Patti Smith

Mojo (UK) - - The Mojo Interview -

GAZES WIST­FULLY ACROSS HER WRIT­ING TA­BLE AT THE FLOORto-ceil­ing book shelves lin­ing one wall of her Man­hat­tan home. The singer and poet is culling her li­brary, do­nat­ing items to char­ity, and it has been hard. “I look at a book, and I know I don’t need it,” she ad­mits. “But then I go, Oh, Robert used to like to look at this, or Sam gave me this,” re­fer­ring to two of the most im­por­tant com­pan­ions and pro­found losses in her life: photographer-artist Robert Map­plethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989, and play­wright Sam Shep­ard, who died last year. “It’s my whole his­tory,” she says. “Look­ing at my book shelves, I can see what I was read­ing when I was preg­nant with Jack­son” – her son, now a gui­tarist like his late fa­ther, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of the MC5 – “and when I met Tom Ver­laine. I have a book for ev­ery event in my life.”

It is still a life in over­drive. Ear­lier to­day, Smith, 71, was at this ta­ble work­ing on a forth­com­ing il­lus­trated edi­tion of Just Kids, her best-sell­ing 2010 mem­oir of her re­la­tion­ship with Map­plethorpe and their cre­ative awak­en­ing in the ex­plo­sive, bo­hemian New York of the 1960s and early 1970s. In two weeks, she hosts a film fes­ti­val pre­miere of Horses: Patti Smith And Her Band, di­rec­tor Steven Se­bring’s doc­u­men­tary of her 2015 tour per­form­ing the land­mark 1975 al­bum, Horses. And Smith is back on the road this sum­mer, in Bri­tain and Europe [see panel, p55] with her loyal cadre: gui­tarist Lenny Kaye and drum­mer Jay Dee Daugh­erty from Smith’s orig­i­nal ’70s group, and her bas­sist of two decades, Tony Shanahan. (She also per­forms of­ten with her pi­anist-daugh­ter Jesse.) Smith laughs when asked about the head­ing on her web­site, where most artists pro­mote ‘Tours’ and ‘Con­certs’. Raised in a work­ing-class house­hold in New Jer­sey, she calls them ‘Jobs’. “I can’t bring my­self to use the word ‘gig’,” Smith says firmly. “When I was younger, I al­ways called them jobs,” whether it was her shifts at the Strand book­store or the early club shows at CBGB in 1974. She cites a mem­ory that came back while look­ing at im­ages for the new Just Kids. “We have a flyer for my first read­ing” – at St Mark’s Church in Fe­bru­ary, 1971 with Kaye on gui­tar. “It says, ‘Ger­ard Malanga, po­etry’ and ‘Patti Smith, work.’ I re­mem­ber Ger­ard say­ing, ‘Why are you call­ing yours work?’ I said, I can’t bring my­self to call my­self a poet. I’m a worker.” For more than three hours, in her home and at a favourite cof­fee shop nearby, Smith – in all-black ex­cept for a white Tshirt – re­counts her life in art and labour, es­pe­cially on stage, mak­ing plain her de­ter­mi­na­tion to keep mov­ing forth while other rock stars of her vin­tage dra­mat­i­cally an­nounce their re­tire­ments. “‘Work’ is an honourable word,” Smith in­sists. “It’s what you do to make a liv­ing. But I’m lucky. Af­ter I quit the Strand, I never had to have an­other tra­di­tional job. Play­ing the great stages of Europe – that’s my job.”

Af­ter your de­but with Lenny at St Mark’s Church, did you en­vi­sion a fu­ture on-stage?

No. I did some work in the the­atre. I had some re­ally good parts. I was Madame Dubon­net in The Boy Friend. I was in plays at La MaMa. But I could not stand wear­ing makeup. Also, I didn’t like be­ing con­fined to say­ing the same words over and over. I liked to im­pro­vise. Robert was push­ing me to do a po­etry read­ing, and he ar­ranged it through Ger­ard. It was Sam Shep­ard who sug­gested hav­ing a lit­tle gui­tar

be­hind it. I had writ­ten this poem which had a big car crash at the end. I asked Lenny if he could im­pro­vise car-crash mu­sic, some feed­back, and he said, “Sure.” That was mis­sion ac­com­plished.

Then you got an of­fer to join a rock band. [Pro­ducer] Sandy Pearl­man was there. He wanted me to sing with Blue Öys­ter Cult, which was still called Stalk-For­rest Group. I heard [BÖC singer] Eric Bloom and said, “He’s do­ing fine.” But I met [gui­tarist-key­board player] Allen Lanier and started writ­ing with him. I was writ­ing songs with Lee Crab­tree [who played with The Fugs]. I wrote a song for Janis Jo­plin.

