Patti Smith, the Godmother of Punk, has had one of the most fascinating and enduring music careers of the last forty years. Over the decades, she’s traversed a bevy of genres, working her way from youthful rebellion to being called upon by Pope Francis to perform at the Vatican’s Christmas concert. She’s been the poet and voice of a generation, and in her later years she has been lauded for her literary prowess.
Thus, narrowing Smith’s career down to ten songs is a daunting task, given her repertoire spans eleven studio records and several live albums. This list attempts to do that, however, and offers a curated insight into a selection of tracks from Smith’s career very much worth revisiting or discovering for the first time.
# 10 –‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – ‘Twelve’ – 2007
When Kurt Cobain died in 1994, his tragic passing resounded throughout the whole music industry. Several members of the old guard: Patti Smith, Neil Young, and others, felt compelled to homage the Nirvana frontman in their music. ‘About A Boy’ was Smith’s tribute to Cobain in 1996, but her cover of the classic Nirvana track ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on her 2007 cover album may prove even more enduring.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ in itself, was Cobain toying with themes of teenage rebellion and angst. Hence, one would think that a 60-year-old woman covering the track with acoustic instrumentation would be laughable. Smith, however, understood the place that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ came from. She did the song beautiful justice, and the folksy instrumentation reimagines the song in a breathtaking fashion. (Smith also inserts a piece of her poetry into the tune, which works exceedingly well.)
# 9 –‘Beneath the Southern Cross’ – ‘Gone Again’ – 1996
1996’s ‘Gone Again’ is a record about loss. Around the mid 1990s, Smith’s brother passed away, her husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith died, and her longtime friend Robert Mapplethorpe had lost a battle with AIDS. ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’ is a lovely track on ‘Gone Again’ that Smith has been returning to for live performances in recent years, and for good reason. It’s one of her most enchanting songs.
‘Beneath the Southern Cross’ has a thick acoustic guitar composition that’s reminiscent in performance of Indian music. It was clearly inspired by world music. Lyrically, the tune excels at what Smith has done best over the last twenty odd years: cinematic, passionate, and delicate poetry executed above beautiful compositions.
# 8 -‘Peaceable Kingdom’ – ‘trampin’ – 2004
Smith’s career in the twenty first century has been fairly eclectic, albeit largely residing on the songwriter’s softer side. Songs like ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ are why the Godmother of Punk music got invited to the Vatican. It’s arguably the most memorable entry in 2004’s ‘trampin,’ and it’s a tribute to her late husband that has a stunning atmosphere of honesty and optimism.
In a way, ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ exhibits the very reason Patti Smith has remained so poignant for several generations of music lovers. She’s authentic. “I wanted to tell you that your tears were not in vain, but I guess we both knew we’d never be the same,” she softly croons on the song. It’s vulnerable and it’s real. That’s Patti Smith to the core.
# 7 – ‘Redondo Beach’ – ‘Horses’ – 1975
Who would have thought the second song off the Godmother of Punk’s debut album would have been a reggae-infused jam with loose lyrical themes of lesbianism? That’s exactly what ‘Redondo Beach’ is, though, and it’s splendid. Prior to the punk boom of the late 70s, Smith released ‘Horses’ in 1975, her seminal album. ‘Redondo Beach’ is an enduring highlight of the collection, if not just due to its infectious, lighthearted personality.
# 6 – ‘Dancing Barefoot’ – ‘Wave’ – 1979
Never has there been a song about having sex that’s quite as guised as ‘Dancing Barefoot,’ one of the longstanding favorites of Smith’s catalog. The song, which was released on 1979’s ‘Wave,’ is chock-full of cryptic imagery of sensuality and intensity. It’s so tactfully written, however, that ‘Dancing Barefoot’ has lent itself to several interpretations over the years.
It’s also very much worth noting that Todd Rundgren produced ‘Wave,’ pairing two of the most intriguing talents of the day together. The collaboration was perfect, and the production on ‘Wave’ is never overbearing. It accented Smith’s increasingly more profound poetry so perfectly well.
