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High Profile

Vive la différence

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The poet, songwriter and performance artist Patti Smith has been described
as 'a Rimbaud with Marshall amps [who] has transformed the way an entire
generation looks, thinks and dreams'.1 Third Way met her on tour - in Maidstone.

Most people know you as a poet and performance artist, but reading your recent memoir, Just Kids,2 it struck me that your first compositions were prayers.
Well, prayer is an aspect of my daily discip­line, and the idea of prayer, I think, permeates everything. To pray is like being a predator, in a positive way - you know, God is, like, just having a nice day and here you are, seeking him out with your thoughts. I would think there's an aspect of prayer in everything one does - at least for me.

You could go through my records and find prayer af­ter prayer after prayer. 'Cartwheels' and 'Wing' are in a way prayers for my daughter, 'The Jackson Song' a prayer for my son, and 'Elegie' is a prayer in memory of people we lost and a prayer for the living. On the new record, [Banga,3] 'This is the Girl' is like a little prayer for Amy Winehouse.

Why did you write a song for her in particular?
I didn't know her, but when she died I wrote her a little poem and my bass-player just happened to write a little piece of music that fit[ted] it perfectly. It never occur­red to me to write a song for her, it just happened.

Writing lyrics to songs is a struggle for me. I can't just sit down and say: I'm going to write something for this person. When we did the album Trampin',4 I was so distraught that the Bush administration [had invaded] Iraq, I wanted to write something in response. A member of my band wrote a piece of music and we went into the studio and I just stepped in front of the microphone and began to improvise. And what I chose to do at that moment was not to do an anti-war rant but to take the point of view of a mother who was trying to comfort her children as the bombs were falling on their city. That is not something I would have sat and written…

As you have got older, have you become more political?
More humanistic. My politics are really simple: I'm not politically bent but I am Earth-bent, I am humanity-bent. I'm very concerned about the human condition. But all human beings - I'm not a nationalist, I don't have any interest in that and I never did, even as a girl.

The things I was concerned with when I was young I am still concerned with - human rights, our environment… I haven't really changed that much. In Horses,5 my concern was my own freedom. [The al­bum's opening statement,] 'Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine,' was not against Jesus; it was opposed to organ­ised relig­ion, to man-made rules and regulations.

You have said: 'Christ was a man worthy to rebel against, for he was rebellion itself.' What did you mean by that?
He was a revolutionary. 'Rebel' is not the right word. I mean, he came to people and said, 'Drop your nets and follow me!' You know, as any great revolutionary does. Leave your material things and come with me! We have to, you know, find a way to free the people.

To me, his great contribution, even though it's been mis­interpreted and, as he predicted, false prophets have twisted it in his name, really was two things: he made God more accessible to the people and he gave the Elev­enth Commandment, which is the greatest commandment, which is simply: Love one another!

So, as I evolved, I understood that I wasn't rebelling against Christ, I was rebelling against religion and its concept of Christ; and when I finally understood that, I was able to appreciate him in a more holistic manner and really understand more about him as a man.

You have said that you hoped that Horses might be for people who felt alienated…
I was making a record for people of my own kind, that felt alone. At that point, many young homosexual kids were being disowned by their parents, especially boys; and other kids wanted to be artists or wanted to be free or were sort of post-hippy kids and had no real place. I saw those people as my people - I'm not a homosexual but I also want to be free and I was always marginal­ised. When I grew up, in the Fifties and early Sixties, girls teased their hair and looked like one of the Ron­ettes, which was beautiful and all but I wasn't interested in that. I dressed different, I proceeded different, I had a different walk and a different air - and I didn't care. It's like all I cared about was doing good work.

There was religion in your childhood, wasn't there?
Yes, I was raised a Jehovah Witness. My father was an agnostic, so he made things always interesting. Who­ever came to the door - Seventh-Day Adventists, Catholics - he would invite them in and ar­gue with them about the Bible. The Bible was very central in my upbringing, because my father was searching and because my moth­er sought to have structure and so I was raised till I was 12 as a Jehovah Witness.

Why did you leave the church?
I left of my own volition because I decided I didn't want to be a missionary and I didn't want to be restricted by any church or any religion, I just wanted to have my own relationship with God and be an artist. Really, I was rebelling against the idea that I had to choose be­tween Christ's world and art. They wouldn't make a young person choose now - the Jehovah Witness faith is much more open-minded now - but back then it was very austere and I was definitely told that I had to make the choice. And it was too terrible a choice to make.

It's funny, because this dilemma is re-enacted in the improvisation on [Banga], 'Con­stantine's Dream'. I did­n't plan to write that and I was very surprised to see that I am still wrestling with these ideas after all this time. I'm sure I'll still be wrestling with them when I'm a century old.