What was it called? Work Song, of all things. It was so Janis, be­cause it’s about a girl who gives all of her life to work. It had lines like, “She’s on the stage while love slips through a the­atre that is full. ”I saw her all the time. She was so lonely. She wanted a real boyfriend, some­one who only cared about her. I wrote this lit­tle song, she liked it and then

she had to go to Cal­i­for­nia. She was record­ing Pearl and never came back.

I’ve heard a record­ing of that St Mark’s read­ing. I don’t hear any nerves.

Oh no.The Warhol peo­ple were in that au­di­ence. There was Lou Reed, all of the Cir­cus and Creem mag­a­zine peo­ple. Sam Shep­ard was my ar­mour. He taught me a les­son about im­pro­vi­sa­tion: “Cre­ate like you’re a drum­mer.You miss the beat? You cre­ate an­other like you’re Elvin Jones.” I have no fear. When I was younger, I thought I might be a school teacher be­cause I like be­ing in front of peo­ple talkin’. Todd Rund­gren wanted to get me on [the TV show] Laugh-In be­cause he thought I was so funny. I was just work­ing in a book­store. But Robert be­lieved in me, and Sam mag­ni­fied my swag­ger.

You’ve al­ways had strong men at your side, along the way.

The man in my life has al­ways been im­por­tant to me, no mat­ter how a re­la­tion­ship went. I’m very con­scious of what each per­son did to help me along the path, to make it more el­e­gant, less rocky. I used to sing “Je­sus died for some­body’s sins but not mine ”very ag­gres­sively. I had so much en­ergy. Allen Lanier sug­gested that de­liv­ery on Horses: “Why don’t you pull back and do it a lit­tle slinkier? Make peo­ple come to you.”

When you started the Patti Smith Group, did you en­vi­sion it as a full-strength squad like The Rolling Stones? At first, it was just you, Lenny and pi­anist Richard Sohl.

It was a process of evo­lu­tion. Richard was clas­si­cally trained and very happy to play Mozart-style vari­a­tions on three chords. But once I got a sense that we were be­com­ing a rock’n’roll band [with Daugh­erty and bas­sist Ivan Kral], I felt like we had a mis­sion. When we re­hearsed, I’d have the band do Land [from Horses] for half an hour be­fore I’d even step in. I wanted them to keep play­ing un­til they were an or­gan­ism. I didn’t want fancy gui­tar work or big so­los. What was im­por­tant was we were a pulse. I ran it pretty tight.We had to be au­then­tic and prin­ci­pled. I would read T. E. Lawrence to them aloud while they were try­ing to eat. I would have all these ideas, sit with the men and the crew in the can­teen and read to them from Seven Pil­lars Of Wis­dom.

You po­larised au­di­ences when you played the clar­inet on-stage. What in­spired that?

It was Fred. I ded­i­cated [1979 al­bum] Wave to “my clar­inet teacher”. I was a shal­low breather. I was born with bronchial pneu­mo­nia. I sang through my nose. He said, “You have to breathe from fur­ther down. ”Fred played sax­o­phone and loved Coltrane. He said, “You should play alto sax like Art Pep­per. ”I couldn’t han­dle the mouth­piece. Fred had an old clar­inet he played as a kid. He gave it to me, and I got into it. I had no skills. I could clear a room pretty fast. But you know who re­ally liked my clar­inet play­ing? Wil­liam Bur­roughs and Brion Gysin. I spent a few days with them in Am­s­ter­dam.The two of them would talk about Morocco, have a long smoke and I im­pro­vised – it sounded like some Ber­ber mu­si­cian (smiles). I thought they were just be­ing nice. But I’d stop and they’d say, “Keep go­ing! ”If you have Brion Gysin and Wil­liam Bur­roughs in your fan club, you don’t need any­body else.

Did play­ing the clar­inet help your singing?

On Wave, my singing is a lit­tle richer. I cer­tainly think my singing is richer now than it was when I was younger, be­cause there’s more breath there. I don’t sing as high. But that was an im­por­tant shift for me. I could sing with strength.

