Punk’s poet laureate released her fourth album in May of 1979; it would be her last record for nearly a decade
“Hi hello” are the first words Patti Smith sings on her fourth album, Wave, released in May 1979. She sounds, for her, uncharacteristically cheerful; girlish, even.
There was that side of her, the side that embraced Motown, doo wop and the girl groups. Smokey Robinson’s “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” (a hit by the Marvelettes) was a frequent cover, and she also would do, in ’74–’75, “(Today I Met) the Boy I’m Gonna Marry” (a Phil Spector production for Darlene Love) and the rapturous “Down the Aisle of Love” (the Quin-Tones, 1958). Patti’s romantic side got overlooked because her cocktail of poetry and rhythm was so shockingly modern and provocative. But on Wave’s lead cut and first single, “Frederick,” it was clear as day. She had met the boy she was destined to marry, would take that walk down the aisle of love, and was unabashedly giddy about it. Her beloved was Fred “Sonic” Smith from the band the MC5, and she was all in. “Maybe I will come back someday,” she sang, “but tonight on the wings of a dove, up above to the land of love.”
It was Fred whose call she was awaiting when she repurposed Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics for “Because the Night.” “Love is a ring, the telephone,” was an addition of hers, and part of what makes “Because the Night” so totally uplifting is that it’s filled with such a mixture of elation and anxiety that comes in the rush of new love (the silence of a telephone when you’re expecting to hear a specific voice is agonizing), and with surrender (“Touch me now,” she says three times in the bridge). That was the record that finally got her on mainstream radio, and the album it came from, 1978’s Easter, was the first Patti Smith album to enter the Billboard top 20. She made the cover of Rolling Stone. For those of us who’d followed Patti since she was writing about rock for magazines like Creem (she raved about Todd Rundgren’s A Wizard, A True Star in the April ’73 issue: “Todd Rundgren is preparing us for a generation of frenzied children who will dream in animation”), and went to see her live when she and fellow rock obsessive Lenny Kaye started doing their voice-and-guitar thing downtown, the success of Easter was overdue vindication.
For a while, Patti was out of commission. She’d fallen off the stage at a gig on the Radio Ethiopia tour, and was recuperating from her injuries, but now on the mend, she was ready to release Easter, her resurrection. Everything was aligning in early 1978 for music that was tough and purposeful; new producer Jimmy Iovine cleaned up but didn’t dilute the sound of the Patti Smith Group, and he wrangled the “Because the Night” demo away from Bruce so Patti could put her own spin on it. I saw her do the song for the first time live at the end of ’77—Springsteen popped on stage to lend an assist—and I went back to work the next day to let my bosses at Arista Records know that I thought I heard a big hit single, something she’d never had before. Patti had always wanted to hear herself on NYC top 40 radio (she also, so much, wanted to sit on the Tonight Show couch and banter with Johnny Carson, but no dice on that one), and “Because the Night” got her there. It got great reviews, and sold well for a Patti Smith album, so expectations were high for the follow-up.
For the fourth time in four albums, there was a different producer—Todd Rundgren this time. At that point, he had done the ’73 debut by the New York Dolls, albums by Grand Funk (the single “We’re An American Band” and the hilarious cover of “The Loco-Motion” were hits from those) and Hall & Oates (no hits there), a bloated blockbuster for Meat Loaf. Patti, as noted, was a fan, and Lenny had included one of Todd’s Nazz tracks (“Open My Eyes”) on the classic psych-garage-rock compilation Nuggets, so it was an easy call. Wave was cut in Woodstock at Bearsville Studios, and in addition to the love note “Frederick,’ it had her ecstatically swirling “Dancing Barefoot” (still a part of the Patti Smith Group repertoire, at least as recently as last month), and a reimagined cover of the Byrds’ sly, propulsive “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star.”
The price you paid for your riches and fame
Was it all a strange game? You’re a little insane
Patti changed it to “it’s all a vicious game,” but I’m not sure she meant it. Maybe in the moment she did. It always seemed as though being a rock ‘n’ roll star was what she was born for. She knew its vocabulary: Chris Kenner, Huey “Piano” Smith, Them, the Stones—above all, the Stones—the Velvet Underground, electric Dylan. There is delight in her version of “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star” despite its ambivalence, and it was still there, maybe more than ever, in her recent show in Philadelphia, where she bowed to Jimi Hendrix, Midnight Oil, and Dylan (and on other nights to Neil Young or Elvis Presley), and took “Land”>”Gloria” into the stratosphere.
But after Wave, she was gone. In 1980, she and Fred got married; they moved to a Detroit suburb, had a couple of children. For most of the decade, until briefly re-emerging with the album Dream of Life (featuring “People Have the Power”) in mid-1988, Patti didn’t release any new music. There was no big retirement announcement, no “farewell tour,” just life, one year passing, and then the next. Live in ’79, the Patti Smith Group would do their own take on Manfred Mann’s pumped-up “5-4-3-2-1,” amended to “5-4-3-2-Wave.” Possibly even Patti didn’t even realize she was waving goodbye to her fans for quite a while. Her rock ’n’ roll star dreams would be put on hold until the end of the 80s.