Following the breakthrough success of debut album Horses, punk poetess Patti Smith and her band released the radical Radio Ethiopia in 1976. The promising young group found themselves under immense pressure to create a record that would rival the fusion of poetry and rock n’ roll that had defined their explosive debut. Investing in producer Jack Douglas with the intention of a more commercially successful album, Radio Ethiopia in turn displayed the band venturing further into experimental, improvisational material. Patti even incorporated a Fender guitar on some tracks, but insisted she not learn how to play in hopes of channeling a transcendental rhythm that needn’t require any actual talent or capability of the instrument itself. Backlash from this approach saw Smith accused of tasteless self-indulgence and selling out. The album received harsh reviews upon initial release and was considered more inaccessible than her previous work. Barely reaching 122 on the US Billboard charts was slightly disappointing after the John Cale producedHorses had peaked at 47. Despite poor reception, the band embarked on a European tour to promote the new release in fall of 1976. And on October 3 rd, appearing live at the Konserthuset in Stockholm, Sweden, one of the most incendiary performances ever by the Patti Smith Group was recorded.
Exuding an androgynous sensuality and remarkable sense of self-confidence onstage, Patti Smith really is a rock n’ roll tour de force. Opening the set with a unique rendition of Velvet Underground’s “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together” you immediately get the impression that those in attendance were undoubtedly a part of a pivotal moment in the progression of rock music. The group’s freestyle improvisational skills ensured that concertgoers were witnessing an entirely unique experience that would never quite be recreated. Pre-dating the sub genres of grunge and riot grrrl, the Patti Smith Group exemplified elements of both and is certainly considered highly influential by musicians to this day. It becomes apparent that Patti Smith is not only a talented artist, but also a genuine aficionado and lover of music herself. A generous portion of the group’s material paid homage to the poets and musicians who have served as inspirations to her. This searing set featured a thoughtful combination of new album material, some already appreciated gems from Horses, and a few choice covers sprinkled in for good measure. A bootleg recording of the concert was later released and is frequently referred to as I Never Talked To Bob Dylan.
Leaving behind a bleak factory job in her hometown of Jersey, Patti set out for the Big Apple in the late sixties. At the time, New York was undeniably a mecca for the flourishing rock n’ roll scene. Living at the Chelsea Hotel while frequenting clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, the intellectual Patti found inspiration in the blossoming punk rock craze. Always a performance artist, she initially began reciting her poetry and spoken word publicly in the early seventies. The city offered no shortage of creative outlets and the seedy punk clubs would serve as a safe haven for Patti’s performances where she became a prominent figure in the scene. Fusing a beatnik style approach with a rock n’ roll attitude and edge, this wildflower was able to create a completely unique style of poetic expression. Installing friend and guitarist Lenny Kaye to back her up onstage, the punk poetess began to gain notoriety. She eventually acquired an entire backing band and was signed to Arista by Clive Davis, before her prophetic style of music catapulted to fame. In person, Patti Smith blurred the lines of sexuality. Appearing equal parts handsome and pretty, she defined punk heroine. It is no wonder Smith became a model for feminist types and easily earned the respect of her male peers and fellow musicians. She was romantically involved with several big names in the music biz, and remained married to Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith from the motor city’s proto punk maniacs MC5, until his death in ‘89. She also embraced homosexuality and was entangled in a torrid love affair turned eternal friendship with risqué photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. He served as Patti’s muse and she chronicled their relationship in the best selling book, Just Kids.
Truly a visionary in the world of rock n’ roll, Patti Smith continues to be a relevant and influential figure. A self-described “nigger of the universe” she strove to shatter any of society’s preconceived ideas impressed upon her as artist, musician, and woman. She embraced the punk aesthetic and stressed the importance of artistic expression through individuality.
Jesus died for somebody’s sins. But not Patti Smith’s…
Victor Bockris Patti Smith: An unauthorized biography
Radio Ethiopia chapter pgs. 157-172
Legs McNeil Gillian McCain Please Kill Me
Patti Smith Just Kids