Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


SMITH, Patti

(b 30 December 1946, Chicago) New wave rock singer, poet, bandleader. Grew up in New Jersey, influenced by Arthur Rimbaud and Bob Dylan for lyrics, Elvis Presley for performance. She went to NYC '67, where she lived with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in Brooklyn and they remained close friends; she was encouraged '69 by Bob Neuwirth (painter, film-maker, songwriter) and by actor/playwright Sam Shepard, with whom she wrote play Cowboy Mouth '71. She read poetry to Lenny Kaye's guitar accompaniment at St Mark's Church in the Bowery; rock critic Kaye encouraged her to write for Creem and Rolling Stone; she published volumes of poems. She moved into music through boyfriend Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult, contributing lyrics to some of their songs, notably 'Career Of Evil' '74. Her single 'Piss Factory'/'Hey Joe' '74 was made with Kaye on their Mer Records, with Richard Sohl's piano, his florid keyboard a suitable background for Smith's nihilistic complaints about industrial life, the single later regarded as one of the first shots in a new punk/indie movement.

She signed to Arista '75 and completed a band with Ivan Kral, bass, and Jay Dee Daugherty, drums; Horses '76 was produced by John Cale, frightening and influential on new wave females (as well as on 15-year-old Michael Stipe, later of R.E.M., and a great many others), including a passionate cover of Them's 'Gloria'. Radio Ethiopia '76 was a flop, partly due to the unsympathetic production of Jack (Aerosmith) Douglas. She broke her neck in an accident '77, wrote poems published as Babel while recuperating. Album Easter '78 included single 'Because The Night' (no. 13 USA/5 UK), a powerful yet commercial song co-written with Bruce Springsteen (the connection was producer Jimmy Iovine). Waves '79 disappointed, aside from a cover of the Byrds' 'So You Wanna Be A Rock'n'Roll Star'; the band split.

She married ex-MC5 Fred 'Sonic' Smith, retired from music, lived in Detroit rasing two children. She came back briefly with Dream Of Life '88 with Sohl and Daugherty, produced by Smith and Iovine. She had published five books of poetry and a book of stories (Wool Gathering '93); she contributed 'It Takes Time' to Wim Wenders film To The End Of The World '91, later appeared on Neuwirth's album Look Up on Watermelon. She had lost Mapplethorpe to AIDS; Sohl d 3 June 1990 aged 37, and Fred Smith d 4 November 1994 aged 45, both of heart attacks; her younger brother Todd Smith was an important support when Fred died but himself died of a stroke before the end of that year. Fred had co-written Dream Of Life and she thought both their names should have been on it; they had worked on a new album, which he promised to sing on, and that both their names would be on it.

She took up acoustic guitar, did a mini-tour with Dylan (who said, 'She's still the best, you know') and completed Gone Again '96 on Arista, with Daugherty and Kaye, guests Cale, Tom Verlaine and Jeff Buckley, her unflinching songwriting tempered by time and loss: 'Summer Cannibals' was co-written by Fred, with strong words and an equally strong riff; 'About A Boy' (about Kurt Cobain) is Patti's. Following the personal nature of Gone Again, Peace And Noise '97 displayed the judgemental prophet of the apocalypse, again with Lenny Kaye's big guitar, and intimations of Allen Ginsberg. She has reinvented herself several times, and (someone said) managed to become a rock'n'roll death without dying, but in her quest she has reflected her generation.

Collections of her complete lyrics have been published, the latest in 2015. She published Just Kids in 2010, about her life with Mapplethorpe when they were struggling young artists; it won a National Book Award (they both thought they would be famous one day; he was elated when she became a rock star). An illustrated memoir M Train came out in 2015: 'It's not so easy writing about nothing', she began, then wrote about everything: the life of a poet.