# 5 – ‘Because the Night’ – ‘Easter’ – 1978
If one wanted to get bogged down in semantics, it could be argued that ‘Because the Night’ is a “cover.” Bruce Springsteen wrote the song for ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ and scrapped it. (Which shouldn’t surprise, considering he wrote over seventy songs for that record.) Claiming that he could never find the proper sound for the summer anthem, he handed it off to Patti Smith for her third album, ‘Easter.’
That exchange effectively made ‘Because the Night’ Smith’s song. She took the tune to new heights, capturing its youthful rebellion and explosiveness in a way that The Boss was struggling to. It’s like Johnny Cash and ‘Hurt.’ Sure, Trent Reznor wrote the song, but he’s the first to tell you that it’s no longer his song.
# 4 – ‘Paths That Cross’ – ‘Dream of Life’ – 1988
‘Paths That Cross’ is another song that highlights the softer, more poignant side of Smith’s songwriting. “Speak to me heart, all things renew, hearts will mend ‘round the bend,” she sings on the song that’s wonderfully complemented with vocal harmonies and a lovely piano lead. Like many of Smith’s better compositions, it’s also a tune that can easily be transplanted into any number of life situations. It can be a song of loss, of renewal, or just about anything else. It’s also a track Smith has a penchant for performing live nowadays.
# 3 – ‘Free Money’ – ‘Horses’ – 1975
Returning to ‘Horses,’ ‘Free Money’ is another must-have song on any curation of Patti Smith’s best work. Like many of the songs preceding it on this list, ‘Paths That Cross’ included, it’s very interpretable. Is the song a condemnation of consumerist culture? Is it a story of someone who stole money to whisk away their many troubles? Perhaps the song is all a dream?
Those are all conversations fans of ‘Horses’ have had before. ‘Free Money’ is classic Patti Smith through and through. It’s also one of the best vocal performances on her debut record – a perfect precursor for the punk on the horizon in the coming years.
# 2 – ‘People Have the Power’ – ‘Dream of Life’ – 1988
In today’s divisive political climate, there are few songs that stand the test of time better than tunes like ‘People Have the Power.’ Released on ‘Dream of Life,’ ‘People Have the Power’ is the kind of track you’d expect on a Staple Singers release. “People have the power to redeem the work of fools,” she declares on the song. “Upon the meek the graces shower; it’s decreed, the people rule.”
The final verse of the song is especially impactful, as Smith argues that everyday people have the power to “turn the earth’s revolution.” It’s uplifting and inspirational, offering hope and bombastic optimism in the face of turmoil. Hundreds of years after we’re all gone, ‘People Have the Power’ will still be a song worth taking heed of.
# 1 – ‘Gloria: In Excelsis Deo’ – ‘Horses’ – 1975
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” That was the world’s cheeky introduction to Patti Smith’s music. The first track on ‘Horses’ remains Smith’s most iconic. Technically, it’s a cover much like ‘Because the Night,’ originally penned by Van Morrison for his group Them. It’s another instance of Smith taking a song to an entirely new place, however, and it’s wholly and completely hers.
‘Gloria’ is the perfect mix of everything that makes Patti Smith one of the most important women in rock history. It’s edgy, dark, and it sounds like something that could have come off a Velvet Underground record. At the same time, however, it’s a simple three-chord tune gets its personality from the vocals, not the instrumentation.
That’s important, because ‘Gloria’ was one of the first songs in a new movement of punk and new wave. After years of metal and progressive rock, many of the bands the public adored had fallen into realms of ostentation. Fans were sick of twenty minute Yes solos. ‘Gloria’ is wham, bam, thank you, ma’am music at its finest. It slams you in the face and doesn’t stop until it’s over. The song was the gateway to a new generation of music, and Patti Smith had the key to open it.
Featured Top Photo: By Daigo Oliva from São Paulo (Originally posted to Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo #2 By Kimberly Smith from Richmond, Virginia. Patti Smith’s sister. [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Updated Nov 9, 2020