A poet-turned-punk singer, Patti Smith proved that irresistible rock ‘n roll swagger wasn’t exclusive to the boys. On “Gloria,” the opening track of revolutionary debut album, 1975’s Horses, Smith brimmed with cool confidence behind a scorching, repetitive three-chord progression. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” the first line simmers. On the song—a reinvention of Van Morrison’s version for his band Them—Smith inhabits a successful male singer who, despite all the women screaming for him at his stadium-sized performance, can only think of his single crush. In just six minutes, she turned the archetypally-male rock musician bravado on its head.
For the first time in 38 years, Smith returns to Milwaukee for a rare concert at the Milwaukee Theatre on Thursday, March 9. The 70-year-old singer is currently on tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of Horses, where she performs the seminal album front-to-back. Two of the original members, guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, will join her on stage.
An artist who would cut her teeth living in Manhattan’s legendary Chelsea Hotel, Smith was thrust in the grimy late-‘60s, early ‘70s New York City arts scene after meeting photographer Robert Mapplethorpe while working as a book store clerk. Their passionate, tumultuous relationship would form the basis of her first memoir, Just Kids. That unique setting and her distinctive poetry eventually led her into music, where the raucous score often seemed to naturally fit her raw prose.
Horses was recorded at Electric Lady Studios and produced by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale. The album received nearly universal praise upon its release. Rolling Stone’s John Rockwell was already comparing Smith to Bruce Springsteen—the two would later release “Because the Night” three years later, Smith’s most popular song. “Springsteen is a rocker; Smith is a chanting rock & roll poet,” Rockwell wrote in his review of Horses.” For Smith, the words generate everything else. Her ‘singing’ voice has an eerie allure and her ‘tunes’ conform dimly to the primitive patterns of Fifties rock. But her music would be unthinkable without her words and her way of articulating them — and that remains true even if they are occasionally submerged in sound. Patti Smith is a rock & roll shaman and she needs music as shamans have always needed the cadence of their chanting.”
Horses made Patti Smith an immediate punk icon. She toured throughout the world (including at least three stops in Milwaukee, the Oriental Theater in 1976 and 1978 as well as her last performance here at Milwaukee Auditorium in 1979) and often was labeled with comparisons to other female singers. But with her idiosyncratic delivery and worldview, Patti Smith truly remains in a group all her own.
Patti Smith and Her Band headlines the Milwaukee Theatre, 500 W. Kilbourn Ave., on March 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $55-$95.
Stream of the Week
Last time we heard from Lifetime Achievement Award back in October, the band released a 52-track mega-project that impressively only took a year to write, record and release. While the material remained laid-back and breezy, the collection often felt weighed down by the amount of songs (though, seen simply as an artistic process to ward off writer’s block, the record can’t be anything but a success, as the album contained more hits than misses). Now, the prolific group is back with a much more manageable listen. You can enjoy the five-track year of the smudge over a cup of morning coffee and won’t have to go back for a refill.