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Patti Smith Returns to Hungary

Music

Patti Smith playing the Lowlands Paradise Festival in Biddinghuizen, The Netherland, in August 2018.

Photo by Ben Houdijk / Shutterstock.com

When I introduced a Hungarian friend to the work of Patti Smith, she was an instant convert to the music, writing and persona of the American punk rocker, poet, author, and activist. She also said, “If she’d been Hungarian, the communists would have put her in a mental institution.”

Smith plays at Müpa Budapest’s Béla Bartók National Concert Hall on October 13. I will be in the audience with my friend. I can only hope she experiences the same rush of joy and liberation as I’ve felt whenever I’ve seen Smith perform.

Born in December 1946, Smith burst onto the international rock and roll scene with her 1975 debut album “Horses.” I was 14 at the time and had never heard anything like it. The cover, with a photo of Smith taken by her ex-boyfriend, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, was equally game-changing.

Smith became an instant icon and role model for women, all the way from my school friends to the first wave of women in punk bands. Her influence continues to resonate down the years.

The ultra-provocative Courtney Love, of the band Hole, said that when she was given “Horses” as an incarcerated teenager she “realized that you could do something that was completely subversive that didn’t involve violence [or] felonies. I stopped making trouble.”

Before “Horses,” Smith had been a rock and roll journalist and poet who had made a name for herself on the tough, competitive New York poetry scene. She began making music when guitarist and writer Lenny Kaye started backing her in her poetry readings. From there, the duo formed a full-on rock band.

Their first recording was 1974’s single “Hey Joe,” backed with “Piss Factory.” The A-side is impressive but the flip, which tells the story of how Smith plans to leave the factory of the title – in reality a baby buggy factory – and make it in New York is astonishing.

In the 1970s, Smith recorded two more albums. The first of these, “Easter,” included “Because the Night,” co-wrote with fellow New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen, which reached 13 in the Billboard magazine Hot 100 singles chart. It remains Smith’s biggest hit.

Before the release of her third album “Wave,” in 1979, Smith met Fred “Sonic” Smith, former guitarist in the legendary MC5, married him and had two children. He co-wrote “People Have the Power,” one of Smith’s best-loved songs and an anthem of sorts.

Smith spent most of the 1980s married in Detroit. After her husband’s sudden, unexpected passing in 1994, she returned to New York and recommenced her musical career with the album “Gone Again” in 1996.

Since then, Smith has recorded five more albums of original material. The most recent is “Banga” (2012). Her albums always have a couple of great tracks on them but, in recent years, she has become more interesting as a writer, performer, and activist.

“Just Kids,” a memoir of Smith’s time in 1970s Manhattan and her love affair with Mapplethorpe is not just one of the best rock and roll memoirs ever, it is an idiosyncratically written masterpiece. Of her subsequent books, “M Train” and “Year of the Monkey” are well worth reading.

Smith’s work has always had a political dimension and she has not hesitated to stand up and be counted. She has supported AIDS benefits, the Green Party, and Tibet, and protested against the American right-wing, Iraq, and Israel. But, for me, Smith is a true rock and roller, pure and simple.

I first saw her perform 20 years ago, when her profile was nowhere near as high as it is today, and she was a revelation. Together with her band, wearing black, all skinny with manes of grey hair, she leant into the music and gave it a vigorous kicking.

Since then, I’ve seen her four times in very different circumstances. In Mallorca, Spain, she performed outdoors at what was once a castle. Followed by a spotlight, she stomped along the parapet shaking her fist and singing her anthem “People Have The Power.” I’ve also seen her play to a tiny crowd in Tangier, Morocco, with only Lenny Kaye to accompany her. Both times she was a mesmerizing lightning rod for the spirit of rock and roll. 

Today, Smith manages to temper the ferocity of her performance with an endearing goofiness. This was never more apparent than when she fluffed the words of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” while collecting the Nobel Prize in Literature on his behalf at the ceremony in Stockholm in 2016.

Now, it’s somehow fitting that she is the one of the first, if not the first, rock and rollers to play Budapest post-pandemic. Hungarian fans of her work have waited a long time; she was last here in 2003, when she electrified the audience at the Sziget Festival.

Smith will be 75 at the end of this year. Judging by recent clips of her performing that have surfaced on YouTube and the “Live at Electric Lady” album released earlier this year, she has lost none of her power.

When she was awarded the Swedish Polar Music Prize, inaugurated by Stig Anderson, manager of ABBA, the organizers said, “By devoting her life in all its forms, Patti Smith has demonstrated how much rock and roll there is in poetry and how much poetry there is in rock and roll. She has transformed the way an entire generation looks, thinks, and dreams.”

If you love rock and roll and freedom of expression, you shouldn’t miss Patti Smith in Budapest on October 13.

Patti Smith is at Müpa as part of the Liszt Fest International Cultural Festival. You can purchase tickets at www.lisztunnep.hu.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of October 8, 2021.

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