PATTI WAS TOUR­ing Amer­ica with Horses when she first met Fred: on March 9, 1976, in Detroit af­ter a record com­pany party at a hot-dog restau­rant. “I was go­ing out the back door,” she re­called in a 1996 in­ter­view. “I hap­pened to look up, and this guy is stand­ing there as I was leav­ing. Lenny in­tro­duced me to him: ‘This is Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, the leg­endary gui­tar player for the MC5,’ and that was it. Changed my life.” Patti mar­ried Fred in 1980 and moved to Detroit to raise a fam­ily. In 1988, she emerged from seclusion with Dream Of Life: eight songs co-writ­ten with Fred and co­pro­duced by him. But the al­bum was crit­i­cally pounded, and the cou­ple never toured to­gether. Patti would not go back into the stu­dio for al­most a decade, un­til af­ter Fred’s death in 1994. “I didn’t think I was com­ing back,” she says of record­ing and tour­ing, “and it didn’t dis­turb me. I felt like my job was done. I didn’t sacri­fice my great­est dream, be­cause writ­ing was my great­est dream. Also I had two chil­dren. I couldn’t vi­su­alise my­self get­ting back on the road.” Smith fi­nally re­turned, for good, in 1996 with Gone Again, a record loaded with mourn­ing – for Fred, Map­plethorpe and her brother; for Kurt Cobain on About A Boy. The al­bum also marked the start of a new, vi­tal phase in her art: memo­ri­al­is­ing the fallen.

How hard was it to make Gone Again?

I can’t lis­ten to that record. I feel the hol­low­ness, the depth of my griev­ing. Ev­ery­thing’s so slow. It was the one time I was not in full cog­ni­tion of my emo­tional state. It’s like go­ing to an Ir­ish wake and lis­ten­ing to these women lament­ing.

You also had a guest on that al­bum, Jeff Buck­ley – his last ap­pear­ance on a record be­fore he drowned in 1997.

He was work­ing with Tom Ver­laine at the time. I met him when I did one of my first per­for­mances back, at Lol­la­palooza. I was be­gin­ning Piss­ing In A River, and I felt like I could not go on. It wasn’t stage fright. It was over­whelm­ing emo­tion. All of a sud­den, I felt this en­ergy push­ing me. It got me

through. Af­ter it was over, I could see it was this boy, Jeff.Tom in­tro­duced him, and I thanked him: “I felt you stir­ring me on.” I told him we were record­ing: “Why don’t you come by? ”He was lis­ten­ing to [the im­pro­vi­sa­tion] Fire­flies and said, “Could I try some­thing on this?” He left and came back with this strange-shaped box. He took out this In­dian in­stru­ment, an es­raj, and played it (she makes a high, del­i­cate, hum­ming sound). See this box here? (Smith opens a black case near her work ta­ble) That’s the in­stru­ment. His mother gave it to me. When they found him in the wa­ter, he had a tiny key in his pocket. It was for this in­stru­ment.The only thing he played it on was my record. (She holds up the frayed bow) He played it so in­tently. And it’s got a bro­ken string. But it did its work. It was the fire­fly on Fire­flies.

How do you look back on the al­bums that fol­lowed, such as [1997’s] Peace And Noise and [2000’s] Gung Ho? They get passed over in the rush to cel­e­brate Horses.

There were great im­pro­vi­sa­tions in that pe­riod: the Ho Chi Minh song [Gung Ho]; Gandhi [on 2004’s Trampin’]; Me­mento Mori [on Peace And Noise]. But they’re emo­tion­ally wrench­ing.

In what way?

None of them had lyrics. They are based on emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ences in the stu­dio. Ra­dio Baghdad [on Trampin’] is 12 min­utes long. It was com­pletely im­pro­vised on study I had done. I can’t re­mem­ber 12 min­utes’ worth of lyrics on-stage. It wouldn’t be the same. Some­times you have to lay them aside for a while.

When I’ve seen you do those pieces live, I recog­nise a ker­nel of text from the records. But you spin off into melan­choly, out­rage, what­ever that ker­nel in­spires in the mo­ment.

It’s what Richard, Lenny and I started – locked riffs that I ride from one place to an­other.The sub­ject mat­ter of our younger pieces was more po­etic. Ra­dio Baghdad is a mother try­ing to sing a lul­laby to her chil­dren about their coun­try while Amer­i­cans are drop­ping bombs on them. It’s not a piece I can do over and over like an ac­tress. I don’t say that in an in­sult­ing way. I have great re­spect for ac­tors. They can do an emo­tional speech from Shake­speare, or die on-stage, with the same in­ten­sity. I’ve watched my friend Ralph Fi­ennes do that – he’ll stop on the street and de­liver a speech from Richard III. He’s a true ac­tor. I’m more of a chan­neller.

