40 years after her genre-defining album Horses, we sift through the most iconic moments from the first lady of punk
Patti Smith has risen above the brackets of rock, poetry and politics. The punk high priestess' album Horses was released 40 years ago, yet its raw message of loss, desire and protest against the man transcends time. At the age of 21, Smith packed in her degree and the assembly-line job so gracefully alluded to in the song "Piss Factory", fled New Jersey and made a new home for herself in New York, with the help of a white patent purse she found with 32 dollars and a gold locket inside: the equivalent of a week's pay. After many months spent sleeping in doorways, working soulless retail jobs, and choosing between grilled cheese sandwiches and vital art supplies – plus a brief but formative spell busking in Paris – she found herself running with the city's inner-circle of factory girls, conceptual artists and rock stars-slash-playwrights. It's from this milieu that Horses emerged, and with a series of shows tied in around the record's anniversary now in full swing, here's our need-to-know guide to the poet laurete of punk.
A IS FOR ANN DEMEULEMEESTER
Smith's iconic, proto-punk look is characterised by its androgyny – perhaps that's why Belgian fashion designer Demeulemeester sought her out as a black-booted, soft and simple silhouetted muse. Her Paris collection debut in 1991 was soundtracked by Smith's "Wave", and after sending the singer a shirt as a thank you, the pair began a correspondence that lasted five years.
Smith and Demeulemeester's most memorable collaboration came with "Woolgathering", a spring/summer 2000 collection full of cotton, tulle and white silk, named after Smith's eponymous novel. Excerpts from the book were embroidered on tops and dresses, and Smith read passages aloud during the show. More than fashion collaborators, though, the pair are friends first and foremost: "Please don't reduce our friendship to a trouser or a skirt," said Demeulemeester in the New York Times in 2002.
B IS FOR BLUE ÖYSTER CULT
Smith was briefly considered for the position of lead vocalist with Blue Öyster Cult, the New York-based rock band best loved for their cult hit "Don't Fear The Reaper". She teamed up with members of the group to write the lyrics for "Baby Ice Dog", "Career of Evil", "Fire of Unknown Origin", "The Revenge of Vera Gemini" and "Shooting Shark". She had a brief fling in the 70s with keyboard and rhythm guitar player Allen Lanier, who played a part in establishing the Patti Smith Group’s original sound through his co-writing work on Horses.
C IS FOR CREEM
Known for her way with words in virtually every medium imaginable, Smith contributed regularly to rock music bible Creem. Her dreamy turn of phrase and general 'Patti-isms' are colourful and fascinating. Reviewing a Velvet Underground live album released in 1974, she wrote: "It goes beyond risk and hovers like an electric moth... like Rimbaud we rebel baptism but you know man needs water he needs to get clean keep washing over like a Moslem." We thought so, too.
D IS FOR DREAM OF LIFE
Smith's Dream of Life album was released in 1988, her first after the breakup of the Patti Smith Group. Featuring political anthem "People Have the Power" and the system-challenging "When Duty Calls", the record also boasted guitars and production from her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred 'Sonic' Smith.
A documentary of the same name by fashion photographer Stephen Sebring came out in 2008. One of the film's most awe-inspiring moments comes when Smith and playwright and actor Sam Shepard jam together in a dreamy, hazily cut scene, reminiscing about the Chelsea Hotel, their past relationship and their co-authored play, Cowboy Mouth.
E IS FOR ELEGIE
A requiem for her friend Jimi Hendrix, "Elegie" explores some of the most consistent themes in Smith’s work: death and mourning. On the track, Smith illustrates Hendrix’s shyness and empathetic side, detailing how she met him outside a party she was too nervous to enter in New York. (She recorded several songs in his Electric Lady Studios, including a cover of "Hey Joe" with added poetic lyricism, after he passed away.) You can feel the sense of confusion from the rise and fall of Smith’s raspy voice and the guttering guitar and classical piano arrangement, while the climax has a haunting power worthy of Hendrix's best work.
