THE POWER AND THE GLORY, THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE

February 27, 2009 – 3:31 am

Introducing… Days Of Future Past, our new column where we revisit classic interviews and articles that were published in BigO magazine. To kick off the column, here’s an interview with Patti Smith which appeared in BigO #117 (September 1995). To celebrate BigO’s 10th anniversary in 1995, BigO released its list of Top 100 Albums (1975-1995) and No. 1 was Patti Smith’s Horses. To commemorate the occasion, writer Gerrie Lim interviewed Patti.

In art and dream may you proceed with abandon
In life may you proceed with balance and stealth

- Patti Smith, “To The Reader,” introduction in Early Work 1970-1979

Electric Lady Sound in New York; at 52 West 8th Street in once hippy-dippy Greenwich Village, is an unlikely location whose exterior resembles a bomb shelter and emanates perverse poetics. There’s a sign right outside, on the sidewalk, slung onto a lamp post, that actually decrees: “UNNECESSARY NOISE PROHIBITED.” An unused cinema lies next door, an optometrist next door to that, and a shoe store sits right opposite across the asphalt. It’s so surreally nondescript, right smack in the middle of a busy block throbbing with pedestrians, that if you blink you’ll easily miss it.

Yet Jimi Hendrix immortalised this place as Electric Ladyland, and on this swelteringly hot late July afternoon, I’m sequestered in the control room at Electric Lady’s Studio A, spending some time with another legend, this one very much alive and well.

“This song is called Dead To The World,” Patti Smith tells me. “It’s about how when you’re in deep sleep, you’re dead to everything around you.” I tell her it’s not a bad state lo be in - why, that’s how R.E.M. got their name - and she laughs. “Yeah, it’s pretty good,” she agrees. She dons her headphones and goes down to the floor, where her band awaits. Lenny Kaye and Malcolm Burn, both on guitars, are co-producing this, Smith’s first album in seven years. Tony O’Shanahan, who’s played with John Cale, is on bass and Jay Dee Daugherty, still Smith’s drummer for 20 years now, is playing synthesizer. Her voice is tremulous and deep, resonating with a rich and startling quality that I’ve never heard on record before.

The song itself is a dirge - a careening tribal march recalling Ghost Dance, the Paiute Indian hymn from her 1978 album, Easter - and it’s in this spirit of invocation that history is being made right before my eyes. Smith is now five songs into this recording and the new album, still untitled, is slated for completion in September, for no other reason than that her two children then have to return to school.

That, in a nutshell, explains the so-called missing years of Patti Smith. Over a 20-year span, since 1975, she’s made just five albums (Horses, Radio Ethiopia, Easter, Wave, and Dream Of Life) - all amazing works that have withstood the test of time - and while none of them have ever gone gold, the vagaries of rock stardom have never quite been her trip. Living legend? Perish that thought. On September 10, 1979, the Patti Smith Group played their last show to their biggest-ever audience - 80,000 in Florence, Italy - and in March 1980 she married Fred “Sonic” Smith, the brilliant guitarist of the Detroit band MC5 (and the man after whom Sonic Youth took their name), and retired to the suburb of St Clair Shores, Michigan, where she still lives today with sons Jackson and Jesse.

That the New York punk rock lifestyle hadn’t beckoned for so long did not particularly bother her, for motherhood had become her newfound vocation. This unwavering path, however, got detoured somewhat following twin tragedies late last year: Fred “Sonic” Smith died of a heart attack on November 4 - ironically the birthday of her best friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who himself had passed on from AIDS in March 1989 - and, one month later, her beloved brother Todd died. Patricia Lee Smith turned 48 on December 30, 1994, a celebration suddenly steeped in mourning.

But the Smiths had written some new songs together and so, in Fred’s memory, this new record is being made. And there are two new books in the works - Wild Leaves, poems and prose in memory of her departed loved ones, and The Coral Sea, prose poems for Robert Mapplethorpe written shortly after his death. The former is still uncompleted, the latter will be published early next year by WW Norton, who recently issued a splendid compilation of her poetry, culled from books now virtually impossible to find, called Patti Smith: Early Work 1970-1979.

