The release of any new material by legendary poet and musician Patti Smith, either written or recorded, is cause for celebration. But last fall, when Smith released her lyrics in a lavishly illustrated and annotated book, crowds turned out in record numbers across the country at book festivals, libraries, and local clubs to celebrate this artist's magnificent and ongoing journey in words and music. The Chicago Tribune describes Patti Smith Complete as "a collection of her songwriting oeuvre, notes, and ...
The release of any new material by legendary poet and musician Patti Smith, either written or recorded, is cause for celebration. But last fall, when Smith released her lyrics in a lavishly illustrated and annotated book, crowds turned out in record numbers across the country at book festivals, libraries, and local clubs to celebrate this artist's magnificent and ongoing journey in words and music. The Chicago Tribune describes Patti Smith Complete as "a collection of her songwriting oeuvre, notes, and unpublished photos by Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Liebovitz, and countless memorabilia from the complex life of this nearly fifty-two-year-old image of American individuality."
Now in paperback, in a beautifully designed package, here are the words and pictures that influenced a generation from the fever pitch of performance to the solitude of the artist. Never has a collection of lyrics offered up images from a lifetime as intimate and forthright as those collected in Patti Smith Complete.
Patti Smith is a writer, artist, and performer. Her seminal album Horses was followed by nine releases, including Radio Ethiopia; Easter; Dream of Life; Gone Again; and Trampin'. Her artwork was first exhibited at Gotham Book Mart in 1973, and she has been associated with the Robert Miller Gallery since 1978. Strange Messenger, a retrospective of three hundred works, made its debut at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and has been exhibited worldwide.
The first song I remember singing is "Jesus Loves Me." I can picture myself singing it while sitting on a stoop in Chicago, waiting for the organ grinder to come up the street with his pet monkey. I can hear the songs that were in the air. "Day-O" and "Shrimp Boats" and "Heart of My Hearts." I can hear my father whistling "Deep Purple" and the voice of my mother as she sang us to sleep.
I recall my first record player, only slightly larger than a lunchbox and my two records, one red and one yellow: "Tuby the Tuba" and "Big Rock Candy Mountain." I loved watching them spin, contemplating the worlds they evoked. But the song that made the deepest impression, that produced my first visceral reaction, was sung by Little Richard.
It was Sunday. My mother and I hand in hand. She was taking me to Bible school. She had kid gloves on like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. They gave her a special air and I admired them tremendously. We passed the boys' clubhouse--two huge refrigerator boxes cut and pieced together. Ritchie Glasgow was spinning sides and what wafted from the hand-cut window (more for breathing than for seeing) stopped me dead in my tracks, causing me to let go of my mother's hand so abruptly as to remove her glove.
I didn't know what I was hearing or why I reacted so strongly. It wasn't "Shrimp Boats" or "Day-O." It was something new and though I didn't comprehend what drew me, drawn I was. Drawn into a child's excited dance. That was "Tutti Frutti," so alien, so familiar. That was Little Richard. That was for me the birth of rock and roll.
For a time we lived in Philadelphia. Everyone liked to sing and dance. Mysister and I would jitterbug. People sang a cappella on the street corners. When I was nine, we moved to South Jersey. My music teacher adored opera. He would bring his albums to class and play us selections from Verdi and Puccini. I was taken with this music and I was especially moved by Maria Callas. Her emotional intensity. How she seemed to draw from every fiber to create a whisper. Her arias soared from the turntable--especially my favorite, the opera hit single, "Un bel de." For a time I dreamed of being an opera singer, but I didn't have the calling, the discipline, or the necessary physical frame. My teacher, sensing my desire, gave me a glorious task. As Manrico I sang the lullaby from Verdi's Il Trovatore. For a brief moment I was able to feel the troubadour's expansive love for his home in the mountains.
I dreamed of being a jazz singer like June Christie and Chris Connor. Of approaching songs with the lethargic charge of Billie Holiday. Of championing the downtrodden like Lotte Lenya's "Pirate Jenny." But I never dreamed of singing in a rock and roll band. They had yet to exist in my world. But my world was rapidly changing.
I was privileged to evolve during an inspired period of spiritual and cultural revolution. And the music was the revolution where all had a voice and through this voice we united. Our battlefields were Ohio, Chicago, the Fillmore. We gave new meaning to the word "soldier." We were slinging an electric guitar instead of a machine gun.
I broke from the confines of a rural existence. Farewell the factory, square dance hall, the withering orchards. I headed for New York City. I had in mind to become a painter and through that pursuit I found my beat and the root of my voice. Standing before large sheets of paper tacked to a wall, frustrated with the image I'd draw words instead--rhythms that ran off the page onto the plaster. Writing lyrics evolved from the physical act of drawing words. Later, refining this process led to performance.
In 1969 I moved to the Chelsea Hotel with Robert Mapplethorpe. By then I had abandoned hope of becoming a painter. I was offered work in underground theater. It was too confining. I longed to spar with the people, to make contact. Robert encouraged me to perform my poetry. I attended readings but found them even more confining than theater. Bob Neuwirth suggested I put my lyric style to music and Sam Shepard used two pieces in his play Mad Dog Blues.
On February 10, 1971, I gave my first poetry reading, opening for Gerard Malanga at St. Mark's Church on the Bowery. In desiring to project a raw energy, I recruited Lenny Kaye. We climaxed the reading with his sonic interpretation of a stock car race with electric guitar while I read "Ballad of a Bad Boy." It seemed to have a negative effect. I took that as a positive sign.
In the next few years I took to studying Hank Williams, got me a Bob Dylan songbook, banged away on an old thirties Gibson. I worked in a bookstore. I drew. I modeled for Robert. Scrawled in my notebooks. I wandered through the debris of the sixties. So much joy yet malcontent. So many voices raised, then snuffed. My generation's heritage seemed to be in jeopardy.
These things were on my mind: the course of the artist, the course of freedom redefined, the re-creation of space, the emergence of new voices.
And these things I came to express--albeit somewhat awkwardly--through the form of rock and roll. Perhaps I have been none but a scrappy pawn, but I am nonetheless grateful for the moves I came to make.