To call Patti Smith the high priestess of punk is to oversimplify her. A poet, musician, mother, composer, widow, visual artist, political activist, androgynous style queen and occasional recluse, Smith has always cast a very wide net. She cites Maria Callas, Jackson Pollock, Johnny Carson, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and Michelangelo as key sources of inspiration. She’s a feminist role model who once declared, ”I don‘t listen to music by people I don’t wanna fuck.“ She‘s an aficionado of French poetry who still hasn’t lost her Jersey accent. And though she never cared for the drugs that permeated Manhattan‘s musical community in the ’70s, where she launched her career, her performing style is best described as a kind of intoxicated incantation.
Smith, the eldest of four children in a blue-collar family, was born in Chicago in 1946 and raised in Deptford, New Jersey. Her mother was a Jehovah‘s Witness who worked as a waitress. Smith’s father, who died in 1983 and is pictured on the cover of her new album, Gung Ho, was a factory worker. Both of Smith‘s parents loved music, and she grew up listening to her father’s jazz records.
As a young girl, Smith was a lanky tomboy with an unfettered imagination, and she spent much of her time as a teenager daydreaming about French poet Arthur Rimbaud. ”If you‘re 15, and you can’t get the boy you want and have to daydream about him all the time, what‘s the difference if he’s a dead poet or a senior?“ she points out.
Moving to New York in 1967, Smith spent the next seven years working a series of odd jobs while developing herself as an artist. She gave her first performance, accompanied by longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye, at St. Mark‘s Church in the Bowery in 1971, and was a local sensation until 1975, when the release of her debut LP, Horses, made her an international star. Smith was an unusual star, however. The closest she came to having a hit record was when ”Because the Night,“ which she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen, went to No. 13 on the Billboard charts in 1978, but the people who were into her music regarded it with something akin to religious devotion. In other words, not everybody got Smith, but the people who did got her in a really big way. Misfits related to her as if she were their patron saint, and her defiant spirit sustained countless adolescents through the identity crises of youth.
Smith released three albums during the latter half of the ’70s; then, in 1979, she fell in love with musician Fred ”Sonic“ Smith, the former guitarist with the seminal Detroit rock band the MC5. The Smiths married, moved to Detroit and had two children, a son, Jackson, who‘s now 18, and a daughter, Jesse, now 13. In 1994, Fred Smith died suddenly of heart failure, at age 45; then, a month later, Smith’s brother, Todd Smith, also passed away, after a brief illness. So Smith packed up her kids and moved back to New York, where she now lives with her boyfriend, Oliver Ray, the guitarist in her band, which also includes Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty and Tony Shanahan. In between music and child-rearing, Smith is writing a memoir about her friend the late Robert Mapplethorpe.
In preparation for the making of her new album, Smith studied the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which she refers to as ”our sacred documents,“ then wrote a cycle of songs that touches on everything from the abolitionist movement and Ho Chi Minh, to Custer‘s wife and Jerry Garcia. She’s 53 now, and still casts a wide net, still spits onstage and still believes in the redemptive power of art.
This weekend, Smith and her band will kick off a national tour, at the Wilshire Theater. She spoke with the Weekly from her home in New York.
Lenny Kaye commented in a recent interview that ”Patti had a really difficult childhood,“ but your childhood sounds kind of cool. Your mother bought you Bob Dylan albums, your father was into jazz, and you were recognized as a leader from the time you were very young. Do you remember your childhood as difficult?
No, I remember it as magical, because I loved my siblings and they respected me. It wasn‘t without difficulty, of course. I was a sickly child with lots of physical problems, high school was hard for me, and my parents had lots of economic troubles. As a teenager my difficulties had to do with the fact that I had drives within me to be an artist, and opportunities to develop that didn’t exist in South Jersey.
As a kid growing up in South Jersey, what was your fantasy of New York City?
I didn‘t really have one, but I wanted to see the paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, and I knew there were jazz clubs where you could see John Coltrane. The first time I saw Manhattan was on a school field trip, and I remember being impressed by the architecture, and by the fact that it was a city where you could get around on foot. The police in South Jersey harassed me when I was young because I looked like a beatnik, and New York seemed like a place where no one bothered you. Back then the [New York] police were nice, and no one made fun of your clothes or your hair, because people were involved in their own concerns.
How does the city compare today to the way it was when you moved there in 1967?
