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Patti Smith

Patti Smith

For some, Rock was an "accidental" career. Mick Jagger was doing just fine at the London School of Economics. A chance meeting on a train with old chum Keith Richards soon led to the launching of the Rolling Stones. Jim Morrison fancied himself a serious poet when he was drawn into forming the Doors with organist Ray Manzarek. Then there was Patti Smith. She really was a poet, giving readings in the early '70s, occasionally backed by guitarist Lenny Kaye. In '75, the NY based Smith formed a band and was playing CBGBs.

"Horses" was Smith's debut. It featured poetry readings, originals and covers. Sonically heavy and lyrically dazzling, this was an excellent start and a Punk inspiration. Containing both mainstream Rock and experimental, Smith's "Radio Ethiopia" followed. For commercial accessibility, which wasn't really a major concern, "Easter" was it. The set included "Because The Night," which was co-written with Bruce Springsteen. Not only was the song Smith's biggest pop hit, it also was huge for 10,000 Maniacs in the '80s. But with the dull "Wave," released in '79, Smith retired, marrying former MC-5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith and raising a family. Nearly a decade later ('88), Smith released "Dream of Life," while not a trailblazer, it wasn't as disappointing as "Wave."

Fred Smith died suddenly of a heart attack in '95. A year later, Patti was giving concerts and working on a new album "Gone Again: Peace and Noise." Her '00 release "Gung Ho" was followed nearly four years later by "Trampin'."

On March 12th, '07, Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Van Halen and R.E.M. Rage Against The Machine's frontman, Zach de la Rocha handled the honors. The ceremony closed with an all-star jam on Smith's "People Have The Power" with Sammy Hagar, R.E.M., Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards.

A little over a month after her induction Smith released, "Twelve." The set contained versions of songs originally recorded by Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Tears For Fears, Nirvana and The Doors.

Pratt Institute, a private art college in Brooklyn, is considered one of the leading undergraduate art schools in the U.S. Smith, by her own admission, would never have been accepted by Pratt when she moved to Brooklyn in '67. However, many of her friends were Pratt students and from them and their professors, Smith was able to discover and develop of her own artistic skills. So it was an emotional moment in '10 when Smith received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Pratt. She delivered the commencement address and performed two songs. The following year, Smith earned another accolade - the Polar Music Prize - the Swedish international music award.

"By devoting her life to art in all its forms, Patti Smith has demonstrated how much Rock 'n' Roll there is in poetry and how much poetry there is in Rock 'n' Roll. Patti Smith is a Rimbaud with Marshall amps," read the Polar statement. "She has transformed the way an entire generation looks, thinks and dreams. With her inimitable soul of an artist, Patti Smith proves over and over again that people have the power."

Smith recorded "Words Of Love" for the seventy-fifth birthday tribute CD "Rave On Buddy Holly" before making her acting debut on the TV drama "Law & Order: Criminal Intent (the episode was titled "Icarus"). Then came "Outside Society," a compilation of material from Smith's Punk '70s and her post-'88 comeback.

Smith presented her 11th studio album in '12. "Banga," recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York City, was Smith's first collection of original material in eight years. The set included "This Is The Girl," a ballad in memory of the late Amy Winehouse, and "Nine," a birthday song written for her friend, actor Johnny Depp.

Patti Smith Discography

Studio Albums:

1975 Horses
1976 Radio Ethiopia
1978 Easter
1979 Wave
1988 Dream Of Life
1996 Gone Again
1997 Peace And Noise
2000 Gung Ho
2004 Trampin'
2007 Twelve
2012 Banga

Hardcore Patti Smith fans favor "Horses" while casual listeners name "Easter" as her premier album. The argument is really moot since those two albums and "Radio Ethiopia" are worth owning. Later work is OK but subdued. "Land" is a "Best Of" collection.

Smith is able to evoke the spiritual ("Jubilee"), the earthy ("My Blakean Year") and be touchingly intimate ("Mother Rose") on "Trampin'." Add to that the exceptional "Stride Of The Mind," with its forceful, raw appeal. The album is lyrically engaging and musically compelling. It demonstrates a vibrancy missing from Smith's more recent work.

"Twelve" seems an odd choice at this point in Smith's career, especially coming off the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Artists in a similar position usually release a collection of new material in an attempt to prove they still can produce vital music. Or, if there is nothing new in the pipeline, their label issues a "best of" compilation to demonstrate why the artist was inducted (and to sell a ton of CDs without spending promo dollars or taking much of a risk). So an album of covers, ranging from the '60s to the '90s, would seem a weak misstep. Yes, Smith had covers on her debut album, but "Twelve" is hardly a return to her Punk origins.

Smith does an acoustic version of Nirvana's classic "Smells Like Teen Spirit." That by itself isn't brilliant but Smith gives the song a crystal clear reading while still maintaining its gravity. The Stones' "Gimme Shelter" gets an earthy treatment that works pretty well. Early in their career, the Stones made a name for themselves "cleaning up" Blues songs. Now, they get the reverse done to them.

In context with the other tracks, "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" seems out of place. But Smith gives provides a depth and urgency not found in the original. Maybe trying to add grit to pop songs, like this one, would have produced better results.

If The Beatles' "Sgt. Peppers" album has a low point, it's probably George Harrison's droning "Within You Without You" ("She's Leaving Home" would be another nominee). Here, Smith picks up the tempo and disposes the dead weight. But despite all her efforts, the song still doesn't connect. Smith's take on "Are You Experienced" suffers the same problem. If these songs ever worked, they were more a projection of a personality than well-composed efforts. And without the persona attached there's little to draw on.

To her credit Smith departs from the beaten path (we don't need another rendition of "Yesterday" or "Imagine"), but even her talents can't turn a shell into a real song.

"Banga," is a relatively low key yet textured effort that is more an artistic statement than a rush up the charts.

"April Fools," which is both melodically and lyrically appealing ("Come, be my April Fools, come, we'll break all the rules") is countered by the Depp inspired title track's bare-bones Punk. The set closes with Neil Young's "After The Gold Rush." The acoustic track (not far from the original) is a great match for Smith's talents.


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