What was it that attracted you to the arts?

I lived in a rural area and never saw much art except in little pictures in books, but when I went to an art museum - my father took us when I was about 12 - and saw face-to-face all these paintings, whether it was Whist­ler or Thomas Eakins or Sargent or Picasso or Duchamp, I was overwhelmed by the way people exercised their imagination. I was drawn to books before I could read - my mother taught me to read when I was very, very young. Because I had such an expansive imagination, I was hungry to keep feeding it and as soon as I was old enough to understand that people just like me wrote books, I wanted to write.

Was your family life austere?
I was very lucky, I had a really wonderful family.

My mother was a waitress, my father was a factory worker and they were struggling - they had four children and sometimes we didn't have enough money to eat. I had to start working as soon as I was 10 years old, in the blueberry fields or babysitting, to help pay for food. I had a lot of respons­ibility for my three siblings.

My parents were not highly educated but they were both very intelligent and well read, and both of them were extremely open-minded. I mean, they would sit and talk to me about things - my mother was very strict about, you know, no cursing, no smoking, no sex be­fore marriage - we had the normal moral codes of the times. But our house was open to anyone, of any faith, any colour, any sexual persuasion - my parents had no pre­judice, you just had to be a good person.

I didn't even know until I was a teenager that there was so much soc­ial strife in our country. I didn't really understand the need for the Civil Rights movement, or know of the terrible injustices against homosexuals.

You had a black boyfriend quite early on, is that right?
Yes, when I was 14 or 15. I started to understand that the world beyond my father's house was a lot different.

When you 'fled' to New York in 1967, were you trying to escape -
Not from my family, no. The reason I fled was because there wasn't a culture around me that I could identify with, and, more importantly, there was no work at that time in South Jersey for a 20-year-old girl who had no real skills and who couldn't - who didn't finish college.

My parents were not opposed to any of my aspirat­ions, it's just that we had no money. I was not a brilliant student, so I had no scholarship and so that meant that if I wanted to go to college for a while, I had to work. I was on waiting lists for a job at bookstores, at factor­ies - funnily enough, the Columbia record-pressing plant was just walk­ing distance from where I lived, but the waiting list was too long. So, I went to New York looking for work.

And you went into a phonebox and found a handbag with just enough money in it to get you there. Your memoir is full of these kind of moments…
My life is filled with them. I seem to have walked with such strife and tragedy on one hand and such won­drous luck and beauty on the other.

Some people would see nothing but coincidences, but someone more spiritually inclined might talk of destiny or fate. Where do you stand on that?
Oh, I'm definitely fate-oriented. I mean, of course I believe in our ability to make our own decisions, but I also believe in the Great Design, because I have seen so much evidence of de­sign. I don't even think that the Great Design is specific to anyone sometimes, it's just that we're all so threaded together that things that happen to one person criss-cross to another. Someone had the bad luck to leave their bag and it became my good luck, you know? Real­ly I don't try to analyse it, but I have learnt in life that if you're willing to be pleased with the good luck that fate hands you, you have to ac­cept the bad luck as well. You have to work on a system of checks and balances.

That sounds kind of Buddhist…
I don't know, it's just the way I operate.

Also, how can we know what it all means? I don't know what it means, for instance, that Robert Map­ple­thorpe6 died on the anniversary of when my husband7 and I met. And my husband died on Robert's birthday. So many things like that have happened where the 'fear­ful symmetry' of [William] Blake seems part of life.
 

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You have written songs about Blake, and your spirituality seems to me very Blakean - the idea that everything that has breath is holy, that kind of thing…
A lot of Blake is too complex for me - it's so dense. But I try to learn and all of our great teachers and mentors and visionaries have something. All the philosophies and religions, even if I don't buy into them as a whole and don't want to be confined to their teachings or prac­tices, have something wonderful to teach you, to help you on your way, if you keep your eyes, or your ears and your heart, open.

It's often observed that people you have identified as influences, such as Rimbaud and Jim Morrison [of the Doors], seem to have had some kind of death wish…
People often say to me, 'You always choose people who were self-destructive or who died young,' but that's not true. One of my first heroines was Jo March, the girl in Little Women who was the survivor, and the writer.

Look at Jesus Christ, you know? He had a tragic end but it wasn't self-destructive. Self-destruction in itself doesn't interest me, it doesn't attract me, and I actually view it in some ways with a sorrowful contempt. I was not drawn to Jim Morrison because of his self-destruction but because of his abilities, be­c­ause of the work that he gave us. I was at­tracted to Amy Winehouse be­cause she had an unbel­iev­able voice.

