In 1966, Jimi Hendrix released his first single, “Hey Joe,” a cover song, and, in a certain sense, reclaimed American rock ‘n’ roll from the British invasion. Eight years later in ‘74, it may have seemed like rock ‘n’ roll was dead and gone. Nostalgia set in; Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” hit the charts again thanks to American Graffiti and Happy Days. And then, a skinny poet from New Jersey and four kids from Queens more or less invented punk and resurrected the moldering corpse of rock. The Ramones appeared at CBGB’s for the first time in August. (See one of their earliest recorded performances here.) That same month saw the release of Patti Smith’s first single—“Hey Joe”—arguably the first punk release in history, though she sings it like a torch song. (The B-side, the spoken word “Piss Factory,” set the tone for punk rock naming practices for decades to come).
At the top, hear Smith’s version of “Hey Joe,” which she introduces with an original piece of transgressive poetry about Patty Hearst, then still a captive member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. In the still image, Smith wears a t-shirt that seems to answer the echo of Bill Haley’s ghost: “F*ck the Clock. “ Just above, see Smith and band play “Hey Joe” live on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1976, just after an abridged version of “Horses.”
One of Smith’s biggest hits, “Gloria,” was also a cover, of a song by Van Morrison’s former band Them. She memorably made that song her own as well with the opening line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” She went on to cover a host of artists—Dylan, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, U2. In fact her 10th studio album, 2007’s Twelve, consists entirely of covers. Just above from that record, hear her folky take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” recorded with stand-up bass and banjo. And below, she delivers a spooky rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”
While her stage persona may have mellowed with age, Smith’s voice has remained as powerful and captivating as ever. Below she belts out the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” live on the BBC’s Later… with Jool Holland, a song she also covers on Twelve.
Her tastes are eclectic, her range wide, and though she’ll always get the credit as the “Godmother of Punk,” she’s able to work in almost any style, even a kind of adult contemporary that doesn’t seem very Patti Smith at all. But she owns it in her cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” below, from her two-disc compilation album Land (1975-2002). It’s a long way from “Piss Factory,” but it’s still Smith doing what she’s always done—paying homage to the artists who inspire her. Whether it’s Smokey Robinson, Bruce Springsteen, or Virginia Woolf, she’s able to channel the genius of her influences while infusing their work with her own passionate sexual energy and poetic intensity.