When I moved here, the city was going through a rough period economically, but it was more romantic then. The East Village wasn’t filled with boutiques the way it is now, and New York wasn‘t a tourist city, because people thought it was dirty and dangerous. You could rent a place for $50 a month, and you could live there and work on your art, but it’s not like that now. Because of the present mayor, the people and law enforcement are polarized, and although the city is more prosperous, it doesn‘t seem happier. Some people may see it as a positive thing that 42nd Street has been transformed into a big Disney area, but 42nd Street used to be a pocket of the world that represented a faction of the culture. Those people are no longer represented here, and I think that diminishes the city. I still love New York, but it’s lost the revolutionary energy and the joy it had. Cabdrivers used to be cool old guys who knew the whole city and had great stories to tell. Now you get in a cab and the driver hates you, he doesn‘t speak English, or he’s on a cell phone.
Your arrival in Manhattan in 1967 coincided with the glory days of Andy Warhol‘s Factory. Was that world of interest to you?
I was never drawn to that scene, because I found it very cruel, and my relationship with those people was largely a result of Robert’s [Mapplethorpe] interest in them. That scene had an incredible hold on people who believed they could only make it if they were accepted in that world, and many of them were destroyed by it. I had dreams like any young person, but I wasn‘t obsessed with becoming famous. If I got it, great, but I wanted to do good work, and Andy and the Factory couldn’t do my good work for me.
Who was your first great love affair?
Robert Mapplethorpe. I met him when I was 20, and when he and I met, I wasn‘t so sure of myself. Robert nurtured my belief in myself, and that’s a gift he gave that I‘ll have my whole life. [Mapplethorpe financed Smith’s first single, ”Hey Joe“”Piss Factory,“ in 1974.]
Following the end of your romance with Mapplethorpe, you became involved with Sam Shepard. What‘s your most vivid memory of him?
Sam was a great improviser, and he taught me how to improvise. I’d been in plays before I met him, but I didn‘t like the confining aspect of plays, so Sam suggested we collaborate on a piece for theater that would have sections of improvisation. I asked him what happens when you make a mistake, and he said you can’t make a mistake when you‘re improvising, because if you lose the beat, you just invent another beat. It’s a small lesson I‘ve used all my life, and the play we wrote, Cowboy Mouth, is good for beginning actors because it has those periods of improvisation that encourage experimentation. [Smith and Shepard starred in the debut production of Cowboy Mouth off-Broadway in 1971.]
Physiology aside, what’s the most significant difference between men and women?
Because of how we‘re made, with our monthly woes and the fact that we go through childbirth, women handle pain and strife better. Regardless of whether a woman has a child, that capacity is part of female DNA and is part of our ancestry. This isn’t to suggest I feel any special pride about that, because it‘s just part of the job description. Moreover, all men and women have elements of both masculine and feminine within them.
Early in your career you often said you were more in touch with the masculine aspect of your nature, and that you identified most strongly with male role models. Is that still the case?
As a kid, I was a boyishly built tomboy who loved Peter Pan and Davy Crockett, and I continued to have growing pains well into my 20s about the fact that I had to grow up and be any sex at all. I didn’t understand why we couldn‘t just be beings, and it took me a long time to comprehend my femaleness. I had always loved Ava Gardner, Gene Tierney and Lotte Lenya, and there were lots of females I thought were great, but I didn’t know how to access that way of being. I was just a late bloomer.
At what point did you realize that your awkwardness with your femininity, and your androgynous style, was a legitimate aesthetic?
Oh, come on! That girl on the cover of Horses is digging herself.
Maybe, but it wasn‘t as if I’d suddenly discovered I had a look I could work. My mother recently showed me a photograph of me when I was 6 years old, and I was dressed up in this little navy-blue tricornered hat and a little blue coat with a white lace collar. I was standing there like I was the coolest thing in town, but that doesn‘t mean I wasn’t full of self-doubt.
Tell me about the greatest rock show you ever saw.
A few come to mind, for different reasons. When I was growing up, rock shows as we know them today didn‘t exist, but we did have these things called ”revues.“ For instance, a bunch of Motown acts would come to town, and they’d put on a show at an airport or something. I saw the Rolling Stones in one of those revues, in a little high school gym in 1965, and it was like seeing them in black and white. I also saw Tina Turner at a high school, and though it was years before I started performing, I recognized her as a kindred spirit. This isn‘t to say I have the ability Tina Turner has, and I’m not talking about her singing or how great the show was — it was a physical energy I recognized. I didn‘t have much money in those days, so I didn’t see many big rock shows, but I did see Jimi Hendrix in a little club, and I got to see Janis Joplin. Seeing Television in 1974 at CBGB‘s was maybe the most crucial experience for me, because it helped inform what I was already doing with Lenny Kaye and Richard Sohl. Tom Verlaine and Television might be obscure in the grand scheme of things, but their music is enduring, and Tom’s influence on others is undeniable. The term rock & roll is a bit confining to apply to Bob Dylan, but I‘ve seen him several times and he’s always incredible.
What‘s your favorite Dylan period?
