Patti Smith: The Proto-Punk Rock Priestess of Postbeat Poetry

            Even though Horses sounds so little like the Sex Pistols’ Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, Patti Smith is inarguably punk.  True, her most commercially successful single, that tryst with Bruce Springsteen known as “Because the Night” is about as punk as the Boss’ own “Hungry Heart.”  Major league hits such as that and “Dancing Barefoot”—the only Smith song to scratch Rolling Stone’s often questionable list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” at #323 (Rolling Stone)—led to a period where Smith was predictably branded a “sellout” by punks who still resided underground.  A particularly brutal example of this can be found in the 1980 first issue of Subterranean Pop, a hardcore punk fanzine penned by Bruce Pavitt, the future founder of Seattle independent label Sub Pop Records, probably best known for releasing Nirvana’s mostly raw 1989 debut Bleach before they, too left the indies behind.  Pavitt writes, “It is important to remember that bands like Pere Ubu, B-52’s, Specials, DEVO, Patti Smith, the Voidoids, the Romantics and Elvis Costello all started on independent labels; and we all know that fat, cigar-smoking dough-boys at Warner Bros. Didn’t [sic] give a fuck about these bands until they realized there was a profit involved.  A few of the aforementioned bands have been able to maintain a sense of strength and adventurousness since becoming employees of major corporations. Others have definitely not (drop dead Patti)” (Pavitt).  Yet Patti Smith has gradually returned to her place as a punk icon as opposed to a pop one with a Sonic Youth collaboration album dedicated to her ( and wholly obscure punk rock producer Paul Roessler declaring, “Read Patti Smith’s Just Kids.  Then read this” (Grisham 354) in his review of Long Beach, California punk band True Sounds of Liberty (T.S.O.L.) founder Jack Grisham’s morbidly comedic 2011 memoir An American Demon, which is similar to Just Kids in that it paints a satisfactory picture of early punk rock.  If one determines R.E.M. circa 1996 to still be “alternative,” her presence with Michael Stipe on “E-Bow the Letter” would also be significant in her reaffirmation of her punk roots.

            Yet unlike her contemporary Sid Vicious, Patti Smith’s roots do not only reside within the punk and proto-punk (a term belatedly coined for anything punk-sounding prior to the Ramones’ self-titled LP in the 1977 and usually used to refer to Iggy & the Stooges, MC5, and The Sonics, but logically Patti Smith’s Horses as well, as it was released in 1975) movements, but in other movements as well, including the Beat Generation.  In an mini-interview with New York Nightlife magazine, Smith discussed her other creative influences.  She brings up the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, whom many Patti Smith fans know to be one of her idols.  In her lengthy 1975 song “Land: Horses / Land of a Thousand Dances / La Mer (De),” the words “go Rimbaud” are repeated several times.

            The interviewer, Rebecca Milzoff, also asks Smith, “What about the Velvet Underground?  I know John Cale produced Horses.”  Not only that, but the Velvet Underground, a New York City-based avant-garde rock band whose four acclaimed albums (not counting their universally panned fifth album Squeeze from 1973 which Lou Reed had no part in and which has been out-of-print for decades much like the two post-Jim Morrison albums released by the surviving members of the Doors) were released between 1967 and 1970, are yet another band to be labeled “proto-punk.”  Smith replies that she “wasn’t consciously influenced by the Velvet Underground” (Milzoff).

            Other influences of Patti Smith are listed in one of her most controversial tracks, “Rock n Roll Nigger” from the 1978 (therefore punk, not proto-punk) album Easter.  On a side note, the song is co-written by the Patti Smith Group’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, whose side projects notably include compiling a double vinyl anthology called Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 which is without a doubt the most influential compilation of garage rock and proto-punk music.  As can be predicted, the song’s controversy stems from its use of the word “nigger” to define an artistic outcast, assigned to two more of Patti Smith’s influences, abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock and, with unfortunate implications, deceased guitarist Jimi Hendrix.  The public’s misunderstanding of Smith’s intentions reflect the similar examples of John Lennon’s solo single “Woman is the Nigger of the World” seven years earlier, a critique of society’s figurative enslavement of women, and much less sympathetically, Guns N’ Roses lead singer Axl Rose’s explanation of his use of the same slur in his 1988 song “One in a Million”:  “I used the word nigger because it’s a word to describe somebody that is basically a pain in your life, a problem. The word nigger doesn’t necessarily mean black” (James).

            Though Jimi Hendrix and Jackson Pollock are the only two artistic influences actually name-checked in the song, the creative form of “Rock n Roll Nigger” reveals another one of Patti Smith’s influences: Allen Ginsberg.  As Michael Hendrick, a regular contributor to the Beat Generation-themed literary journal Beatdom puts it, “She often presents [Rock n Roll Nigger] after reading some poetry or giving the crowd a little advice. Her shouts of ‘nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger NIGGER!!!’ still shock and cause us to look around and see who is listening. Isn’t that what Lenny did? What Ginsberg did in ‘Howl’ and Burroughs in Naked Lunch? This is, in fact, the technique employed in ‘Howl’repetitive succession of chorus into orgasmic ecstasy. Ginsberg and Patti share an orgasmic vision as the goal of their art. The other multi-choruses of ‘…outside…’ hung on the phrase ‘outside of society,’ offer the most basic Beat tenet.”