“I didn’t really want to put it out,” she tells me about Early Work, during a break in the recording session, “but it came to my attention that some people were selling copies of my old books to kids for a lot of money. I didn’t think that was fair, so I agreed to have them compiled.” That’s Patti Smith the artist talking, one who’s never ever done anything purely for financial gain. In fact,  the very next evening, she does a free concert at Central Park, reprising a poetry reading she’d done there two years ago, though this time it’s a campfire event, a gathering of “family and friends” to play some songs as well.

Just two weeks ago, on July 5, she’d packed the Phoenix club in Toronto and played two electrifying sets. But this, at the open-air Central Park SummerStage, is her first gig on home turf in a very long time. The Village Voice has her on its cover this week, a gorgeous color portrait of her in a garden with the coverline reading The Return Of Patti Smith, and the inside story headline proclaiming, after her best-known hit, Because The Night.

Because that’s why she still does it. Live rock is best a nocturnal thing, lest we forget, and she has not forgotten. She comes out at 9.15 pm and smiles at the massive throng below, several thousand fans who’ve been patient all these years, and her opening words are potent and poignant.

“I have not returned,” she announces, “because I never went away.” The crowd concurs and claps, and she grins. It’s an oppressively hot and humid New York summer night, everyone is sweating, and a tall attractive girl in the front row has taken off her top and proudly stands bare-breasted. No one complains, of course, and the event is simply too historic for quibbles about the weather. Patti Smith has weathered the years well, with humour intact. She banters with the crowd, cracks jokes and mugs for the cameras. Flashes pop, amid song requests. Someone yells: “Gloria!”

“Gloria,” she yells back without missing a beat, “has been laid to rest in $ingapore.”

She then reads poetry for 40 mins, beginning with Land Of A Thousand Dances, which she dedicates to Robert Mapplethorpe, after which she brings out the band: Lenny Kaye, Tony O’Shanahan, and her sister Kimberly Smith (the Kimberly, incidentally, the song from the Horses album), all on acoustic guitars, and they play three songs - Ghost Dance (with the very apropos refrain “We shall live again, we shall live again”), People Have The Power (for which she saluted in absentia its writer, Fred “Sonic” Smith) and Paths That Cross (”Paths that cross will cross again”) - and then they leave.

Returning alone for the encore carrying an acoustic guitar, she sits on a stool and begins a monologue. “To many of you, I know I’ve been out of your eye for awhile,” she says. “And I can only explain that by saying that it was because I was privileged to have been the wife of a great man…” Applause erupts for Fred “Sonic” Smith, and she plays a tender ballad of farewell, her voice cracking, and she stops and starts several times between stanzas, and leaves. I’m watching all this from the wings backstage, my pulse quickening. It’s intense, a still-point, in the zen of understanding our own passage through this vale of tears. Between thought and expression, as Lou Reed neatly puts it. Between all that is the motherlode of memory, without which life is rendered useless.

Yet, never one to simply dwell on the past, Smith appears again the very next afternoon, taking the Lollapalooza second stage completely unannounced. Mere hours later, she signs books at Barnes & Noble on Astor Place in Manhattan. “It was exhausting. Hundreds of people showed up,” she tells me over the phone the next morning. The New York Times has given her a glowing review, but she’s not resting on any laurels. A car is already running outside her West Village townhouse, where Arista Records (whose bighearted big cheese Clive Davis signed her to a US$750,000 seven-album deal in 1975) has her ensconced for the new album’s recording, and she’s off again. But not before giving me the phone number of a Toronto photographer (for some of them pictures you’re seeing here) and telling me that this piece I’m writing has her full blessing. “Call me, I’ll be here all summer,” she says, and hot-foots out the door.

But before this summer’s over, I’ll still be dwelling on the recent past, and one memory in particular. The same evening after I’d watched her record Dead To The World, I spent an enjoyable hour browsing through bootlegs at Revolver Records, a supercool shop at 8th and MacDougal, and emerged to stroll past Electric Lady enroute back to my hotel. From the street, it was noticeable that one light, Studio A’s, was still on. The light’s still on, I thought, which meant they were still in there, recording through the night. Which meant that Patti Smith, like her people, still has the power.

