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Help us celebrate the art of Patti Smith

January 7th, 2013

Patti Smith: Camera Solo, opening at the AGO on Feb. 9, 2013, will highlight how Smith’s photography is tied to her interest in poetry and literature, the same passion for words that shines brightly in her lyrics.

To celebrate these connections, we are including listening stations featuring Smith’s music in our presentation of Camera Solo, and we want you to decide which songs to include in the playlist. To help you make your choices, Jim Shedden, head of Digital Content and Publishing at the AGO and a huge Patti Smith fan for 35 years, put together a list of 15 definitive Patti Smith songs, explaining the significance of each track.

You can vote on our Facebook page until noon on Friday, Jan. 11! Just “like” the comment that names your favourite song, or if it’s not listed, add a comment of your own.

1Hey Joe” (1974) From the beginning until today Patti has done superlative covers of rock classics. In this case it’s a song most know as a Hendrix tune, but one that started as a great garage rock number by The Leaves. This was Patti Smith’s first single.

2Piss Factory” (1974) The B-side to “Hey Joe.” This was Smith’s debut release and embodies the hope and defiance that still characterize her. Delivered with venom, sarcasm and bile, and backed with Richard Sohl’s solo piano, “Piss Factory” is a powerful ballad for the working-class hero. The first of two great songs by Patti Smith to include “piss” in the title.

3Land” (1975) If there were a title track on Patti Smith’s first album, Horses, this would be it, except it’s called “Land” and it’s really a trilogy of “Horses,” “Land of a Thousand Dances” and “La Mer (De)”. This is Patti Smith all rolled into one epic song: classic New York CBGB’s sound, a tribute to Arthur Rimbaud, a cover of a rock and roll classic and a terrible pun on merde.

4Gloria” (1974) The other candidate for the greatest song from Patti’s first album, “Gloria” is also a candidate for the greatest rock cover of all time. The original by Van Morrison and Them is already a minor rock masterpiece. Patti Smith’s cover makes their version, and all others before and after it, sound like sketches, demo tapes at best. This might be Patti’s best recording ever.

5Free Money” (1975) Less monumental than “Land” and “Gloria,” “Free Money” is still a blast of energy and a lot of fun. Patti Smith has said: “‘Free Money’ came to me walking down St. Mark’s at three in the morning…It was pre-dawn, but it was so light in New York City, and it came to me and I sang it to Lenny. He structured it and found the proper chords, and we made a song. It was one of our earliest songs.”

6Ask the Angels” (1976) This sounds like New York in 1976 to me. Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Blondie. Television. And a little bit of Bruce Springsteen. “Punk” for sure, but in retrospect it also has an overall sound that came from that general area, during that general timeframe, that endured.

7Pissing in a River” (1976) As is the case with many other artists: we came for the rock and roll, but we stayed for the ballads. This is definitely one of Patti’s classics. Not bad for a song that comes from an album, Radio Ethiopia, that managed to be reviled for being somehow both self-indulgently arty and a commercial sellout. Like the other piss song, “Piss Factory,” this starts out sparse but features less spoken word and eventually more full-on wailing. And unlike “Piss Factory,” drums and electric guitar play a dominant role. This is one of the 31 songs that Nick Hornby says have provided the soundtrack to his life and, though I don’t really know what she’s on about here, that seems plausible to me.

8Because the Night” (1978) Smith’s most famous song, co-written by Bruce Springsteen, from her first commercial-breakthrough album. It’s insanely beautiful and perfectly understandable why everybody loves it and a mystery what motivates the holdouts. Definitely sounds like both a Springsteen song and a Patti Smith song.

9Frederick” (1979) Owing partly to Todd Rundgren’s production, Smith’s fourth album, Wave, a swan song where she “waved goodbye” for a decade, is much poppier, slicker and calm-sounding than its precedents. “Frederick” is a love song for her partner Fred “Sonic” Smith (Smith, too, before they met), formerly of the Detroit garage band MC5. The song is as much of a classic as “Gloria” but for completely different reasons. The rock critic Simon Frith says of Rundgren’s production: “But the most crucial component of Wave is Todd Rundgren’s production. He has his own theory of rock grandeur, a technological, engineer’s theory, and it’s his sound rather than Patti’s that dominates this LP. Her voice is mixed into ringing, echoing harmonies. Her relationship with her group is reversed. She once carried all the venom, all the rhythmic tension, while her group were just a punctuating garage band. Now they’re an American rock band — double guitar breaks, synthesized sustenance — and she is an American rock singer, filling in the spaces the musicians leave.”

10Dancing Barefoot” (1979) Also from Wave, “Dancing Barefoot” is a gentler take on “Because the Night,” a love song revered for its simplicity, whereas the latter is a slightly more complex structure, a hypnotic structure written by bandmate Ivan Kral (and featuring Todd Rundgren on bass) that suggests the addictive mania of romantic love, underscored by Smith’s lyrics: “Here I go and I don’t know why/I spin so ceaselessly/Till I lose my sense of gravity.” Patti Smith says, “I wrote the lyrics for ‘Dancing Barefoot’ in late 1978 and it was recorded for Wave in 1979. The music stemmed from some ideas that Ivan Kral recorded on a cassette tape and gave to me. He had written ‘Rock and Reggae’ on it. The music that became ‘Dancing Barefoot’ was from an acoustic guitar riff that he wrote and that we developed as a band. I had the concept to write a lyric line that would have several levels — love of one human being for another and the love of one’s creator. So in a sense, the song addresses both physical and spiritual love. Truthfully I always imagined Jim Morrison singing it, which resulted in me singing and recording it in a lower vocal register. I wanted the verse to have a masculine appeal and the chorus to have a feminine one.”

11Broken Flag” (1979) Another great song from Wave. Kind of “Onward, Christian Soldier.” Great at first in the context of this album, but it stands alone quite beautifully.

12So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star” (1979) One last one from Wave. There are so many good songs from so many Patti Smith albums, but this interpretation of The Byrds classic became a classic unto itself. It’s a weird phenomenon: since Lenny Kaye clearly isn’t Roger McGuinn, and Ivan Kral clearly isn’t Hillman, and Patti isn’t harmonizing with anyone, and there’s no Hugh Masekela to be heard, nor those teenage pop fans screaming, the song is liberated to become something else that clearly has the Patti Smith Group’s brilliant stamp on it. Some have accused Patti Smith of dropping the irony and the sarcasm and instead revelling in what The Byrds were mocking. But as this is on Patti’s swan song (sort of), I have to hear it as deliberately ambivalent. I kind of think that’s the case with The Byrds too, but I have nothing to back that up.

13People Have the Power” (1988) The surprise comeback. A solo album with songs written by Patti and Fred “Sonic” Smith. The title track is the strongest.

14Beneath the Southern Cross” (1996) Written in light of the passing, in a short period of time, Fred “Sonic” Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti’s brother Todd, Richard Sohl, Kurt Cobain and others:

To be
Not anyone
This maze of being
To cry
Not any cry
So mournful that
The dove just laughs
The steadfast gasps

15This Is the Girl” (2012) From Smith’s latest album, Banga, this cut is an elegy for the late Amy Winehouse, a figure who is perhaps closer to Candy Slice’s persona than Smith. In popular music, it’s hard to match one’s early output. Smith’s first four albums are clearly groundbreakers, but her career from 1988 to today — in music as well as photography, literature and film — proves that her talent is rich and deep.

Thanks for participating. We hope you’re as excited as we are about seeing Smith’s artwork at the AGO!

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