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Rock That's, Like, Classic

Patti Smith Talks About Her Greatest Success

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Tue, May 7, 2013 at 3:45 AM

click to enlarge Patti Smith at Staples Center - TIMOTHY NORRIS
  • Timothy Norris
  • Patti Smith at Staples Center
By Jessica Baran

Profoundly influential, incantatory songstress, poet, artist and writer Patti Smith may be best known as the Godmother of Punk. Her groundbreaking album Horses, released in 1975, has been hailed as one of the greatest rock albums of all time. Born in Chicago, she was raised in South Jersey and in 1967 made her way to New York City, where she met the now-celebrated photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who at that time was unknown.

Their relationship and maturation as artists amid New York's downtown culture of the late '60s and '70s is chronicled in Smith's 2010 memoir, Just Kids, which won the National Book Award. An accomplished visual artist and poet, Smith has published several volumes of verse -- including the Blakean Auguries of Innocence in 2005. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. She released her 11th album, Banga, which features longtime friend and fellow punk pioneer Tom Verlaine as well as her two children, last year. We spoke with her about many of these topics.

Banga draws from so many disparate sources. The album and title song are named after Pontius Pilate's dog in Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, while other songs cite Renaissance painting, the discovery of America, sci-fi movies, the devastating tsunami and earthquake in Japan, the recent death of certain pop stars....

When I made my first album, Horses, I was reading William Burroughs' The Wild Boys and Peter Reich's The Book of Dreams. My references are always based on what I'm reading, where I'm traveling, what my interests or obsessions are at a given moment. Banga was made while traveling -- it moves through a few different phases and countries. Lenny [Kaye] and I wrote a couple songs on the Costa Concordia, which put me in the mind of sea voyages, which then put me in the mind of Amerigo Vespucci. I was reading a lot of Bulgakov, and then I started to study Piero della Francesca and the life of Saint Francis. All of these things -- Russian filmmaking, Tarkovsky, my friends (Johnny Depp's birthday, the death of Amy Winehouse and Maria Schneider) -- found their place in the album.

It's a collage of sources that seems very specific to your sensibility -- like a personal cosmology.

Well, at this time in my life, I'm 66, my children are grown, and I have no companion. I'm pretty much freewheeling, so my songs reflect the kind of contemplations I currently have. When I did the albums Easter and Wave, I was deeply in love with my future husband [Fred Sonic Smith], and so I wrote more love songs, and I wrote about things that were then more in my immediate sphere.

Just Kids is a remarkable piece of literature. What's so unusual about all of your work -- from that memoir to your poetry to your music -- is that you approach each discipline so intensely on its own terms: Your books of poetry contain rigorous, formal verse; when you give poetry readings, you fully embrace the craft of performance; and when you rock, you rock.

I move into each genre with the same expectations for myself -- with the same fervor, the same hopes to do something special. Nothing is a hobby -- each discipline is its own world with its own high standards. Of course, every artist has "minor works" that they do, but I don't think I have any "minor disciplines." Each discipline I approach as a major undertaking that I put my whole self into.

More often than not, people simply want to translate success with one discipline into that of another, without any consideration for the shift. But, like you said, you really try to master each form.

I'm much too self-centeredly ambitious to simply be content with the transfer of success from one realm to another. I would rather write or record something great and have it overlooked than do mediocre work and have it be popular. My goals are really work-oriented. I don't stay in one discipline because it's more lucrative than another. In fact, the most successful thing I ever did was Just Kids, for which I had absolutely no expectations. I just wanted to do a beautiful little book that would give Robert [Mapplethorpe] to the people. And then it became a global success. It's so funny, because Robert always cared about me becoming successful, while I never did. It's almost like he was suddenly saying, "Dammit, Patti, you're gonna be successful, even if I have to make it happen!" I always laugh when I think that my greatest success came through Robert.

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