GERRIE LIM: Well, I have the pleasure of telling you that we’ve voted your album Horses the #I record of the last 20 years.

PATTI SMITH: Thank you. That’s really a great honour. I don’t think it’s ever been voted #1 before. It’s been top five but I don’t think it’s ever been #1, so I thank you so much for that honour.

I think the impact and the influence of that record has been just phenomenal and incalculable. When you think of Horses, what do you think of?

I think, one of the first things I think of is the camaraderie I had with my band. I think of all of our youthful hopes and dreams; all the things we put into it. Because a lot of the things that are in Horses I started writing when I was about 20. So Horses is, I think, a real extension of that great burst of youthful energy. It was really a period of strong idealism and physical energy and camaraderie, because it was when I banded with these people and had my first experience of having a rock ‘n’ roll band.

You’ve made just five records in the fast 20 years but they’re such amazing records. Do you have a favourite one?

I can’t say that I have a favourite record. I have favourite pieces. I really like Birdland (from Horses) and I really like Radio Ethiopia (from Radio Ethiopia) - that’s always my favourite piece, that long one. I hadn’t listened to the records for a long time but lately I started listening to them again, and I enjoyed listening to Dancing Barefoot (from Wave) and 25th Floor (from Easter). I’m really quite happy with the records because when I listen to them, every record we did exactly how we wanted. We never compromised any record for a company, we never compromised for money or career. So I don’t have any bad memories when I listen to the music. When I listen to the music, I just think of all the hard work and the joy that went into them. I sometimes feel a little sad because some of the people that I wrote the music with have died. Things like that, I do feel a little sad. But the music, I still have nothing to be ashamed of. I have no regrets and I feel good about all of them.

Now you’re recording again, and at Electric Ladyland too.

Yes, where we did Horses.

And Piss Factory.

Yes. we recorded Piss Factory in 1974 here. And then we came back in 1975 to do Horses.

I was going through your newly-issued book of poems (Patti Smith: Early Work 1970-1979) and I noticed at the end of Piss Factory it says “Recorded at Electric Ladyland, June 5, 1974″ and it struck me that this is like the completion of a circle going back 21 years. Do you see it that way? Is this a deliberate thing, to record again at Electric Ladyland?

No. I didn’t want to record uptown in New York where my husband and I had recorded Dream Of Life because I thought it might be a little too difficult and sad. So I mentioned to Lenny (Kaye), “We should record downtown somewhere,” and he said, “Well, we can go back to Electric Ladyland.” And I thought that was a great idea. I didn’t really realise, I hadn’t thought about how long it had been or anything. It’s an inspirational thing. Everybody’s been so great here. It’s wonderful to walk in because the room we’re in has huge murals of Jimi Hendrix and all of Jimi Hendrix’s gold records, and it has a really great spirit. You now, it’s right off 8th Street in the Village. I go out, people say hello to me, it’s got a good feeling.

Why are you doing a record now, so to speak - I mean, at this particular time - after a lapse of several years?

Well, my husband and I, before he died, we were working on material to record. We wanted to record because we had things to say and we had ideas and also, you know, I have children - we have two children - and it’s the way we make a living. (laughs) It was time. I’m very conscious of being a single parent and I want to make sure that I do a lot of work and get things ready for their future. So I’m doing it partially in tribute to my husband and also because it helps me to work. It makes me feel better and also to get things ready for my children.

Is there a working title for the new album?

No, I don’t have a title yet.

You’ve pretty much kept the same band through the years, excepting the Easter album when Bruce Brody replaced Richard Sohl on keyboards.

Yeah, because Richard was sick. It wasn’t because he was out - he wasn’t well. Richard passed away, after we did Dream Of Life. He played all the keyboards on Dream Of Life with my husband and then he passed away in ‘91, of heart failure. He was wonderful and I was actually quite heartbroken.

I have a new keyboard player who plays very similar to Richard. He’s from Detroit and his name is Luis Resto. And Lenny’s playing guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty, who’s always been my drummer, is still playing drums. Tony O’Shanahan, who is good friend of Lenny’s, is playing bass. And we’ll have other guitar players on this record - my old guitar player Ivan Kral and perhaps Tom Verlaine and certain other people might be guest-playing. I need to finish it this summer but we’re going very well and I believe it will be completed and will be out in the fall. I’m not going to be touring too much because I have two children and it’s very difficult for me. I might do special dates here and there. I really love the people I’m playing with. I think the sound is really good. It’s a good strong sound, simple but really strong.