F IS FOR FRANCE
Smith's love of Rimbaud ignited her obsession with France. Her time in Paris with her sister in the late 60s was a huge influence on her perspective and subsequent work. She visited Jim Morrison's grave, and remembers where she was in Paris when she heard that Brian Jones had passed. Her 1969 drawings of Montparnasse are on display in the Fondation Cartier.
G IS FOR GOD
"Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine" is a lyrical proverb screamed across countless festival grounds and darkened teenage bedrooms everywhere. Smith ascribes the lyrics to "the hubris of a 20-year-old girl", but most of us know "Gloria" as the song that defines our angst and disillusionment with whatever system is oppressing us. There's a palpable air of anarchy as Smith throws herself into lines like, "I’m gonna – uh, uh – make her mine" with a lustful, cocky tone one wouldn't expect from a girl raised as a Jehovah’s Witness – or would you?
H IS FOR HORSES
Horses is the album that launched a thousand bands, punk or otherwise: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Morrissey and Courtney Love have all cited it as an influence. The cover, shot by Robert Mapplethorpe, is an iconic image of Smith sporting a self-administered haircut, dressed in white shirt with black trousers qne a jacket thrown over her shoulder. Its daring androgyny was a decisive break from the bohemian, feminine singers of the 70s, and the perfect foil for an album that was raw and cathartic from start to finish, setting enchanting poetry to improvised noise on "Birdland" and "Land", and reaching frenzied heights of emotion on the likes of "Free Money" and "Break It Up".
I IS FOR IN MEMORY
Chalk it up to her Catholic upbringing, if you will, but Smith is a devoted student of rock iconography, maintaining a reverent attitude to the fallen idols of the genre. Motifs of immortality weave their way through her work, and she canonises the gone-too-soon likes of Joe Strummer, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin in her novels, eulogical poetry and songs. Her tribute to The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed is dazzling, paying respects to the man who set sail on "the day of poets".
J IS FOR JUST KIDS
For anyone curious about the artistic birth of an icon, Smith’s memoir is essential. It lovingly traces her tumultuous relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, following her journey from New Jersey to the slick New York streets populated by drifters, homeless musicians and actresses biding their time on the corner of hotel lobbies.
K IS FOR KAYE, LENNY
Kaye was there from the beginning, adding his reedy, abrasive guitar lines to the blossoming sound of the Patti Smith Group. His first poetry reading with Patti took place at St Mark's Church in New York, and the two performers collaborated to turn their work into a musical act. Kaye has been a mainstay as Patti's lead guitarist ever since.
L IS FOR LAUREATE
Through her formative years staying at the Chelsea Hotel and reading in St Mark’s Church as a young woman, it was poetry provided Smith with her gateway into music. She read with a backing guitarist at early shows before adding an entire band, and her performances are laced with poetic oratory to this day. Her works Babel, Early Work 1970–1979, The Coral Sea and Patti Smith Complete: Lyrics, Reflections & Notes for the Future have been published over five decades, punctuated by her signature stream-of-consciousness style and dreamy, archetypal imagery.
M IS FOR MAX'S KANSAS CITY
Max's was the hangout of choice for New York's young creative scene in the 70s. In Just Kids, Smith charts her meetings with Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol and the Factory entourage, David Bowie, Lou Reed and assorted proto-punk royalty. Smith entered the countercultural mecca with Mapplethorpe as an unknown vagrant and emerged a shining star, with the Max's Kansas City state of mind.
N IS FOR NEW YORK
New York is the city that ate Patricia Lee Smith up and spat out punk's godmother. She haunted Manhattan's East Village as a young woman, encountering Mapplethorpe in Tompkin's Square Park on a disastrous date, holding court in El Quijote over pitchers of sangria, taking up residency at CBGBs and gigging at The Other End.
O IS FOR ORDRE DES ARTS ET DES LETTRES
In 2005, Smith added the Ordre des Artes et des Lettres, bestowed by the French ministry of culture, to her entry in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; proving to anyone left in any doubt the true breadth of her artistry.