Peo­ple Have The Power was largely ig­nored when it came out on Dream Of Life but has come into its own on-stage. Its con­tin­u­ing rel­e­vance has eclipsed Be­cause The Night as your big­gest song.

Fred wanted it to be sung by peo­ple all over the world. He didn’t live to see it per­formed live. But I’ve been on marches where peo­ple who didn’t know me sang it with banners held high. I’ve seen it in the Greek elec­tions. I’ve seen Pales­tini­ans with signs that said “Peo­ple Have The Power”. It’s beau­ti­ful be­cause it’s ex­actly what he wanted.

Many peo­ple feel so pow­er­less now that they take refuge in dem­a­gogues. Given that, is the song’s mean­ing still valid?

Ab­so­lutely. There’s al­ways go­ing to be the chil­dren. There’s al­ways go­ing to be a move­ment. We keep get­ting slammed. And we get up and keep go­ing. Now we have the stu­dents across the coun­try who marched that day against gun vi­o­lence [the March For Our Lives on March 24]. The peo­ple have more power than they think.

T’S SO FUNNY WHEN PEO­PLE SAY ‘Horses changed my life,’” Smith says, re­sum­ing our con­ver­sa­tion over an af­ter­noon cof­fee in a Soho café. “My own book changed my life. I was hop­ing it would have some cult fol­low­ing. It’s been my great­est suc­cess. Noth­ing else I’ve done comes close.” Just Kids – a world­wide best­seller, trans­lated into 45 lan­guages, and the 2010 win-

ner of the Na­tional Book Award for nonfiction – is ac­tu­ally two sto­ries. One is a very per­sonal and mov­ing ac­count of Smith’s re­la­tion­ship with Map­plethorpe. The other is a valen­tine to a cre­ative age in New York that now seems dis­tant, al­most im­pos­si­ble. Talk­ing about Just Kids to­day, Smith is at once proud and melan­choly. “I promised I would write it the day be­fore Robert died,” she says. “My task was to de­liver my prom­ise – to be re­spon­si­ble to our re­la­tion­ship and be­lief sys­tem and, at the same time, to New York City and all of the peo­ple who touched our lives. “It’s ironic be­cause Robert al­ways wanted me to have a hit record,” Smith adds with a fond laugh. “He’d say, ‘Patti, when are you go­ing to write some­thing we can dance to?’ But I did have a hit book. I al­most cry ev­ery time I think about it. It’s like he said, ‘I’m go­ing to die to­mor­row, but I’m go­ing to make sure you’re taken care of.’”

I was sur­prised to find that when you sang at the No­bel cer­e­mony for Bob Dy­lan’s lit­er­a­ture prize, you took it on be­fore you knew he won.

The idea was I was singing for the lau­re­ate of lit­er­a­ture. Maybe it’s not my favourite writer. Who­ever it is, it is al­ways some­one of great merit. So I chose a song that I thought would be right for any writer, Wing [from Gone Again]. When he won, I re­alised, “I can’t do my own song.”

In­stead you sang A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” – and had to start again af­ter stum­bling over the words.

I do know that song back­wards and for­wards. It was like I was the boxer who over­pre­pared. I wanted to mag­nify Bob’s mo­ment the best I could, to be in­vis­i­ble and just be the song. In­stead, I was the most my­self I’ve ever been (grins). That’s life.

Iron­i­cally, Dy­lan got his No­bel when he was re­leas­ing noth­ing but Frank Si­na­tra cov­ers. Have you lis­tened to those al­bums?

If I want to lis­ten to Si­na­tra, I’ll lis­ten to Si­na­tra. But I look at Bob Dy­lan the same way I look at Pi­casso. Guer­nica is the most im­por­tant paint­ing ever. I love Cu­bism. But if he wants to do 45 fish plates, he can be­cause he’s Pi­casso. I took that at­ti­tude with Bob a long time ago. It’s been a very long time since I’ve re­lated to some of the things he’s do­ing. But it doesn’t mat­ter, be­cause I can go back, when I’m in a cer­tain mood, and lis­ten to Chimes Of Free­dom or John Wes­ley Hard­ing. This guy gave us The Death Of Em­mett Till.

Have you see Spring­steen On Broad­way?

No. I went to see Bruce at Town Hall, to speak about his book. But I don’t go out to much of any­thing. I saw the Fleet Foxes at Elec­tric Lady [Stu­dios]. I only had to walk up the street.The one band I will walk through the desert to see is My Bloody Valen­tine.