Do you ever think back on your place in the history of pop culture and on the whole idea of fame?

Well, I don’t think about fame because, as Alexander The Great’s servant told him, “All fame is fleeting.” So I don’t think about that too much. But influence is another thing. Fame, of course, is fleeting, and so is fortune, but influence is enduring. I’m really quite honoured when people say they’ve been influenced by me and the work my band did. Actually, a lot of people have said that and a lot of people I admire, so it really makes me happy. Because I think for an artist to have a positive influence on new artists, it’s one of the great gifts you can give. Because so many people have influenced me, I was influenced by Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, and if l can keep the thread going and influence other people in a positive way, that’s a great honour.

What do you think of rock music today? Is punk still viable?

I think things are a lot more open than they were in the ’70s. The field is quite wide and I’m really proud of a lot of the things that the new guard has done, all these groups from My Bloody Valentine to Nirvana. My son likes Green Day. There’s a lot of energy in music right now. As far as what people call the “punk spirit,” I think it doesn’t necessarily have to take any specific form of music because it’s really a spirit. And what the spirit is is, I think, it removes itself or tries to repurify things when things get too convoluted or when they get too commercial. There’s this resurgent spirit that people call punk that purifies everything again. Whether they call it grunge or punk or anything, it’s the new guard coming in to purify, to let things renew and begin again.

It sounds like you’ve been listening to what’s out there.

Yeah, I like to see what’s going on. I’m not always up on everything but I wish everybody well, you know. I think that everybody’s done a good job. There’s a continuing surge of new people that are trying to do things and trying to shake things up. I think that’s important.

What do you think of Courtney Love?

I think she’s done some really good work. I don’t know her personally and I hope that she takes care of herself. She has a beautiful daughter and I’d like to see Courtney take care of herself physically. But other than that, I think she’s done really good work. I haven’t seen her live but I saw the Unplugged show (on MTV) and I liked the Live Through This album. Doll Parts is a great song. I thought the Unplugged performance was really great. I think the band is really good and I think it’s important for them to take care of themselves. They’ve already lost one band member, poor girl, and I just think it’s important that for even artists that move toward the edge, you have to maintain some balance or you won’t live. I think life is too great. I hate to see anybody throw their life away, so I hope that a lot of these younger people will try to maintain some balance.

How have you yourself managed to do that?

Well, I’ve never really indulged much in drugs and things like that or anything negative. Most of my anger or, as they call it, angst or frustration, I’ve put into my work and not into a drug or into something negative. I’ve had a lot of anarchistic feelings and a lot of that kind of energy, and I’ve always put it into work. And even though I’ve tried a couple of drugs in my life and I liked to smoke pot when I was younger, I never got involved in it. I think that’s really important. If one must visit a drug or want to see what a drug can do or use it as a tool for work, you have to be very careful. You have to respect drugs, ‘cos drugs won’t respect you. They won’t respect you so if you don’t respect them, you’re gonna be in trouble. I’m just happy to be alive and I want to stay that way, and I don’t flirt with a lot of stuff that will take my life away.

Speaking of death, I understand you’re writing a book of poetry about your dead friends. Is that true?

Well, I was writing a book of poems and stories and things that pretty much surrounded a lot of people that I had lost. Like my friend Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard (Sohl) and other people that I know. And also people that I admired - I wrote a poem for Nureyev and Genet and Audrey Hepburn, just different people that I really liked that influenced me. But when I lost my husband and brother - I lost my brother a month after my husband - I haven’t been able to write much, so I’ve just set it aside for a while. But when I feel stronger I’ll get back to it. I just find that I can’t really write right now. But I have been able to write songs, and I am starting to feel a lot stronger emotionally and physically, and I think I’ll be writing again soon.

Was that your brother Todd, who was involved in that famous incident with Sid Vicious? (Free on ball two months after he’d stabbed his girIfriend Nancy Spungen to death at the Chelsea Hotel, Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols slashed Smith’s brother Todd in the face with a broken bottle.)