I just like him, and I don’t question what he does. I saw him in 1963 when he was introduced by Joan Baez, and I saw him at White Plains when he went electric with The Band, and everybody booed them. I thought it was a great. I figure Dylan can do whatever he wants and I‘ll always pay attention.
In a 1976 interview with Nick Tosches for Penthouse magazine, you commented that ”Rock & roll is about sexual tension and being drunk and disorderly.“ Do you still feel that way?
There was a very short period in my life where I drank a fair bit, and I must’ve said that during that period. I‘m really not a drinker, however. I’ve always believed rock & roll is about ”disordering the senses,“ to quote Rimbaud. Back then I often talked about stuff I didn‘t know about, because I wasn’t doing it yet. I won‘t recant anything I said, but I was still learning how to talk to people like Nick Tosches, and in those days I didn’t even think about half the things I said — I‘d say anything, because I wanted to shake things up. Everybody seemed to be asleep, and I was trying to wake people up.
Who’s making great rock & roll right now?
Neil Young is still doing good work, but the people doing the really great rock & roll are people I don‘t know. I’m referring to people playing tiny clubs to tiny audiences, who‘re infusing the form with the truth and energy of their own lives. I don’t know who those people are, but I know they‘re out there. At this point, the mainstream seems to have embraced pop music, so rock & roll is back where it belongs — in the streets, bedrooms and garages.
One of the unique things about your music is the way it synthesizes rock & roll and poetry. Many people consider rap a contemporary form of poetry. Do you?
I consider it part of the oral tradition, but I look at poetry in a different way. My definition of poetry is a heightened language that invokes its own world. When I improvise onstage, or rap in my own way, I’m working in the oral tradition, but I‘m not doing the same thing Rilke did.
Why do so few people have the skills required to read or listen to poetry? It’s become an extremely esoteric art form.
Poetry is a heightened form of language that isn‘t accessible to everyone, and although people can be taught to interpret a poet, it’s not something you can explain. The first time I saw a picture of a Jackson Pollock painting in Life magazine, when I was 10 years old, I remember feeling something for it. Nobody had to explain Abstract Expressionism to me, and I didn‘t have to develop a taste for it — I just related to it. The first time I read Rimbaud, I couldn’t tell you what the poems meant, but I was struck by them. The first time I heard Little Richard, I comprehended it. When I read art criticism, I don‘t know what the hell they’re talking about, but I have the capacity to look at some paintings and say, ”Yes, I understand this.“ The point I‘m making is that everyone has their own relationship with art. I’m grateful to have been given the chance to communicate through rock & roll, because it‘s a widely accessible form that allows you to express revolutionary ideas.
What aspect of your personality has created the most problems for you in life?
The aspect of myself I’ve done the most work on is trying to be less self-involved. Motherhood is an excellent way of working on that, too. In 1979, I left the public arena because I wanted to work privately and raise my children. Many people thought I didn‘t do any work during those years, but the idea that if it wasn’t covered by the media, then it was worthless, is ridiculous. What harder work is there than motherhood? In the ‘80s, I learned what real work is. Raising children is the deepest, most consuming work one can be involved in, and it taught me that my art isn’t the result of smoking pot or some kind of bohemian lifestyle. I discovered I could adapt my practice as an artist and could fit it in between cleaning toilets and getting uniforms ready for school, and that was a great thing to learn. Being an artist is a calling I have, hopefully from God, and I will always be an artist.
What‘s your idea of an important achievement?
Doing something that benefits others, and that can be anything from planting a garden, to raising a child, to painting Guernica, to developing a cure for AIDS. If a person is handicapped and spends months learning to tie his shoe, that’s an important achievement when he can do that. It‘s all relative, and people should be allowed to feel good about their achievements. When I decided to become a mother, the rock press mocked it and suggested I’d chosen the lesser road, but if a person decides to do something they believe in, however humble it might be, it should be treated with respect. I didn‘t care what people said about me during the ’80s, but I thought they were pretty cynical. Women who choose to commit themselves to motherhood should be embraced, honored and saluted, because it‘s a difficult choice that requires tremendous sacrifice.
How did the deaths of Robert Mapplethorpe, your brother and your husband change you?
That’s something I could talk about for hours, because the experience is so vast, and it doesn‘t end. My brother was a beautiful person who was filled with a certain kind of light and belief, and after the shock of his death began to pass, I felt illuminated by his spirit more than ever. I feel the people I’ve lost within me even more now, but as time goes by I also find myself missing them more, because I remember the best of them. I don‘t think about the worst argument my brother and I ever had, or the hard times my husband and I had, or the periods of bickering Robert and I went through. I think of their finest hours, and of what I learned from them. Loss has its rewards, but it has great pain as well, and it does force one to rearrange their universe. That’s a process that takes a lot of work, and a very long time.