P IS FOR PROTEST
Smith's anger at the Iraq wars, George W Bush and Guantanamo has inspired some of her best work – like her 1988 track "People Have the Power", co-written with hubby Fred 'Sonic' Smith, which calls for the collective challenge of corporations, conglomerates and the military.
Q IS FOR QUEERNESS
Patti Smith famously said, "As far as I'm concerned, being any gender is a drag." Although "Gloria" has been interpreted as a tribute to lesbian lust, Smith – a heterosexual woman – insists on the universality of its appeal. In Just Kids, she highlights the many assumptions made about her sexuality because of her androgynous look, and explores her relationship with Mapplethorpe, who was struggling with his own sexuality.
R IS FOR ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE
Mapplethorpe's boundary-pushing photography incorporated all manner of taboo sexual subjects, from bondage to BDSM and beyond. In Just Kids, Smith charts her burgeoning relationship with the troubled artist, detailing his sexual conflict as he sold his body to businessmen, his determination to infiltrate Warhol’s Factory group, and his death in 1989 from Aids-related complications. The influence they had on each other is paramount.
S IS FOR STIPE, MICHAEL
The REM vocalist claims that Horses “tore my limbs off and put them back on in a whole different order”. His band regularly played Horses in its entirety to warm up the crowds on their 1995 Monster tour, and a collaboration followed in 1996 with "E-Bow the Letter", recorded in tribute to the late River Phoenix.
T IS FOR TWILIGHT
In a bizarre but brilliant move, Interview had Smith speak to their cover star, Kristen Stewart, this year in a bid to get the actress to open up for her hero. The pair talked poetry, movie industry politics and Twilight – which, it turns out, Smith is a big fan of.
U IS FOR UMANOV'S GUITARS
Venture into Matt Umanov's store on Bleecker Street, New York and you'll find an Aladdin's Cave famously frequented by Smith, alongside other musical clientele like Hendrix and Iggy Pop. Collings, vintage Fenders and Martin & Co instruments line the walls that were once a source of wonder for the young Smith.
V IS FOR VERTEBRAE
In the midst of a fiery 1977 performance opening for Bob Seger in Tampa, Florida, Smith fell off stage. Cracking several vertebrae in her neck, she was laid up for months and never regained full mobility. It was during this time, though, that Smith teamed up with Bruce Springsteen to pen "Because the Night", which remains her biggest chart hit to this day.
W IS FOR WARHOL
Under the dim lights of Max's and CBGBs, Smith and Mapplethorpe slowly edged their way into Andy Warhol's inner circle. Although she was at first unimpressed by the Pennsylvanian pop artist, she appreciated his affect on her former lover's work.
X IS FOR EXES
Smith takes the ‘stay friends with your ex’ positive-life-mantra to the extreme. Her image was shaped by Robert Mapplethorpe, who shot her seminal androgynous album cover for Horses and a whole exhibition’s worth of Patti portraits in their grotty New York apartment. Allen Lanier, the founder of Blue Oyster Cult, dated Smith in the 70s, introduced her to his band and co-wrote "Elegie". Sam Shepard, an American playwright and actor, dated Smith in the 60s, when they produced and acted in the play Cowboy Mouth together. It’s also true that these exes wouldn’t have gotten to where they were without Smith: she pushed Mapplethorpe to achieve his shocking, iconic aesthetic and sang on Blue Oyster Cult songs such as "Career of Evil".
Y IS FOR YOUNG, NEIL
Smith has not been shy about her admiration for the famous rock grouch, and the feeling is definitely mutual – the pair have covered each other’s material (check Smith's haunting rendition of "Helpless"), toured together and enagaged in conversation about their writing process and memoirs in 2012.
Z IS FOR ZEPPELIN, LED
Smith has an ability to take an original track and reshape it in her own image, while simultaneously paying tribute to the artist. She's harnessed the work of everyone from Led Zeppelin to REM, Nirvana and Rihanna, twisting the originals into surprising new shapes with her avant garde spirit.