            “Rock n Roll Nigger” is usually preceded, both in concert, on its original album Easter, and on Smith’s “greatest hits” album from 2002, also titled Land, by a spoken word piece called “Babelogue,” the entirety of which can be found in Alan Kaufman’s The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry.  Like the more well-known song it precedes, the spoken piece is very reminiscent of Beat poetry, more specifically stream-of-consciousness Beat poetry, which was also imitated by musicians Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and more recently Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, whose 2011 limited edition chapbook Lion is among his only literary publications:

“I haven’t fucked much with the past, but I’ve fucked plenty with the future. Over the skin of silk are scars from the splinters of stations and walls I’ve caressed. A stage is like each bolt of wood, like a log of Helen, is my pleasure. I would measure the success of a night by the way by the way by the amount of piss and seed I could exude over the columns that nestled the P.A. Some nights I’d surprise everybody by skipping off with a skirt of green net sewed over with flat metallic circles which dazzled and flashed. The lights were violet and white. I had an ornamental veil, but I couldn’t bear to use it. When my hair was cropped, I craved covering, but now my hair itself is a veil, and the scalp inside is a scalp of a crazy and sleepy Comanche lies beneath this netting of the skin.

I wake up. I am lying peacefully I am lying peacefully and my knees are open to the sun. I desire him, and he is absolutely ready to seize me. In heart I am a Moslem; in heart I am an American; in heart I am Moslem, in heart I’m an American artist, and I have no guilt. I seek pleasure. I seek the nerves under your skin. The narrow archway; the layers; the scroll of ancient lettuce. We worship the flaw, the belly, the belly, the mole on the belly of an exquisite whore. He spared the child and spoiled the rod. I have not sold myself to God” (Kaufman 87).

            Compare the frantic stream-of-consciousness of Smith’s “Babelogue” with that found in Bob Dylan’s only published “novel” (better defined as a long prose poem or a collection of them) Tarantula, written around the time that his album Highway 61 Revisited was released but not published until 1971 after years of bootlegging by fans (much like 1975’s Columbia Records release of Dylan & the Band’s legendary and much-bootlegged “Basement Tapes”).  Like “Babelogue,” Tarantula is highly inspired by the poetry of Allen Ginsberg as well as the cut-up techniques of William S. Burroughs.  Here is an excerpt of Dylan’s incredibly incomprehensible “novel”:

“son of the vampire with his arm around betsy ross-he & his society friends: Rain Man. Burt the Medicine. President Plump. the Flower Lady & Baboon Boy …they all said “happy new year, elmer & how’s your wife, cecile?” & that got them into the party free . . once into the party, Burt just stood around with a toothpick in the back of his neck watching for the doctor & tho the card game was something else in itself, Flower Lady lost her shirt & went to the bushes-who should come by but the little old wine maker trying to be helpful-“get out of the picture” said Flower Lady “you werent at the party! ” the little old wine maker immediately took off his head & his belt & who do you think it turned out to be but fabian-“i dont care how many tricks you can do, just get outa here!” – – just then, this cable car on its way to Washington came rumbling down the hill carrying crossword puzzles for everybody-Rain Man yelled “watch out Flower Lady there’s an elephant coming!” but by this time she was singing auld lang syne with Baboon Boy, who’d snuck up, stuck a lead weight life jacket around fabian & threw him in the swimming pool-the Plump himself tried to give a warning but he was so drunk that he fell in a barrel & a tractor being driven by some dogs ran him over & dumped him into garage …the world didn’t stop for a second-it just blew up/ alfred hitchcock made the whole thing into a mystery & huntley & brinkley never slept for a week … the americans flag turned green & andy clyde kept pestering about a back paycheck-every gymnasium in the world was picketed …son of the vampire, who got a divorce from betsy ross & now is with little red riding hood made it into january first carrying some empty stomachs-he & red, they got a job hiding door knobs & got paid good wages & like all people who decide not to go to any more parties, they put their money where their mouth is …& begin to eat it translate this fact for me, dr. blorgus: the fact is this: we must be willing to die for freedom (end of fact) now what I wanna know about the fact is this: could Hitler have said it? de gaulle? pinocchio? lincoln? agnes Moorehead? goldwater? bluebeard? the pirate? robert e. lee? eisenhower? groucho smith? teddy kennedy? general franco? custer? is it possible that jose melis could have said it? perhaps donald o’connor? i happen to be a library janitor, so could you please clarify things a little for me. thank you …by the way, if you do not have a reply to me by this coming tuesday, i will take it for granted that all these forementioned people are all really the same person …see you later. have to take down a picture of lady godiva as the mental students are touring here in an hour …considerately yours, Popeye Squirm” (Dylan 52-54).

            As shown from her creative closeness to the works of Rimbaud, Ginsberg, and Dylan, Smith is not merely a punk musician in the way that the Sex Pistols or Ramones were.  Like her contemporaries The Clash, who incorporated reggae and even early hip-hop into their punk music (as well as featuring Ginsberg on their album Combat Rock , far more famous for its inclusions of “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “Rock the Casbah,” and “Straight to Hell,” a lesser hit with a riff later jacked by M.I.A. for her Paper Planes), Patti Smith transcended the often repetitive genre of punk during the proto-punk era and a full decade before the post-punk of The Fall and Gang of Four.




Dylan, Bob. Tarantula. New York: Scribner, 1971.


Grisham, Jack. An American Demon: A Memoir. Toronto: ECW, 2011.


“Hidros 3 (for Patti Smith)”. 2 June 2012.


James, Del. “The Rolling Stone Interview With Axl Rose.” Rolling Stone August 1989.


Milzoff, Rebecca. “Patti Smith Discusses Her Influences.” New York Nightlife 27

November 2005.


Moore, Thurston. Lion. Dover: Bottle of Smoke, 2011.


Pavitt, Bruce. Subterranean Pop #1. Seattle: Sub Pop, 1980.


Smith, Patti. Just Kids. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.


Smith, Patti. “Babelogue.” The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. Alan Kaufman,

ed. New York: Perseus, 1999.


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