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Why Patti Smith is a suitable replacement for Bob Dylan

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December 9, 2016

Bob Dylan won't attend the Nobel Prize for Literature ceremony in Stockholm. Patti Smith will sing a song by the laureate instead. Here's why she's a worthy representative.

Patti Smith and Bob Dylan
Image: Getty Images/Redferns/E. Roberts

Some have called her the Godmother of Punk, others the Grande Dame of Alternative Rock. But what Patti Smith really is, deep down in her heart, is a poet. Her music takes second.

Born on December, 30, 1946, in Chicago, Patti Smith grew up in New Jersey together with three siblings. While her father was an atheist, her mother was a Jehovah's Witness, raising her kids to be religious.

Patti wanted to become a teacher. During her studies, she got pregnant and had the baby, but gave it up for adoption. Then she quit her studies, and - not even 20 years old - found her way to New York's art scene where she got involved in art, drugs, parties and music.

Back then, her idols were the poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, and the musicians Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison.

Poetry in a punk club

In clubs and bars, Patti Smith opened for rock bands by reciting her poems on stage. She had her first big performance in February 1971. As part of a planned poetry series, Smith recited her work for New York stars like Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Sam Shepherd and others.

Patti Smith
In 1978 at the Rainbow Theatre in LondonImage: Imago/ZUMA/Keystone

On the program was her 60-second poem "Oath": "Christ died for somebody's sins, but not mine (...) Christ, I'm giving you the good-bye, firing you tonight. I can make my own light shine."

The reference to her mother's suffocating religiosity could not be overlooked.

Over the next few years, Patti Smith continued to recite "Oath" over and over again, sometimes accompanied by guitarist Lenny Kaye, who underlined her words with distorted harmonies.

She published two poetry volumes, but "Oath" wasn't included in them. She wanted to keep that special poem for another occasion without being able to specify what that was.

During that time she jammed with guitarist Kaye and keyboarder Richard Sohl. "Our songs consisted of three chords," she told the US radio magazine "Fresh Air" in 2006, "so that I could improvise on them." And quite soon, they were coming up with material for a first single - a cover version of Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe."

But she didn't lose sight of "Oath" and wanted to use the text in something else, but what? The three musicians kept playing around with Van Morrison's song "Gloria" and Smith wrote text after text for it, but none of them seemed to fit - until she decided to integrate "Oath" into "Gloria."

The band performed the song live and one of the first live recordings captures the moment with the lyrics "Jesus died for someone's sins…" are sung and the audience gets it. Smith had found a home for her poem.

The birth of garage rock

In 1975, the Patti Smith Group was complete. The first album, "Horses," was created with the help of producer and Velvet Underground veteran John Cale. On the cover, Patti appeared almost like an androgynous being with a wild dark mane - slim, delicate, clad in a men's shirt and jacket, and wearing a black ribbon looking like a loose tie.

CD cover Horses by Patti Smith
"Horses": One of the most famous album covers in music historyImage: Arista Usa/Sony Music

The album contained pure poetry, sometimes loud and uncontrolled, sometimes intense and enchanting. Patti Smith made full use of her voice, implementing melody, rap, recitations, and improvisations.

The rock scene celebrated the album, which was called "the best garage sound album of the 1970s" by the US magazine "Creem." The German magazine "Sounds" praised "the sound fusing rock riffs and language rhythms." And "Horses" made it into the charts as the very first so-called new underground album. The magazine "Rolling Stone" included the disc in its list of 500 best albums of all time.

Godmother of Punk?

"Horses" was released contemporaneously with the beginnings of punk in New York. Reacting to Patti Smith's wild performances, the music world put her squarely in the punk box, and even called her the Godmother of Punk. In an interview with BBC, she later said she regretted having been given all kinds of titles, like "princess of piss," or "wild rock 'n' roll mustang."

She also said she and her band were never really punk. And yet, Patti Smith definitely played a key role - at least in US punk. 

The quintessence of Patti's music wasn't anarchism and nihilism, but rather the firm belief that rock 'n' roll could even change the world - just as her rock heroes of the 1960s had demonstrated.

Even today, "Horses" still stands for music that comes from the streets, transports dirt and feelings, and is ruthless, honest, unsparing and uncomfortable. Smith said she speaks to those who are like her - the disenfranchised, the mavericks - and tells them, "Don't lose heart, don't give up."

The Brits who adored their Sex Pistols and the New York Ramones, developed an interest in her. In their view, the music of Patti Smith wasn't punk, but rather "well produced and competently performed rock 'n' roll," as punk expert Charles Shaar Murray wrote in the "New Musical Express" in 1976.

A break after 'Frederick' 

The second album of the Patti Smith Group, "Radio Ethiopia" (1976), wasn't quite as successful. According to some observers, Smith was overdoing it a bit with her intensity that at times bordered on "extravagant confusion" ("Rock Rough Guide"). At the same time, though, the album was respected for its rough rock sound.

Patti Smith
Patti Smith still has the same hairstyleImage: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/A. Bosio

In 1978, the album "Easter" followed with Smith's first big commercial hit. She released "Because the Night," with some support from Bruce Springsteen. It became her international breakthrough, and was followed by even more hits. The album "Wave" (1979) contained two famous songs - "Dancing Barefoot," and "Frederick," both lacking some of Smith's original wildness. It almost looked as though Patti Smith had done her job as the female messiah of the marginalized. 

As a matter of fact, Patti's musical life came to an end - for a while. With her husband Fred Smith and their children, she withdrew into family life. Once again, she wrote poems, and in 1988 she produced a record with her husband that nobody wanted to listen to.

The mid 1990s were a dark period for her, as, within a few months only, she lost her husband, her best friend, and her brother. And she was broke - but not forgotten. After all, she always continued to fascinate some musicians, among them Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe of R.E.M.

She started to perform again here and there, and old friends called on her once again.

And then came Bob Dylan

Finally, Bob Dylan brought her back into the limelight. Smith activated her old band, and they opened for Dylan's show. The audience was thrilled. Twenty years after the release of "Horses," the band returned into the studio to produce the album "Gone again," a collection of somber and touching songs in memory of her deceased husband.

Patti Smith continues to produce music today. Her once wild mane has become grey, but the power of her songs hasn't diminished. No matter whether these are old hits, or her willful cover versions of outstanding rock songs like "Gimme Shelter" by the Stones, or "Smells like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, and no matter whether it's country, pop or jazz, poems or books - Patti Smith is and remains a poet transporting her poetry via music.

And that's why, when she travels to Stockholm on December 10 instead of Bob Dylan, she is a venerable representative of the Literature Nobel Prize laureate.