Attempt to define the legacy of Patti Smith and you will find yourself struggling with the word “punk.” Today, punk has been co-opted to describe pretty, spike-haired kids singing multi-part harmonies for multi-million dollar contracts. Thirty years ago, punk pretty much meant Patti Smith.
Smith broke into the New York club scene in the mid-seventies, resembling a female Keith Richards, spewing articulate and guttural poetry over her band’s three-chord churn and gnash. She was scary-intense, this white woman who called herself a “nigger” and ran with the brilliant junkies, artists and poets of her day; but what made her punk was her resistance to simple definition. By the time punk became fashionable, Smith was too punk for punk; too odd for the misfits; a true American original.
This Sunday, Smith plays a benefit concert for Big Sur’s Henry Miller Memorial Library at the Sunset Center in Carmel. Probably the rock music event of the year, Smith’s first-ever visit to the Monterey Peninsula is an improvised deviation from a West Coast tour in support of her new album, the critically-acclaimed Trampin’.
Improvisation is part of what makes Patti Smith so remarkable. All of her albums have been distinguished by her fearless commitment to creating edgy music by the seat of her jeans.
Smith squeezed the show in between a gig at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz on Saturday and an appearance in Ventura on Monday.
“One has to make a living, but it’s good to take some time out and help,” she says by phone in a gravelly New Jersey accent. “Helping out the Library is helping out the consciousness and legacy of Henry Miller. The place is symbolic of his mind and life and energy.”
A costly detour for the “consciousness and legacy” of a writer is standard procedure for Patti Smith, who is as much a poet as a musician. As a child in working-class south Jersey, she became a devotee of Arthur Rimbaud at around the same time that she discovered Bob Dylan and the Stones.
By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Smith was living in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Already the author of two books of poetry, Smith truly found her voice when she began setting her words against the raunchy rock of some friends.
On June 5, 1974, Smith went into the studio with bandmates Lenny Kaye and Richard Sohl, and their friend Tom Verlaine (of the great proto-punk band, Television).
With financial backing from Mapplethorpe, they recorded Patti Smith’s first single: “Hey Joe,” and a B-side: “Piss Factory.” Horses, Smith’s first album, followed in 1975. Arguably one of the greatest albums of all time, Smith’s full-length debut injected passion into a corporate rock environment.
“I came into rock ‘n’ roll for political reasons, to be like Paul Revere,” Smith says. “We weren’t great at the beginning but we felt like human alarm clocks: ‘Wake up! Wake up!’”
Several albums followed: Radio Ethiopia (1976), Easter (1978) and Wave (1979). Then in 1979, just like that, she waved goodbye to music and married Fred “Sonic” Smith of the seminal Detroit band the MC5.
Ten years later, a flurry of deaths brought Smith back to the stage: her friends Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Sohl, her husband Fred Smith, and her brother Todd all died within five years of each other. Overwhelmed by grief, Smith pitched herself back into music.
Smith has issued a half-dozen albums in the last decade, each of them containing hints of her former power. Her newest, Trampin’, is a fearless and touching collection. Included is the Doorsy improvisational track “Radio Baghdad,” a risky 12-minute epic that trades concise precision for pure euphoric juice.
“Recording that song was a pretty grueling experience,” Smith says. “I told [the band] I was going to improvise the lyrics in the recording studio. I studied some history and current events, of course, and got a good idea of what I wanted to say. It took three passes. The third was the longest, but it had the most unified narrative. I was really happy with it.”
All of Smith’s albums have had at least one song improvised on the fly.
“I have no sense of the length going in, you just hope the thread you choose will have unity,” she says.
“Radio Baghdad” is a revelatory celebration of the beauty of Iraqi culture, which also manages to condemn those that would see it destroyed. It is that perfect blend of art and politics that is so rarely attained. The raw, natural energy of Smith’s improvisational delivery drives it into the realm of some kind of Sufi chant.
“Oh Baghdad/Center of the world/City of ashes,” she sings. “With its great mosques/Erupting from the mouth of god/Rising from the ashes like a speckled bird/Splayed against the mosaic sky/Oh, clouds around/We created the zero/But we mean nothing to you.”
Now that’s punk.