Patti Smith’s Best Underrated Songs: An Alternative Anthology

By
Share:

If you’ll permit a little reminiscence, the first time this Flavorpill scribe saw Patti Smith was at a festival in Australia in 1997, when she was touring Gone Again and Flavorpill was a skinny 18-year-old. It was one of those moments that can be described without hyperbole as “life-changing” — Smith came on stage clutching a copy of one of her poetry books, started reading “Piss Factory,” made a mistake halfway through, tore the book in half, hurled it across the stage, hawked up a huge gob of phlegm and then kicked straight into “Rock ‘N’ Roll Nigger.” We’d honestly never seen anything like it. But anyway, it was “Piss Factory” that made the greatest impression, and it’s one of the tracks that doesn’t appear on Outside Society , the new Smith best-of that’s out this week. The compilation’s singles-only nature means that while it’s a fine introduction to her work, it also omits some of her finest songs. We’ve taken the liberty of compiling an alternative best-of covering album-only tracks — any additions are, as ever, welcome.

“Piss Factory” (B-side to “Hey Joe,” 1974)

This was the first recording of one of Smith’s original songs, although it was relegated to the B-side of her first release — the A-side was a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” But for all that the Hendrix cover was perfectly acceptable, this was the song that really set out Smith’s musical manifesto, taking one of her early poems about fleeing the suburbs of New Jersey for the big city and marrying it to a simple but effective piano-and-guitar backing track. The result was music that was intelligent, fiercely literate, and sonically dynamic — all traits that would define Smith’s work in the years to come.

“Land (Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer(de)” (Horses, 1975)

Honestly, we could just include every track on Horses here and be done with it, but for the sake of diversity we’ll restrain ourselves and move through the rest of Smith’s back catalog. Still, there’s no doubt that any self-respecting Smith compilation has to include this nine-minute, three-part masterwork. “Land” fairly bursts with ideas and imagery, interweaving Smith’s own words with the words of songs on the radio during her childhood to create music that worked on both cerebral and visceral levels. It’s arguably the best thing she’s ever recorded, and even nearly four decades later, it sounds like absolutely no one else.

“Birdland” (Horses, 1975)

Wait, just one more! This is a personal favorite off Horses, a characteristically complex lyric that takes its name from the famous NYC jazz club but owes a great deal of its inspiration to Peter Reich’s memoir A Book of Dreams (which also inspired Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting,” incidentally). Still, setting aside both its history and its surfeit of imagery, this is ultimately a song about bereavement, about a son mourning the loss of a father. It’s both touching and beautiful. (There’s a pretty amazing live version on the second disc of Smith’s 2002 compilation Land, too.)

“Radio Ethiopia/Abyssinia” (Radio Ethiopia, 1976)

Smith was fond of writing songs that fitted together to create a larger whole — the best example is the dynamic combination of “Babelogue” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Nigger” off Easter, but there are several others, including these Rimbaudtastic tracks from Smith’s second album. The title song is a notoriously ramshackle affair, Smith’s vocals falling into a churning morass of guitars that devolves into free-form noise towards the end, eventually disintegrating into the desolate two-minute coda of “Abyssinia.” (Annoyingly, we can’t find a YouTube version that includes both songs together, so listen to “Abyssinia” here. Some people hate the second side of Radio Ethiopia; we’re all for it.)

“25th Floor/High on Rebellion” (Easter, 1978)

Another pair of tracks that are so inseparable as to be almost one — and the whole idea of being “high on rebellion” seems an apt metaphor for the career of the (usually) drug-free Smith. The first song is built around a buzzsawing Lenny Kaye riff, starting with the immortal lines, “We explore the men’s room/ We don’t give a shit” and ending with a commentary on art and music that segues into the spoken word “High on Rebellion,” a meditation on the songwriting process and the magic and insecurities inherent within it. And, we have to say, the idea that Patti Smith occasionally sits on her bed “struggling and filled with dread” is perversely reassuring.

“Up There, Down There” (Dream of Life, 1988)

There’s really no way around the fact that Dream of Life is something of a blot on Smith’s discography — sure, its sentiments are laudable, but Fred “Sonic” Smith’s production and guitar playing are just a wee bit too AOR for our liking, and the songwriting doesn’t get anywhere near the pinnacles of Patti’s 1970s output (or her post-1996 renaissance). The album does have its charms, though — the fist-waving “People Have the Power” is the marquee single, but we prefer the marginally more understated “Up There, Down There.”

“About a Boy” (Gone Again, 1996)

The rightfully lauded Gone Again was essentially an album about loss — it was released in the wake of the death of Smith’s husband, as well as her friend Robert Mapplethorpe and long-time pianist Richard Sohl. This track, though, is about another early ’90s casualty: Kurt Cobain.

“Last Call” (Peace and Noise, 1997)

While Gone Again attracted plenty of acclaim and good reviews, Smith’s more recent records have largely flown beneath the proverbial radar. This is partially because they’ve been a bit hit-and-miss, it’s true. But still, there’s plenty of goodness to be found — like this stately ballad from 1997’s Peace and Noise, for instance.

“Jubilee” (Trampin’, 2004)

Smith’s never been shy with her politics, and the Bush years seemed to drive her into a frenzy of rage — anyone who’s seen her live over the last ten years will attest to the level of contempt and anger she habitually directed at the White House from the stage. “Jubilee” takes the same sentiments but, instead of being filled with invective, its mood is more reflective, and ultimately optimistic: “We are love and the future,” she sings, “We stand in the midst of fury and weariness… Recruit the dreams that sing to thee/ Let freedom ring.”

“Gimme Shelter” (Twelve, 2007)

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” attracted all the attention, but there are several gems scattered amongst the, um, eccentric selection of songs on Twelve, the covers album that remains Smith’s most recent studio release. Most of her versions don’t diverge greatly from the originals, which makes for some pretty strange listening (particularly the earnest renditions of Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”), but sometimes it works a treat — like here, with an incendiary reading of the Rolling Stones classic.