Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Keeping Up With Smith

Patti Smith was the first of the CBGB acts to put out an album--Horses, in 1975.  And quite an album it is.  Decades later it still sounds great.  Dancing Barefoot, Dave Thompson's biography of Patti Smith, does a good job showing how she got to that point.  In fact, most of the book is her pre-1980 life when, let's face it, she did her best work.

Born in 1946, Patti grew up in New Jersey, loving Rimbaud and Baudelaire but also Little Richard, Dylan and the Stones.  In 1967 she left for New York City with very little money and no guaranteed place to sleep.  She spent years there being part of--though slightly outside--the scene, especially the Warhol crowd.  She met people like Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Shepard while developing as an artist herself.  She started to perform her poetry and soon married it to rock and roll, assembling a band, starting with Lenny Kaye and eventually including Ivan Kral, Jay Dee Daugherty and Richard Sohl.  After years of a tough apprenticeship, she wasn't an outsider, she was the scene.

She and her group released four albums in the 70s, and with their third, Easter, even had a mainstream hit, "Because The Night." She had mixed feelings about conventional pop star success.  Some claim she was ruthless in her rise, stepping over others, though I have to wonder, since she certainly put in her time when there was little chance she'd be big.  Then, at the end of the decade, she gave it all up.

Maybe she was burned out, but according to Patti herself, she did it to be with her true love, musician Fred "Sonic" Smith.  She flew directly from a successful tour in Europe straight to Detroit, where she and Fred made a home and raised their children.  Over the next fifteen years, she almost disappeared from sight, releasing only one album.

Then, tragedy. Mapplethorpe died in the late 80s, a few years later Richard Sohl was gone.  But the big year was 1994, when her husband died, followed by her brother Todd's death.  To climb out of the devastation, she started performing and recording again.  I've seen her show a couple of times since, and she genuinely seems to be enjoying herself.  Her new stuff isn't bad, but it's the earlier work which is magical.

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