Yes. That was actually quite frightening. My brother is a tough kid but he’s very pacifistic. He was a real peacemaker type of guy. I think Sid Vicious was just crazy. He just went crazy in this bar and my brother almost lost his eye. He didn’t provoke him or anything. But Sid Vicious was fairly out of control then, because he died soon after that. He was another kid who was really talented but he didn’t keep his balance. That whole story is tragic. Both of them (Sid and Nancy) lost control and it’s sad.

I’ve always thought that the interesting thing about punk rock is that there is a lot of anger that fuels the music and so it creates this energy, yet it’s a very dangerous thing.

Well, I think if they put more anger in the work instead of in their lifestyle, they’d be better off. I think a lot of times people put a lot of those feelings, those frustrations, into their lifestyle. These days especially, I think if one’s filled with so much restlessness and anger, there’s a lot of things people can do with that energy. I always tell people that if they don’t know what to do with themselves, go to an AIDS ward and see what it’s like when people have no choice. Go to an AIDS ward and help those people out. Use some of your energy to help out your fellow man. If you really think your life is tough because there doesn’t seem to be a way out, go to see a person who has an illness that is so cruel they truly have no way out except that they’re going to die. I think that if people looked at other people’s situations and saw what it’s like for certain people, they’d feel a lot less sorry for themselves.

What are your own thoughts on death? Do you view it with any kind of apprehension and fear as opposed to perhaps a sense of fatalism?

I don’t have fears. For myself, spiritually, I look at death as a continuing journey. I don’t wish to die, especially being a parent I wouldn’t want my children to be left without a parent. And I love life, I love being on the planet. But I really think of death as part of a continuum. I think it’s more of a Buddhist point of view. That’s the way I feel.

I only ask because there’s been so much of it in your life. I’ve had people close to me die and every time that happens, it always makes you question your own mortality.

It does. It reminds me to try to take better care of myself, but also to appreciate every day. Sometimes I just feel ecstatic to wake up. I’m so lucky. My poor husband, he’ll never wake again, I just feel so happy to be able to see my children and to create and do work and just walk down the street and breathe the air.

A lot of people consider you a feminist role model. How do you feel about that?

Well, I like to help people any way I can. I don’t call myself a feminist. I don’t call my self anything. I think it’s important to take everyone’s point of view. As soon as people get hardcore into one point of view. they snuff out somebody else’s point of view. I think you have to be open to all people’s needs. Like people would say, “Well, you came out to be a role model for girls.” Well, I never did. I wanted to be something for everybody.

I read in a magazine recently that a writer was really surprised because Michael Stipe had said that I was a viable model for him, and they thought, it was unusual coming from a guy. I think that in our time, as we move into the future, future generations will be less prejudiced about gender, race, colour, and things like that. I just think that as we progress into the future, future generations will be less and less interested in those boundaries. Maybe I’m being optimistic. (laughs) But why not? Why not be optimistic? I’ve never been pessimistic. One can kick open a door but not because they’re trying to destroy the door, but because they want to see what’s on the other side. A lot of my work was just about exploring beyond.

Robert Mapplethorpe was a lot about that, too. There’s a resurgence of interest in him now because of this newly published book (Mapplethorpe: A Biography, by Patricia Morrisroe), which just got a really savage review in The Los Angeles Times. The reviewer felt that the writer of the book was being unkind and hateful and spiteful towards him. I don’t know if you’ve read the book yet.

I’ve read portions of it. I think the writer was more interested in a sensationalistic point of view and I think that’s a shame because Robert did have a very interesting life. Robert and I had similar philosophies. We didn’t want to be in any particular boundaries. He didn’t want to be known as a homosexual photographer. He’s an artist and he did what an artist does, whether it’s Picasso or Jackson Pollock or John Coltrane, it’s to break boundaries. And create a new boundary for someone else to explode. I think that’s what Robert was trying to do, amongst other things, and I think he was quite successful.

