stretching the limits

[excerpt from Gillian G. Gaar's She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll]

1975, when Ono and Lennon "retired," was the same year Patti Smith released her first album, building on the combination of rock and poetry that Ono had experimented with. It was around the same time that Ono was first working with Lennon that Patti Smith arrived in New York to immerse herself in the city's avant-garde arts scene, where, unencumbered by the media derision Ono faced, her impact on rock was both more immediate and more evident. Born in Chicago in 1946, Smith grew up in Pitman, New Jersey, under the spell of myriad influences: her love of '60s icons like Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones went hand in hand with the writings of such poets as William Blake, William Burroughs, Charles Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud. Dropping out of college after becoming pregnant (and giving the baby up for adoption), Smith took a job in a New Jersey factory, saving enough to finance her eventual move to New York City in the late 60's. Smith quickly fell in with the city's downtown art scene, where she met photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; after a trip to Paris in 1969, she shared a room with him at the Chelsea Hotel, a base for many in New York's art community.

While working as a clerk in a bookstore, Smith pursued writing, encompassing rock journalism (for the magazines Creem and Rock), plays (the loosely autobiographical Cowboy Mouth, which she co-wrote and performed with Sam Shepard), and poetry. Smith also gave readings of her poetry, and in 1971 drafted guitarist and rock journalist Lenny Kaye to provide musical accompaniment. At the time, the music scene in Manhattan was changing directions from the progressive rock of the late '60s, and young, up-and-coming bands playing original music were searching the Lower East Side for places to play, spearheaded by the New York Dolls, a punky glam- rock group. One such venue was the Mercer Arts Center, a haven not only for rock bands playing original rock, but for other types of artistic endeavors as well; the performance space The Kitchen was initially located at the Center, in, appropriately enough, the old kitchen of the space. When the Arts Center was forced to close in 1974, a narrow bar in the Bowery, CBGB and OMFUG (which stood for "Country, Bluegrass, and Blues and Other Music for Urban Gourmets") became the new headquarters for the growing music scene, along with another club, Max's Kansas City. In 1973 Smith added pianist Richard Sohl to what was becoming a full-fledged group, and met publicist Jane Friedman. Friedman suggested that Smith try singing, not just reciting, her poetry, then booked the group into the Mercer Arts Center and became Smith's manager. In 1974, the group, with the addition of Television's Tom Verlaine on guitar, recorded their first single, "Hey Joe (Version)"/"Piss Factory." "Hey Joe" was a garage rock cover that featured a monologue written by Smith for Patty Hearst; Smith's own "Piss Factory" was a spoken- word piece about her experiences on the New Jersey factory production line.

The single's first run of 1600 copies sold out quickly, adding to Smith's growing reputation; the group, feeling it was outgrowing a trio format, next added Ivan Kral on guitar and bass, and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums. In 1975, the group played CBGB's and became the first of the new breed of rock bands emerging from Manhattan to be signed to a major label, when Clive Davis, who had signed Laura Nyro and Janis Joplin while president of Columbia Records, signed Smith to his new label, Arista. In late 1975 her debut album, Horses, was released, produced by the Velvet Underground's John Cale, and made a powerful impression in the rock scene. The cover itself (photographed by Mapplethorpe) made it clear Smith was no ordinary female singer: skinny, dressed in jeans and a white shirt with a tie draped around her neck, Smith faced the camera with a defiant, uncompromising stare. Her commanding, androgynous presence presented a view of a female performer that hadn't been seen on a record cover before, and the music on the record was just as striking. Opening with Smith's raw voice stating "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" before launching into a cover of Van Morrison's "Gloria," Horses freely mixed rock and poetry, a reflection of Smithy's apparent disinterest in conventional song structures. "I'm not into writing songs," she told Melody Maker. "I find that real boring." Smith's biting delivery was something new for a female singer, but her music nonetheless began finding wide acceptance among rock audiences.

Her strong stance naturally provoked equally strong reactions. In Britain, the New Musical Express announced that Horses was a better first album than those of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, but Melody Maker was not amused, huffing, "There's no way that the contrived and affected 'amateurism' of Horses constitutes good rock & roll." Smith further intrigued and/or irritated the press by refusing to play by the rules, such as not answering questions if she found them boring. Her frequent references to the French poets and rock heroes who inspired her also labeled her as pretentious to some, but her audiences were fanatically devoted, and members of the press were sometimes caught up in the spirit as well. "When I first sat down at my typewriter all I wanted to do was type 'It was great' over and over until I fell asleep," wrote a reviewer in Sounds of Smith's first appearance in Britain in '76; London's Evening Standard matter-of-factly observed, "She is the only girl singer I have ever seen spit onstage."

Smith's second album, Radio Ethiopia, was released in 1976, but it did not generate the critical excitement Horses had. Her career suffered a more serious setback in January 1977, when she fell off the stage during a performance in Tampa, Florida, and broke her neck. With all musical activities put on hold, Smith spent the next year undergoing physical therapy, in addition to writing Babel,another book of poetry. In 1978, Smith returned to live performance with a special Easter "resurrection" concert at CBGB's, with new keyboardist Bruce Brady, followed by the release of her third album, also entitled Easter. The show, and album, marked a triumphant return to form, with Easter giving Smith her first Top 40 hits; both Easter and "Because the Night," co-written with Bruce Springsteen during their respective recording sessions for Easter and Darkness on the Edge of Town at the same recording studio, reached the Top 20. If Smith's return was a welcome surprise, having a record in the Top 20 was an added bonus, one that pleased Smith immensely. "I think it's great that I have a hit single," she told Rolling Stone. "People say to me, 'Do you think you sold out?' They should be saying 'Oh wow, you're on AM radio.' To me, the place for us would be right out on the front line." For in spite of the derision Smith and her music sometimes received, she took rock & roll very seriously and viewed it as being capable of nothing less than salvation. "It's the only religion I got," Cavale, Smith's alter-ego in Cowboy Mouth explains to Slim (Shepard), her would-be "rock-and-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth." "Any great motherfucker rock-'n'-roll song can raise me higher than all of Revelations. We created rock-'n'-roll from our own image, it's our child . . . a child that's gotta burst in the mouth of a savior."

In addition to stretching the limits of what counted as valid artistic expression in rock, Smith's defiant stance as an outsider also hit home with her audience, as she noted in Rolling Stone. "I toured Europe more than America," she explained. "Those kids that bought Horses or 'Piss Factory' or heard about CBGB's became the Clash, became the Sex Pistols, became a million other bands -- some that will make it and some that won't. But the important thing is that they became." Smith's arrival in the U.K. in 1976 coincided with the increasing notoriety of the Sex Pistols, and the growing momentum influenced any number of kids to waste little time in "becoming." But Smith herself was about to leave the rock arena. After the 1979 release of Wave, produced by Todd Rundgren, the Patti Smith Group embarked on their final tour. In March 1980 she married Fred "Sonic" Smith, guitarist with the MC5, and moved with him to the suburbs of Detroit, retiring from music to raise a family until the release of 1988's Dream of Life. Smith had little problem in leaving her career once she'd made her point, a perspective shared by the rest of the group. "I think what happened is that we'd done everything we'd set out to do," Kaye explained in a Goldmine interview. "Our first show was in February of 1971 in front of 200 people at St. Mark's Church, and our last show in Florence, Italy, in September 1979 was in front of 70,000 kids. Our story has a kind of completeness to it."

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