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Patti Smith

Biography

Patti Smith
Hanekroot/Redferns

In the early 1970s, Patti Smith, already a regular on the New York scene as a poet, performance artist and sometime lover of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, began to set her poetry to Lenny Kaye's electric guitar playing. Soon, she had a full band, whose rough, clattering sound made a perfect match for Smith's shrieked, soaring vocals. The moment she proclaimed, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine" on her reworked version of Van Morrison's "Gloria" in 1975, Smith positioned herself as a key leader of the punk movement that followed.

Born in Chicago in 1946 and raised a Jehovah's Witness in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Smith left for New York in her early 20s. She first performed her poetry backed by Kaye and pianist Richard Sohl in 1971, and in 1974 released her first single "Hey Joe" b/w "Piss Factory." Along with Television, Blondie, and the Ramones, Smith helped put New York's punk-rock landmark CBGB on the map.

As her music grew toward noisy rock & roll, she enlisted guitarist Ivan Kral and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. This lineup recorded Horses (Number 47, 1975), produced by John Cale, an original mix of passionate rock ("Gloria," "Land of 1000 Dances"), Smith's poetry and the band's energetically rudimentary playing. The release began a relationship with Arista Records that spanned nearly four decades. Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas oversaw the Patti Smith Group's second album, Radio Ethiopia (Number 122, 1976), and the result was a more straightforward, guitar-heavy record.

A fall from a Florida stage hospitalized Smith with neck injuries in early 1977, during which time she wrote her fourth book of poetry, Babel (Seventh Heaven, Witt and Kodak preceding it). After months of physical therapy, Smith resumed her recording career in 1978, releasing her first commercial success, Easter (Number 20, 1978), produced by the upstart Jimmy Iovine, and her only hit single, "Because the Night" (Number 13, 1978), co-written with Bruce Springsteen.

Wave (Number 18, 1979) saw Smith back away from the raucous sound of her previous records in favor of a more reserved, polished style. Soon after its release, Smith moved to Detroit to live with her new husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, and except for rare local appearances, dropped out of the music scene altogether. She and Smith had two children together.

In 1988, Smith's comeback album, Dream of Life (Number 65), featured her husband (who co-produced the album with Iovine), Daugherty, and Sohl. Its songs included a call-to-arms, "People Have the Power," which got some radio airplay, and lullabies for her children. Smith did not tour behind the album and again withdrew from the public eye.

In 1994, Norton & Company released Early Work, a collection of poetry written between 1970 and 1979. Smith made a rare appearance at Central Park's Summerstage in 1993, reading her poetry (including "Piss Factory") and singing a few songs a cappella. She dedicated her performance to two close friends, Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989, and Sohl, who died in 1990. The middle part of the decade was marked by further tragedy for Smith when her husband died of a heart attack in 1994 at the age of 45, and her younger brother, Todd, also died of a heart attack a month later. She returned to New York not long after.

Determined to carry on as a tribute to the encouragement her husband and brother had shown her before their passing, Smith performed a string of opening dates with Bob Dylan in 1995 and issued the intensely personal Gone Again in 1996. The album, which featured Kaye, Daugherty, and new band members Tony Shanahan on bass and Oliver Ray on guitar, as well as appearances by Jeff Buckley, John Cale, and Television's Tom Verlaine, offered a potent mix of songs about death, mourning and rebirth. Highlights included the title track and the rocker "Summer Cannibals," both co-written with her late husband, and "About a Boy," a bittersweet paean to the late Kurt Cobain. The same year saw the release of "The Coral Sea," her epic prose poem dedicated to Mapplethorpe, and her vocal turn on R.E.M.'s "E-Bow the Letter."

Armed with the basic guitar chords her husband taught her shortly before his death, Smith continued to write new songs at a steady pace, releasing Peace and Noise in 1997 and Gung Ho three years later. Both albums found her expanding her focus beyond personal mourning to political reflections on subjects ranging from the Vietnam War to the Heaven's Gate cult and AIDS to American slavery. Gung Ho featured appearances by Michael Stipe and Smith's teenage son Jackson, who played guitar on the song "Persuasion." In 1998 Doubleday published a comprehensive collection of Smith's lyrics, Patti Smith Complete: Lyrics, Reflections & Notes for the Future.

At the turn of the millennium, Smith stumped for Ralph Nader's Green Party run for the 2000 presidential campaign. Her "People Have the Power" became a campaign rally song. Smith left Arista Records in 2002, after which the label put out the double-disc compilation, Land (1975-2002) .

In 2004, Smith signed to Columbia Records and issued Trampin', a collection of her signature spoken poetry and anti-war songs. That winter, she renewed her support for Nader, performing anti-Iraq War and anti-Bush rallies. Out of those came two new politically charged songs, "Qana," protesting the Israeli strike on Lebanon, and "Without Chains," about the misdeeds the U.S. committed at Guantanamo Bay. In 2005, Smith was honored as Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. She played the closing night at CBGB on October 16, 2006, bidding farewell to the club that had catapulted her and other punk-era musicians into the limelight.

On March 12, 2007, Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside friends and frequent collaborators R.E.M., one of countless acts she had influenced over the past four decades. Smith accepted the honor in memory of her late husband, who told her shortly before his death that she would someday be inaugurated into the Hall.

Smith released a live 2005 tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe called The Coral Sea, featuring My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields in the summer of 2008. The same year filmmaker Steven Sebring released the documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life, which showed at the Sundance Film Festival.

Smith continued her political activism in the latter part of the decade. She campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008 and at concerts and on her Web site she encouraged fans to register to vote. In January 2010, Smith released Just Kids, a memoir that chronicled her relationship with Mapplethorpe and her early years in New York.

Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Joel Hoard contributed to this article.

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