But in the end, I think what was the most interesting thing about him was his drive, the drive that made him an artist. I’d known Robert since he was 20 and he always had that drive. He’d create art from morning till night. It was the thing that drove him the most. I think the book really makes it seem that the thing that drove him the most was money or sex or fame. And all these things were important to Robert, they were, but the most important thing to him was his work. That drive was the strongest thing in him. He was always trying to work. Even in the days before he died, when he could hardly see or walk, he was still trying to create and it was the thing that really drove him.

It strikes me that you’re doing the same now with this new record, because it’s been a while since Dream Of Life. Did you feel at any point in the last five or six years that it was time to do this again, that there was perhaps too long a lapse in between albums?

Well, Fred and I had been working. It’s a lot more difficult to work when you have a family. We were very devoted parents and that was always our first priority. But we were always working at home. It wasn’t like we sat at home not doing anything. We still wrote music. I wrote about four books which in due time I’ll be publishing. I was doing a lot of studying and Fred was also. When he wasn’t creating music, he became a pilot. He learnt all these new skills and we were interested in developing ourselves in various ways.

Well, it’s not as if you don’t have a record out so you don’t exist!

Right. I mean, sometimes people act like you’ve totally retired, disappeared or stopped working because you don’t have something in public. But I work every day. I’ve worked every day for the past 30 years. I write every day or do something every day. I have my own personal work ethic.

You’re now performing again. Do you still get the same charge from being in front of an audience these days?

Well, I haven’t done it too much, but I’ve always been the kind of performer that draws from the energy of the people. I don’t just like perform at people or do like a stock show. I always think of it as a night that we all create together. I always draw something from the people, and so each night is always different and it’s always exciting and energising.

There’s always been a sense of invitation, of participation, in your music. A friend of mine said the other day, “Will you tell Patti Smith that the first time I heard Because The Night, it made me want to go and touch myself?”

(laughs) That’s not bad!

Another friend of mine, she told me: “You listen to her version of Because The Night and then you listen to Natalie Merchant’s version, the difference is so huge. There’s no sex in Natalie Merchant’s version!”

Well, I had written the lyrics to Because The Night for my husband and we were quite in love then, so I’m sure there was some in it then! (laughs) It’s a love song. The lyrics I wrote for Fred. We had fallen in love and it was intentionally like that. I was away from him and I was longing for him. It was written as a song for him and letting him know how much I wanted to be with him.

So Bruce Springsteen wrote the music?

Yes. He wrote the music and the title is his, as well.

Springsteen’s from New Jersey as are you. But a lot of people still think of you as a New York artist, as opposed to New Jersey or Philadelphia or Paris or Detroit, those other places of your life. Do you consider yourself a New Yorker?

New York is really where I formed the basis for my work and I love New York… I relate more to New York. I live in Michigan with my children, I lived there with my husband, but I don’t consider myself a Midwestern person, I’m more of an East Coast person. I was raised on the East Coast and there’s regional differences, but as an artist one hopes to achieve some kind of globalness or some more universal quality to their work. I wouldn’t even want to be called a New York artist, I just want to be called an artist. If I can achieve that, that would be great.

Is there anything you’d like to say to your fans and followers overseas who have over the years been anxiously awaiting a new record from you?

Tell them that I am well. And that I wish them all well. And tell them how deeply honoured and touched I am that they would think of the work that I do with such regard. It means a lot to me.

It’s one reason I’m doing this interview. I’m not doing any press right now, I’m not doing any American press, and I told the record company that I didn’t want to do any press but when they mentioned this to me, I certainly wanted to do this. It is an honour and it’s not an honour I take lightly. It might seem small or obscure to some, but to me the fact that I’m even thought of so honorably from so far away, it’s inspiring. I’m certain of it, and I don’t take it lightly. I have to go in soon and do my vocal and I’ll take that inspiration with me. So tell the people I’ll be thinking of them as I sing my vocals. Give the people a salute for me.

People have the power! You’ve made my day.

No. You’ve made mine.

Note: Patti Smith’s sixth studio album, Gone Again, was released in June 1996.

  1. One Response to “THE POWER AND THE GLORY, THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE”

  2. I put the link to this interview on the german Rolling Stone-forum so that some more Patti Smith-fans can read this (http://forum.rollingstone.de/showthread.php?p=1811091)

    By Walter on Feb 27, 2009

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