How Patti Smith “Saved” Rock and Roll: A New Video Makes the Case

Rock and roll has always had its huge stars: from its ear­li­est begin­nings as a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non of inter­ra­cial and sex­u­al anx­i­ety, to its turn as the sound­track of free love, good drugs, and civ­il unrest. By the ear­ly 70s, how­ev­er, Poly­phon­ic argues above, the music of rebel­lion had “lost its way,” become the province of super­rich super­stars in pri­vate jets and French chateaus. As the 60s crashed and burned with the deaths of major fig­ures like Jimi Hen­drix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Mor­ri­son, the 70s dawned as an era of rock and roll excess to a degree that ful­ly betrayed the music’s scrap­py, teenage roots.

Punk, as the sto­ry goes, was born of back­lash against the bloat­ed, prog­gy state of affairs rep­re­sent­ed by the likes of Gen­e­sis; Yes; Emer­son, Lake & Palmer; and so forth. While still musi­cal­ly lean­er than these bands, the once scrap­py Pink Floyd also suc­cumbed to the trend of rock as musi­cal theater—staging grand, expen­sive pro­duc­tions that required whole fleets to move from city to city. One icon­ic response, the Sex Pis­tols’ hand­made “I Hate Pink Floyd” t‑shirt, seems to sum up punk rock’s gen­er­al sneer in the direc­tion of all rock stars.

Punk may have been a reac­tion, but it was not some­thing oth­er than rock and roll. Rather, it was a recla­ma­tion of rock’s spir­it phrased in the idiom of the angry, crum­bling, sub­ver­sive 70s. At the cen­ter of punk’s CBG­Bs ori­gins was “rock and roll war­rior poet” Pat­ti Smith and her debut, Hors­es, its unfor­get­table open­ing line a “radi­al dec­la­ra­tion of youth, rebel­lion, and free­dom.” (The line orig­i­nat­ed in an ear­ly poem, “Oath.”) Once Smith deliv­ers her state­ment of intent, she and the band launch into “Glo­ria,” a garage-rock sta­ple by Van Morrison’s 60s garage band, Them.

Smith explic­it­ly con­nect­ed her musi­cal rev­o­lu­tion to the three-chord pro­to-punk of ten years ear­li­er, just as Iggy and the Stooges warped the mean­est expres­sions of 60s rock into music that more accu­rate­ly reflect­ed the state of the Motor City. Her sound was pure down­town New York, with its hus­tlers, schemers, and dream­ers, a dis­til­la­tion of rock’s essence, fil­tered through the seedy poet­ry of the Bow­ery.

There were many others—Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The Ramones, for­got­ten but sig­nif­i­cant bands like Pure Hell—whose sound was more pro­to­typ­i­cal­ly punk. Smith was there before punk, liv­ing the life she writes of in Just Kids, hang­ing out with Bob Dylan and Allan Gins­berg, bridg­ing the 60s and 70s while rad­i­cal­ly recov­er­ing rock’s racial and sex­u­al trans­gres­sions and turn­ing them on their patri­ar­chal heads. In Smith’s ver­sion, “the lyrics and per­for­mance of ‘Glo­ria’ were overt chal­lenges to per­cep­tions of sex­u­al­i­ty and gen­der.” After her came dozens of punk front­women who did the same, play­ing roles pre­vi­ous­ly reserved for male rock stars.

Unlike the Sex Pis­tols, Smith did not spit in the eye of the rock stars of the past. She eulo­gized them in the sweaty down­town clubs of mid-70s New York City, in a scene hap­py to jet­ti­son rock­’s past. Despite her unshak­able title as the “god­moth­er of punk,” Smith insists “I was not real­ly a punk, and my band was nev­er a punk rock band.” She is an artist and a poet who played rock and roll. And while she might not have “saved” the music, as Poly­phon­ic claims, she cer­tain­ly helped pre­serve it for the first punk audi­ences and first wave of punk bands, achiev­ing her goal of pass­ing the spir­it of the coun­ter­cul­ture to the next gen­er­a­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pat­ti Smith, The God­moth­er of Punk, Is Now Putting Her Pic­tures on Insta­gram

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

Watch Pat­ti Smith’s New Trib­ute to the Avant-Garde Poet Antonin Artaud

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

by | Permalink | Comments (8) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (8)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • David Nash says:

    Pat­ti has long been an inspi­ra­tion. Been to a num­ber of con­certs and read­ings. The writ­ing, music and pho­tog­ra­phy has often been uplift­ing in its truth, dark­ness and beau­ty which is what I want from art. She also has a won­der­ful dry sence of humor. I just love so much about her.
    This lit­tle bit on Pat­ti and Hors­es was real­ly enjoy­able.
    Send­ing much love to those who worked on this.

  • Tormod says:

    MC5 get the nod ahead of P
    She slid in just behind.

  • Bob Boucher says:

    When I first saw Pat­ty Smith on Sat­ur­day Night Live, I thought she was a nov­el­ty act, like Tiny Tim. Over the decades I’ve tried many times to give her anoth­er chance, and always came to the same con­clu­sion. Can’t stand her voice, find her lyri­cal and musi­cal con­tri­bu­tions neg­li­gi­ble. Her best moment belonged most­ly to Spring­steen. I don’t know why lack of skill is equat­ed with authen­tic­i­ty, and ugli­ness in art is seen as a sure sign of sin­cer­i­ty.

  • Russell says:

    Why ugli­ness?
    That’s sub­jec­tive.

    I loved her con­tri­bu­tions to Blue Oys­ter Cult and wish they were men­tioned in this arti­cle too.
    She was def­i­nite­ly a pio­neer.

  • AlbyDuck says:

    That makes her the world’s longest-run­ning nov­el­ty act. You got her name wrong, so not sure how much atten­tion you’ve been pay­ing. You don’t like her? Fine. That’s real­ly all there is to say. Your pro­nounce­ments about ‘Authen­tic­i­ty’, and ‘ugli­ness in art’ are of zero inter­est.

  • Leon says:

    Dear Bob Bouch­er,
    The mind of a genius can only be obsorbed by a like mind. Sor­ry you were born with less than that.

    Best Regards,
    Don’t Take it to Heart

  • Ralph says:

    I guess some folks like that sound for their taste. Bad taste for me. Not many NY sounds that come to mind that did­n’t just dis­ap­pear. Dylan, yes. Punk…cute but short.
    Pink Floyd was a light and sound extrav­a­gan­za. Stays with you long after a punk show in a night club.
    R n R evolves, diver­si­fies, re-invents. No one saves it!

  • Pat Devlin says:

    Smith is pre­ten­tious and uno­rig­i­nal. Blovi­ates on and on about famous poets and artists, then nev­er for­gets to insert her­self amongst them. No Pat­ti, you are no Rim­baud — you are no Dylan. More like Alan Gins­berg, if he had no sense of humour.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.