Punk poetess Patti Smith, still rocking at 58, received one of the highest French cultural honors, the Order of the Arts and Letters, from Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres at an AIDS concert in Paris yesterday.
An abashed Smith said she accepted the award “from the most spiritual side of me,” and added, “I have vowed to live up to this honor in my work and my conduct. I can’t explain what I feel like. It has uplifted me, and I will work very hard to earn it.”
The citation called Smith “one of the most influential artists in women’s rock ‘n’ roll,” which was a strange way of putting it, and also noted her appreciation of difficult, brilliant French Romantic poet Arthur Rimbaud – the French appreciate being appreciated, it would seem.
I’m sure the arty French also were grooving to the fact that Robert Mapplethorpe was her roommate, Sam Shepard was her lover, and William Burroughs was one of her many champions back in the day.
Though Smith is still vital and recording quite successfully, much of her reputation rests on her work in the ’70s with the Patti Smith Group — which played regularly at legendary clubs like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s and was at the center of a scene that included the Ramones, Blondie, Television and the Talking Heads — and in particular their astonishing debut album, Horses, produced by John Cale in 1975.
I talked with Cale about making the record.
“That was a case of recording a poet who was a mother hen over some inexperienced musicians, who had all the heart in the world. Once we were in the studio we discovered, ‘My God, all of these instruments are warped!’ We stopped, ordered in a whole slew of new instruments, and had them record that way,” he said.
“Just that act alone was enough to uproot some of the sensibilities there, and that created a whole new set of instabilities within the band and toward me. I was a little brusque with them. I’m sure I could have handled it a lot better. Everyone has their favorite instrument that they love and have gotten used to. You walk in there with muddy boots and somebody feels insulted: ‘What, you don’t like this gorgeous Fender with a bullet hole in it?'”
Muddy boots or not, the Patti Smith debut updated (in a ’70s alterna-rock context) a distaff version of the poet/naive musician archetype that stretches back in American music through Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
Smith’s “Gloria” twists and extends the original into an odyssey. “Redondo Beach” is a tuneful faux-reggae tableau of a woman’s body washing ashore. Smith’s 10-minute, stream-of-consciousness opus, “Land: horses,” flashes by in a blur of piquant images. The inexperience of the band (led by Lenny Kaye on guitar) translated to raucous authority under Cale’s direction.
Smith breakthrough commercial album was ’78’s Easter. Producer Jimmy Iovine met Smith when she was recording Radio Ethiopia at the Record Plant in ‘76. They got along well, hung out together, and Smith asked Iovine to produce her next album, which turned out to be Easter.
A solid, more rock-oriented affair than her punky first two albums, Easter rode to victory on the back of Smith’s first hit single, “Because the Night.” The rousing anthem started as a demo written, recorded and rejected by Springsteen for his Darkness On the Edge of Town album, which Iovine had engineered.
Once Springsteen nixed the song from Darkness, Iovine asked him if he could record it with Smith because he needed a single for her album, and he had “always found a woman singing from a man’s point of view to be interesting,” Iovine told me.
Iovine’s instinct was correct as Smith’s ballsy reworking shot her into the mainstream, and became the highest-charting Springsteen-penned single to that point.
Back to the present and speaking of honors, the woman deserves to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.