Patti Smith’s Passionate Covers of Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Jefferson Airplane & Prince

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Pat­ti Smith Read 12 Poems From Sev­enth Heav­en, Her First Col­lec­tion (1972)

Watch Pat­ti Smith Read from Vir­ginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Sur­viv­ing Record­ing of Woolf’s Voice

See Pat­ti Smith Give Two Dra­mat­ic Read­ings of Allen Ginsberg’s “Foot­note to Howl”

Pat­ti Smith’s Cov­er of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” Strips the Song Down to its Heart

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • John Hell says:

    I super love Pat­ti Smith, but just to be clear Jimi Hen­drix did not write “Hey Joe”. It’s attrib­uted to either Tim Rose, or Bil­ly Roberts, or even to Scot­tish folk singer Len Par­tridge. Great post though. Keep ’em comin’.

  • Eva G says:

    Those are great. But my favorite cov­er by Pat­ti Smith is “O Holy Night” at the Vat­i­can con­cert a few years ago.

  • sfemet says:

    Thank you remind­ing me why I keep Open­Cul­ture in my “appoint­ment inter­net” RSS feed.

    This is such an elo­quent trib­ute, real­ly hope Pat­ti gets to read it.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Thank you!

  • Ken Kaplan says:

    great arti­cle. Love the videos. Two weeks to show­time @‘Webster Hall’. Can’t wait.

  • Don Sparks says:

    With regards to the “Dylan play­ing for one per­son” exper­i­ment, it would only have been a gen­uine expe­ri­ence if it had not been filmed. Dylan isn’t play­ing for one, he’s play­ing for a wide video audi­ence and the guy out front isn’t alone, there’s a cam­era crew. The whole thing is bull­shit.

  • Don Sparks says:

    Please dis­re­gard pre­vi­ous com­ment. It referred to the Bob Dylan, exper­i­men­tal post and wound up instead beneath the Pat­ti Smith one. Also, it was neg­a­tive and unnec­es­sary. You seem to have a cool site here and I’ll leave the neg­a­tive stuff at home next time.



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