppelin to Eric Clapton and The Talking Heads. More specifically, the first time I heard a Patti Smith song, was at a gig of my father’s band. And no, this it not the moment where the daughter cringes because some middle aged men on a stage cannot let go of their teenage dreams, but a whole lot of fun. And yes, I am probably their biggest fan for introducing me to many bands through their cover versions and for showing me that no matter the age you can still have a whole lotta fun on stage. Anyways, back to Patti. Of course it was Because the Night, her probably biggest commercial hit and a collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, they covered.
Just like this I was infected. I dug out the worn out records out of the seemingly endless treasure chest of LPs my parents still store in my childhood flat. Horses, Radio Ethiopia and Easter are works of undebated genius. The fierce no-fucks-given attitude of the singer and her incredible talent for writing poetry amazed me from the beginning. Her unhinged performance and expressive vocal presence really strike a chord within me. No matter if it is a ballad or a punk-rock single that will shatter your eardrums with noisy guitars and aggressively shouted lyrics, there is no doubt that this is music. Especially, her experimental songs like Chicklets and Poppies as well as Ain’t It Strange have always resonated with me. Her almost uncontrolled vocals slip from high-pitched to deep and soaring within the same syllable creating the unique sound of the artist.
Riding the ‘Wave’
But today I want to talk about one of her less critically acclaimed records. Among the confident artistry and hinge for experimentation of the previous records, Wave has a more commercial sound and is, therefore, oftentimes criticized as a less creative work of the songwriter. And yes, I have to admit that, depending on my mood, even I tend to give Easter another spin before I turn to the doomed fourth record. Yet, I see it as strangely underrated. The love song dedicated to her husband ‘Frederick’ is not something that you would expect from a punk rock icon of the 70s. Nevertheless, its catchy piano melody and Smith’s heartfelt vocals confessing her love publicly, move. This might be a song for a sunny day instead of a track for the rebellion, but this does not at all make it a faux pass. In the same way her cover of The Byrds’ So You Want to Be a Rock N Roll Star and Dancing Barefoot are loaded with a lighter mood.
To me this shows the transformation of an artist and not the decay of her creativity. Fighting to make a living on the streets of New York as an artists accompanied by friend and lover Robert Mapplethorpe, I would imagine strikes a darker more rebellious and aggressive tone, than engaging in a happy relationship and finally gaining an audience for one’s art.
‘What’s Your Name, Son?’
And even on Wave, Patti Smith’s attitude is everything but gone. The angry rock-heavy track ‘Citizenship’ is among one of my all-time favorite tracks. In classic Smith manner, Patti’s smoky vocals are like untamed creatures taking on their own life to express the feeling of loss of identity and not belonging in the 70s. ‘What’s your name, son?’ she cries demandingly over accelerating guitars and crashing drums as the track peaks in noisy hard rock. The shouts still go underneath my skin every time I listen to the song. For five minutes I wait for the raging storm Patti Smith unleashes towards the end, just to turn up the volume a little bit more to fully immerse myself in the destructive beauty of a rebellious cacophony.
Today I feel Citizenship is just as contemporary as it was back in the day. The struggles with finding one’s identity have not gotten easier with the introduction of technology into our daily lives, not even to mention the ongoing refugee crisis, taking the lyrics literally.
‘Won’t you give me a lift / A lift on your citizen ship.’ is a brilliant metaphor for not fitting in and an unsettling prediction of our current situation.
Painting with words
Another track I would like to draw attention to, is the song Smith originally wrote for the metal band Blue Öyster Cult. Wave contains her very own rendition of the vocals to Fire Of Unknown Origin. With laconic raspy drawls she turned it into an uneasy ballad conveying a sense of impending doom. Her pained cries are almost animalistic. She howls with such raw expression, it shoots a shiver down my spine. The minimalistic instrumentation puts the focus onto the voice. And Patti Smith knows how to capture your attention with her words. It is no wonder as her musical career started out as a spoken word poet. And the talent for captivating with her voice has not left her on Wave. Slurring the vocals, spitting them angrily, stretching single words into sheer infinities, Patti Smith truly is an artist of the word. She smears every letter onto an aural canvas painting something between abstraction and detailed portrait of an issue.
Wave might not live up to the previous experimental outbursts of the artist but it sure as hell is not any more or less poetic and musical. And it will not cease to be one of my favorite records anytime soon. Happy 40th birthday!