Now that it's happened, it seems obvious that Patti Smith would one day follow her muse to the writing of a book. Since exploding onto the American music scene in the mid-1970s, Smith's words have always taken center stage. The opening line of her debut album Horses—"Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine"—lives forever not because of its musicality or Smith's vocal delivery, but because of its literary power and genius placement at the top of a rock song that builds into an unhinged cover of Van Morrison's "Gloria."
A deep connection to text has been part of Smith's art from the start. As a fledgling artist, she immersed herself in what she considered "sacred texts"—Blonde on Blonde, Let It Bleed, Electric Ladyland, the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud—studying the drives and totems of the rock canon. To make her own art, Smith drew more than inspiration from her heroes. Beyond mimicry, Smith plugged into something deep and mythical about what rock means and is capable of doing, and about what's made humans want to bang out rhythms and scream since the void went flash. Following the Zen instruction on emulation ("Don't do what I do—seek what I seek"), young Smith identified the work of Dylan and Hendrix and the Stones as exemplars of what the rock 'n' roll impulse can accomplish and lit out on her own path, accompanied by the words and spirit of the libertine poet Rimbaud. (Why pinch from Jim Morrison when you can pinch from the dude he's pinching from?)
The results were immediately explosive. After the half-rock/half-performance-poetry single "Hey Joe"/"Piss Factory," in 1975, Smith unleashed the legendary, still-startling Horses, and she has remained queen of her own musical universe ever since. Patti Smith's influence is felt far and wide, but not even the best of her emulators (Michael Stipe, PJ Harvey) can touch her. Michael and Polly may be successful managers of lightbulb factories, but Patti Smith is Thomas Edison.