‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins/ but not mine’: the opening lines of Patti Smith’s 1975 debut album, Horses, find a young woman marking her territory with fierce conviction. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, she was (or was treated as) an invalid for much of her New Jersey childhood. The restrictions were physical and spiritual. But in her twenties the androgenous daughter of blue-collar workers used her punk poetry to reclaim the freedoms North American culture had stolen from her. And while she relieved Jesus of responsibility for her sins, she certainly didn’t count her compulsion to write and lust and holler among them.
Her Collected Lyrics, updated by Bloomsbury this month, mark her transition from the ‘moral schoolgirl hard-working asshole’ who yearned to ‘smell the way boys smell’ to incandescent stage poet, driving herself to ‘go Rimbaud!’ with the rawest kind of rock’n’roll. Later lyrics give outraged human voice to those who are still oppressed. 2004’s ‘Radio Baghdad’ finds her marvelling at the glories of ancient Mesopotamia before turning on the modern warmongers with a weary one-two: ‘We invented the zero/ Now we mean nothing to you.’
But the printed page is always a zoo for lyrics: where mighty roars lie down and lose their spirit. You feel guilty for looking at them this way. On stage, Smith balances the overblown romance of her versifying with attitude. When she delivers those floppy-sleeved ‘bequeath’s and ‘implore thee’s (which persist right into her latest songs) against a squall of Fender feedback, she’s owning poetry’s right to be heard, to be cool, to be out. But her ideas look silly sent back home to the page.
Better to read the words she intends us to read. Her 2010 memoir, Just Kids, was a thrilling account of her complex relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and won the National Book Award.