In an age of Lady Gaga and the late Amy Winehouse, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary Patti Smith was when she made the transition from beat poet [and the romantic partner of controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989)], to taking on rock and roll and becoming the undisputed “godmother of punk.” Cyndi Lauper may have been quirkier and Blondie sexier. But nobody attacked the senses with the sonic-driven intensity and aim-for-the-jugular lyricism of Chicago-born, New Jersey-raised, and Greenwich Village-based Smith.
With the first single-CD sampling of Smith’s recordings, Outside Society, which condenses the double-CD retrospective (Land) that came out in 2002, casual listeners are treated to a more focused showcase of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (2007) and Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s musical vision. Though the best example of her latest work, “Radio Baghdad,” is omitted (due to its 12-minute length), the 18-track collection touches on every step of Smith’s career.
Arranged chronologically, Outside Society opens with the attention grabbing declaration, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” at the start of a reworking of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” from Smith’s groundbreaking 1975 debut, Horses, and concludes with a sparse vocals-and-piano rendition of a traditional spiritual (“Trampin’”), recorded in 2007. In between are dance-able hits (“Dancing Barefoot”; “Frederick”; and Smith’s biggest success, “Because The Night,” co-written with Bruce Springsteen), reworked cover tunes (“So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star,” the previously-mentioned “Gloria,” and an acoustic interpretation of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), along with a still-relevant, proletarian anthem (“People Have The Power”), a song celebrating cannibalism (“Human Cannibals”), a sorrowful remembrance of the fall of Tibet (“1959”), and Smith’s too-hot-for-radio classics “Pissing In A River,” from her 1976 album; “Radio Ethiopia”; and “Rock’n’Roll Nigger,” an angst-driven tune by Smith and guitarist Lenny Kaye from 1978’s Easter with a sing-a-long chorus that provides the title for the retrospection.
—Craig Harris (Chicopee, MA)