Really, the people that I am drawn to, whether it's John Coltrane or Jimi Hendrix, it's always their work. Always. Yes, perhaps Jimi Hendrix was beautiful and it would be easy to be drawn to him just because he was beautiful; but I was really drawn to him for his powers, for his philosophy, for his humanistic approach to art.

You do visit a lot of graves, though…
Well, I'm interested in the person, believe me. Amy was the same age as my children, so my reaction is a maternal one, not as one who found what led to her death exciting and interesting. As I saw that girl's trajectory, I wished I could have actually spoken to her and been of some avail to her, because I worried about her. I worried about Kurt Cobain. I feel for these young people, because as a young person myself I saw Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison do the same thing to themselves.

There's only one end to someone hell-bent on self-destruction. You know, I don't suffer the same pain as these people, so I couldn't possibly know what drives them. I feel that I'm lucky because I'm more driven by my work than my sorrow - and, believe me, I've had my lion's share of sorrow.
 
Do you think it is more difficult today for an emerging young female musician?
It wasn't difficult for me because, first of all, I'm not a musician. Yes, I can sing, but I don't really think like a musician. I think like a writ­er, really - but I'm a performer. I think I'm just a natural performer. It's very easy for me to go on stage and joke with the people or speak to them or sing for them. The only thing that tortured me when I was young in terms of work is: Was I good enough? Was the work that I was doing worthy? And, also, was it right for me to be in­dulging in writing poetry all night when people were starving, or dying by the thousands in Vietnam? I mean, as a young girl all of these things haunted me. It's been very hard for me sometimes to reconcile these things.

I was thinking more about the demands the industry places on young women, to look and act a certain way.
I didn't ever expect anything from the music business, so everything that I got was more than I ever expected. Every biography I'd ever read about artists and poets, they all suffered: William Blake, you know, Van Gogh, they died in poverty, unknown or almost forgotten. I didn't expect anything more than that.
Actually, I never expected to be in the industry. I never wanted to make a record and I didn't know I was go­ing to, so when it [happened] I was thrilled.

When Clive Davis signed me [to Arista Records in 1974], he saw that I was very wilful and wanted to do things my way, dress the way I wanted, write the kind of songs I wanted. He pretty much told me that with his know-how he could transform (as he saw me) a diamond in the rough into a shining star and help me have a very big career, or I could have an interesting trajectory underground if I went my way. So, of course I went my way, because I never cared ab­out be­ing a pop star, or rich or famous; I just wanted to do something great. I wanted to write a great book, to make a great record, you know? Not that I wanted to sell a million books (though that would be wonderful) but that I would write a book that everyone would want to read, or sing a song that everyone would want to hear. But I had to do it my way.

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Once in New York, you lived for a while at the Chelsea Hotel, with Robert Mapplethorpe and many other hugely creative people. Was there a very competitive spirit among them?
No. At that time we were developing a cultural voice - it had begun in the Sixties, of course - the evolution of rock'n'roll simultaneous with Abstract Expression­ism and Coltrane and then Pop Art. America was exploding and all these great artists - Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and John Lennon - I mean, you could go on and on. We had such depth, whether it was physical and personal like the Animals, or Neil Young writing of what was happening in our country politically, or Jimi Hendrix moving into the more spiritual aspect. I met these people when I was young and though they were more ev­olved than me - they were all a little older than me but back then a couple of years was crucial and they seemed like they were 10 years older! - we were all like kin.

You give the impression that everyone was very generous to each other…
Absolutely. I mean, the only thing they weren't gen­er­ous with was probably, late at night, who would get the last of the [cocaine]… But in terms of our cultural voice, everyone was creating it and everyone was in­spired by each other. It was so expansive! I mean, people like Jimi Hendrix and the MC5, they didn't talk about America, they talked about the world. They wanted to change the world. And why? For peace. For our ecology. You know, they weren't just rock stars, they were visionaries.

What does 'punk rock' mean for you?
It doesn't mean anything to me. It's like, what is rock'n'roll? You know, these are just labels.

Jackson Pollock used to be very frustrated because people called him an Abstract Expressionist. Yes, it's an interesting term, but he did not want to be confined to being an Abstract Ex­pres­sionist. And I don't want to be confined to - you know, people get very disappointed that I'm not still making punk-rock records. I mean, I'm 65 years old! I wrote 'Rock N Roll Nigger' 35 years ago and to me the idea is to keep evolving, keep exploring. That's true freedom.

