Doors opened for those who picked up Patti Smith’s first album, Horses, when it was released 40 years ago. That may sound like hype, but for musicians of a certain generation, Horses left an imprint.

Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed heard a kindred spirit. A world of riot grrrls and self-determined singer-poets emerged in its wake, from Shirley Manson and Martha Wainwright to Sleater-Kinney and Kathleen Hanna. Bono and Michael Stipe still rhapsodise about it.

Horses embodied the personal impulse that underlines all music that rises from the streets

But because the arrival of Horses coincided with the first sparks of punk in New York City, Smith was labelled by critics and fans as the “godmother of punk”. That’s a misnomer she’s still trying to dismiss.

“I’ve been called the ‘princess of piss’, ‘the keeper of the phlegm’, ‘the wild mustang of rock ‘n’ roll’,” she told me in a 2014 interview. “But I was not really a punk, and my band was never a punk rock band.”

Which is not to diminish Smith’s key role in the emergence of punk. But whereas bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols embodied punk in everything from their attitude to their clothes, Smith was more of musical vagabond who helped build a bridge between one era and the next.

‘Declaration of independence’

Her famed portrait on the cover of Horses, taken by her co-conspirator and lover Robert Mapplethorpe, was enough to stop traffic in a record store. Smith couldn’t be defined by gender, a style, a city or a subculture. In stark black-and-white, she peered from behind shaggy hair with a mixture of confidence and purpose, cool and potentially lethal, a jacket slung Sinatra-like over her left shoulder. Yet her slender frame and delicate hands radiated vulnerability.

Smith couldn’t be defined by gender, a style, a city or a subculture

With her friend, guitarist Lenny Kaye, she had given what was ostensibly a poetry reading in a New York City church in 1971 that ended in a hail of feedback. It caused a sensation in front of the city’s cutting-edge elite (Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Sam Shepard, Mapplethorpe), but instead of capitalising on the hub-bub with a record deal, Smith retreated and plotted her next move. She quietly assembled the band that would play on Horses, and they brought a mixture of virtuosity (pianist Richard Sohl) and three-chord moxie (Kaye) with a rock-solid rhythm section.

Horses was recorded only weeks after Jay Dee Daugherty joined the band on drums. But its songs had been marinating for years. The opening track, a radical reworking of Van Morrison’s Gloria, was based on a poem that Smith had written soon after she came to New York.

“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” she announced. The greatest opening line on a debut album in rock history? It was less about sacrilege than a declaration of independence, a firm belief in self-determination. She was foremost a believer who had essentially grown up with rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s and ‘60s. She loved doo-wop and The Rolling Stones, Motown and Jimi Hendrix, the Nuggets garage-rock collection curated by Kaye and the Bony Maronie.

‘Here I am’

Horses was designed not as a punk-rock repudiation of that history, put a rekindling of its spirit. At the core of Smith’s art was not a call to anarchy or nihilism, but a belief in rock ‘n’ roll as a life-changing – and potentially world-changing – experience. Horses embodied the personal impulse that underlines all music that rises from the streets. Whether it’s the Blues, punk or hip-hop, it’s the notion of “if she can do it, I can do it.”

The greatest opening line on a debut album in rock history?

“I felt that our cultural voice, which was so magnificent through the late '60s and early ‘70s, was faltering,” Smith told me, “and there was the rise of stadium rock and glam rock and all of these different things and I felt like somebody had to save it. I didn’t think that it would be me, butI thought I could play a role. I had a strong sense of myself, and I came to say, ‘Here I am’. I’m speaking to those like me, the disenfranchised, the mavericks. ‘Don’t lose heart, don’t give up’.”

In the end, the Smith heard on Horses aimed to transcend language, genre and her limitations as a sickly working-class kid who moved to New York in search of a job. She couldn’t be confined by a single genre, even one as full of possibility as ‘punk’. Though her bandmates weren’t jazz musicians, they flowed with and around Smith’s voice and words with improvisatory zeal and empathy, never more so than on Birdland. Smith and producer John Cale battled every step of the way about the direction of the album, and decades later the singer would credit Cale with bringing out one of her most intense performances on the nine-minute track.

The song is loosely based on Peter Reich’s childhood memoir, The Book of Dreams, in which the author has a vision of flying saucers descending to reunite him with his late father. The UFOs turn out to be a flock of blackbirds.

“Please, take me up, please, take me up,” Smith pleads, shaking a fist at the heavens. In the song, the call goes unheeded. But for generations who revere Horses, it still resonates.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.