How did you come to make The Co­ral Sea with MBV’s Kevin Shields? When it came out in 2008, it was his first al­bum in two decades.

I loved My Bloody Valen­tine. When I was cho­sen to be the cu­ra­tor of Melt­down [in 2005], they wanted to know who I wanted to col­lab­o­rate with. I said, “Kevin Shields. ”They said he was in seclusion; it would be eas­ier to call David Bowie. I said, “Ask him. ”He said yes. I went to a stu­dio in Cam­den Town.We sat on a couch and talked. I said, “I want to do this book, read these po­ems.” He had a gui­tar, and he would pluck the strings. Af­ter a cou­ple of hours, I said,“Do you want to re­hearse?” He said, “This was a good re­hearsal.” We re­made it on-stage the way we knew each other – with a beat-up couch and his ped­als in front of him. One loop con­nected with an­other, and it got so loud that I couldn’t even see. I threw the book on the floor and im­pro­vised. The mu­sic shooted up, like the in­side of a cathe­dral. I fin­ished and laid down on the couch un­til he was done. It was one of the most trans­port­ing ex­pe­ri­ences ever. Two things I wish in my life: that Dream Of Life had its bet­ter due, for Fred’s sake, and that The Co­ral Sea had its bet­ter due for Kevin’s sake. Ev­ery once in a while I hear from him. He’s liv­ing in a lit­tle cabin in Ire­land. He’ll tell me about this goat that got into his house and ate one of his mas­ter [tapes]. There’s al­ways some tale of woe.

Have you been writ­ing new songs?

Yes. I would have been very happy if [2012’s] Banga was my last record. But I want to do one more, and Columbia will give me one. I have enough things to say. Some songs are is­sue driven. Some are com­ing more from my roots, Ap­palachian folk songs. But they don’t come easy. Writ­ing songs is the hard­est thing in the world for me.

What’s so hard about it?

It’s un­pre­dictable. Some­one can give me mu­sic, and I can go for months with­out find­ing a sin­gle word. Then I’ll have a strange thing like Maria [on Banga]. Tony [Shanahan] had a piece of mu­sic.We were in his stu­dio in Hobo­ken. [ The ac­tress] Maria Sch­nei­der had just died. I lis­tened to this mu­sic, tears started fall­ing and I heard the whole thing – I just wrote it down. I know my gifts. I’m not Smokey Robin­son. I’ve writ­ten a hun­dred songs in prob­a­bly my whole life. Some­one will say, “I’ve been work­ing on this record, I have 42 songs to choose from. ”I’m go­ing… (stares in dis­be­lief).

But your em­pha­sis on art as work has given you longevity in a way that’s harder for big­ger artists. When you’re a ‘rock star’, peo­ple al­ways ex­pect you to cre­ate – and suc­ceed – as if you’re al­ways 25. This boy came up to me, re­ally naively. He wasn’t be­ing mean. He goes, “Did you used to be Patti Smith? ”I said, “Yeah. ”He had a copy of Horses he wanted me to sign – it was his fa­ther’s. He said, “What hap­pened? ”I looked at him and said, “I got old.” (Laughs) He looked so scared. All of a sud­den, he started laugh­ing. He re­alised time had passed. I signed his al­bum and he went on his way. I’m never go­ing any­where. I’m al­ways go­ing to be do­ing some­thing. There are so many things to be an­gry about, frightened of, sick over. But life is good. I’m ex­cited to be alive. Like Bob said [in If Dogs Run Free], “Just do your thing/You’ll be king. ”I ac­tu­ally say that to my­self some­times .I’m the king of my own joy. They can’t take away my joy of be­ing alive. I won’t let them.

Patti Smith ap­pears at the MOJO-en­dorsed Cam­bridge Folk Fes­ti­val, Au­gust 2-5. See www.cam­bridge­liv­etrust.co.uk/folk-fes­ti­val

“I choose songs that have some­thing to say”: Patti per­forms Land; (be­low) “awe­some” Joan Baez.

Wild wind: Patti Smith the clar­inet-player clears the room in 1979.

What a night: Smith with Be­cause The Night co-au­thor Bruce Spring­steen, Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val, April 23, 2018; (right) red car­pet friend Ralph Fi­ennes. Work­ing it: Patti with hus­band Fred ’Sonic’ Smith and (left) Arista Records’ Clive Davis, 1984; (be­low) rock TV im­pre­sario Dick Clark: “I’m a busi­ness­man”.

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