Some people look at punk rock and say: It's three chords and it's ugly and there is no artistry or craft in it.
Yeah, well, that's why rock'n'roll is traditionally the art of the people. It's always been like that: Hank Williams' songs are all three chords, most of Bob Dylan's songs are. Look at 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall': beautiful po­etry, three chords. For me, rock'n'roll is like the true Blakean art, because Blake believed that all humans could animate their creative impulse, and all humans can create rock'n'roll. It's simple. It's physical. It has no real rules and it can go from the lowest common den­ominator to the highest.

People would say the same thing about Jackson Pol­lock as they have said about punk rock. And I of course don't agree with any of it. I think there is beauty everywhere. When I first came to London and met all of the English punk-rock kids and saw the way they dressed and the clothes that they designed and all, I thought it was a wonderful world. It was free - and not without intellect.

You are known as 'the godmother of punk' -
If we [had been] having this conversation in '78, you would have said 'the queen of punk rock'. Now I have become the godmother.

And how do you feel about that?
Well, I mean, it's fine by me. I don't really require being queen of anything.

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How did motherhood change your life? It is said that you took a break from creative work, but that's not true, is it?
Oh no. I took a break from the public eye, but actually I wrote much more in those 16 years [1980-96] than any other time in my life. It's funny, the conceit of it, to im­agine that I would stop being a writer or an artist simply because I was not in the public eye! I was prolific.

I studied, I read continually - and I also learnt how to be a mother. You know, I had to cook, I had to take care of the house, I had to wash all the clothes…

There's a lovely bit in [the 2008 documentary] Patti Smith
Dream of Life
when you say you were a really diligent laundress but you wouldn't use bleach. Did you see things differently when you became a mother?
I did switch certain things off as soon as I got pregnant. My only addiction ever in my life has been coffee, but I immediately stopped drinking it because I perceived that it's probably not good for a baby. I didn't smoke pot any more. I had to really think about everything that I did - even my frame of mind, to not be depressed, to try to stay in a strong and positive state of mind.

I was never the maternal sort but I found that I was just in love with my children, and there wasn't a mo­ment that I resented the time spent taking care of them. We stayed close to home and we lived very modestly on any royalties we got, and some small jobs; and I was very, very happy with that. Occasionally I'd have to turn something down - Godard asked me to be in a movie, things like that - and I would have a twinge, but…

It kind of sounds like rock'n'roll growing up - unlike, say, Mick Jagger, still playing Jumpin' Jack Flash at the age of 69. And yet I hear that only the other day you smashed a Fender guitar on stage.
No, I just pulled the strings off of it, I didn't break it. I have broken guitars in my time, but not now. I've al­ready done it, so maybe I do something different now.

I never broke a lot of them, and I broke them out of some kind of anger or high adrenalin.

Aren't you too old to be still doing rock'n'roll?
I know my age - I'm old enough to be a lot of the audience's grandmother - but essentially I think of myself as a worker: I'm communicating with people. When I was young, I communicated with people through ideas and humour, and I still do - you can do that at any age. A more sexual communication, OK, that has changed, absolutely. Not that I don't have any sexuality, it's just not paramount in the way I communicate with people.

But there are moments when I'm on stage when I don't feel any different than I did. At all! I still feel as awkward, I still feel as enraged, I still feel, you know, as flawed. I don't feel like I've improved. I know that I'm not as - not that I was ever beautiful, but I was certainly better-looking when I was younger, and a little sexier, or more interesting to a young feller.

I still feel a strong connection with the audience, and if I didn't, I wouldn't do it. I don't want people to spend £20 or £30 to come see us if they're not going to get something out of it.

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I know that you write something every day. Is it true that at the moment you're writing a detective novel?
Yeah, I'm working on a few things and a detective story is one of them. To me, a detective is like a poet in a way. They work alone, and they're either creating a design or trying to break through a design that's already created.
I always imagine I'm the detective. I always identify with the hero, ever since I was a child - I can't help it. I always want to be the person that's going to save the damsel or…

Save the planet.
Yeah, save the planet!

 

Patti Smith was talking to Simon Jones

--

1  In the citation for the Polar Music Prize, which was presented to her last year for demonstrating 'how much rock'n'roll there is in poetry and how much poetry there is in rock'n'roll'
2  Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010
3  Columbia Records, 2012
4  Columbia Records, 2004. The track she refers to is 'Radio Baghdad'.
5  Her first album, released on Arista Records in 1975
6  The photographer she met in New York in 1967, with whom she had an intense romantic relationship. In Just Kids, she calls him 'the artist of my life'.
7  Fred 'Sonic' Smith, formerly guitarist with MC5, who she married in 1980

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