Chicago native Patti Smith was already an established poet and playwright on the New York underground literary scene when she expanded her repertoire to include rock criticism (her work appeared in Creem, Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone) and public performance, first reading her poetry and then singing with minimalist musical accompaniment provided by Lenny Kaye, veteran rock writer and would-be guitarist. Sharing Tom Verlaine’s fascination with 19th-century decadent literati (like Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Verlaine), Smith drifted into the New York rock underground. Backed by Kaye and pianist Richard Sohl, she a striking single (“Piss Factory”) on a private label long before such efforts were commonplace. By the time Smith signed to Arista in 1975, Ivan Kral had joined her group, sharing guitar and bass chores with Kaye, and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty had been lured away from Lance Loud’s Mumps.
Horses, produced by John Cale, broke a lot of stylistic ground, thanks to Smith’s wild singing and disconcerting lyrics, but it also showcased inspired amateurism in the playing and an emotional intensity that recalled the Velvet Underground at its most powerful. Too idiosyncratic to be generally influential, Horses is a brilliant explosion of talent by a challenging, unique artist pioneering a sound not yet fashionable or, by general standards, even acceptable.
With Radio Ethiopia, the Patti Smith Group made an effort to drop Horses‘ clumsiness in favor of a more refined, organic sound and grander artistic pretensions. Smith plays a lot of guitar on the album, and producer Jack Douglas renders the proceedings with great seriousness. Tracks like “Ask the Angels” and “Pumping (My Heart)” have a nearly routine rock sound, made special largely by Smith’s untrained but expressive voice and, of course, her highly individual songwriting.
Bruce Brody replaced Sohl for Easter, and Jimmy Iovine produced the album, which contains the band’s big hit single, “Because the Night,” co-written by Bruce Springsteen. Having proven that they could play as well as most bands, the PSG set out to make something of their sound; Iovine did a fine job. By this point a much more mature singer, Smith sounds confident and striking and the band keeps pace.
After the success of Easter, Smith stumbled on Wave, evidently the victim of overconfidence. Todd Rundgren’s production is inappropriate and Smith’s lyrics are preciously self-indulgent; although songs like “Dancing Barefoot” and “Frederick” are accessible and memorable, much of the record is unfocused and halfbaked, frequently insufferable. A misguided cover of the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be (A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star)” rings phony and selfconscious.
Smith then took an extended career breather; she bailed out, moved to Detroit, married ex-MC5/Sonic’s Rendezvous Band guitarist Fred Smith and raised a family. The Smiths stayed far from the spotlight for nearly a decade, not releasing a new album until the summer of 1988. Like a lot of cherished fantasies, Dream of Life is, in reality, a big disappointment. Although Smith reassembled the troops — Daugherty and Sohl (who died of heart failure in June 1990) joined Fred Smith and a few others — and wrote all the songs with her husband (who co-produced with Jimmy Iovine), you can take the record off after the uplifting opener, “People Have the Power.” That fine single, which bears a passing resemblance to Starship, is the only sign of life on this bland effort. While an older and wiser Smith does her legend no serious damage here, the optimistic Dream of Life adds precious little to it.