Exclusive Q&A: The Final Word From Patti Smith on CBGB

Smith discusses how the seminal NYC club shaped her career

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Shortly after 1 A.M. on October 16th, Patti Smith sang the last notes of her final song, "Elegie," in a three-and-a-half-hour show marking the end of music at New York's CBGB. A few hours later, she was out looking for a cup of coffee and a copy of the New York Times, to see if the Mets had won while she was on stage. "I didn't have my glasses on," she recalled yesterday, "and I'm looking at the front page, going 'Where is the fucking baseball picture? What is this picture?' I squinted and thought, 'Is that me?' "

Smith had made the front page of the Times, in a photo shot outside the club, surrounded by fans and mourners, as she went in to play that night. "I was so full of nerves," she said of the show the next day, then went on to describe what she felt that night and talk about her memories of CBGB in an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone.

DAVID FRICKE: A big part of your show was covers by bands who made the club famous, like the Dead Boys and the Ramones. I walked in just as you told the story about seeing Television at CBGB for the first time, in 1974. Then you performed "Marquee Moon" -- as a poem, with Richard Lloyd on guitar. How did you create your set list for the evening? What did you want to say?

PATTI SMITH: It was an honor to be the last group, and I really thought about what that meant, what kind of responsibility that was. I thought about all the people that played there and that we lost -- about Hilly [Kristal, the owner] and the whole history. I just wanted to do a night like any other night, sort of like the nights at the beginning but without being nostalgic. And I tried to choose material that was specifically CBGB's. Tom [Verlaine] and I wrote "We Three." "We Three" was actually written about CBGB. The intro is "Every Sunday I would go/Down to the bar/Where he played guitar." That's about seeing Tom [and Television].

I tried to pick songs that my band did back then. "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game" [by the Marvelettes] was the first song we ever did there. "Pale Blue Eyes" [by the Velvet Underground] -- we did that too. And I wanted to build up to the last piece of the first set, which was "Birdland." That was a song that started as a poem, and through several months at CBGB, went from one place to another, morphed and grew. To me, "Birdland" is the quintessential CBGB song.

DF: One thing you said of the club, in the show, was "It's not a fucking temple -- it is what it is." You said anyone could start a club like this anywhere.

PS: It fulfilled a need. There wasn't any place for people to try new ideas and new things, to go out on a limb and make mistakes. But when our band went to London and Brussels and Denmark, kids even then were so intimidated about CBGB. I said, "Screw CBGB. It's nothing. What makes it is the people and their collective energy. The people make CBGB. You can all start your own." That was always part of our philosophy.

DF: Do you remember your first performance at CBGB, on the bill with Television, in 1974?

PS: Yeah. The sense of self and new energy was instantaneous. The confidence it inspired was strong, and the sense of community was immediate. William S. Burroughs lived down the street. He came all the time. We gave him a little table and a chair, and he'd sit there. All of our friends came -- Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim Carroll. CBGB was the neighborhood -- the artists and poets and musicians -- and we all inspired each other.

CBGB validated our mission. I didn't just want to revolutionize rock & roll, or merge poetry and rock & roll. The real thing was to keep rock & roll in the hands of the people, keep it as a grass-roots and cultural voice, not something that was big and glamorous and materialistic. The real heart of rock & roll is its revolutionary cultural voice.

DF: Are there other early songs, like "Birdland," that were born and shaped as you played at CBGB?

PS: Pretty much all of Horses. Lenny, Richard [Sohl, pianist] and I started some of these songs at the little jobs we had in bookstores and art galleries. But at CBGB, we had so much time and space to develop. The line "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" is from a poem. I used to read this poem, but I wanted to go from it into something simplistic. I loved three-chord songs, and "Gloria" [by Them] is the quintessential three-chord song. So "Land" [which features "Land of a Thousand Dances"] and "Gloria" were there, initially, to help me keep improvising.

We used to call it "fieldwork" -- Lenny and Richard would give me three-chord fields. Even though I wrote the poem at the beginning of "Gloria" in 1970, it took all those years to evolve, to merge into "Gloria." And that was pretty much done at CBGB. We recorded Horses in 1975, and did all the groundwork at CBGB.

DF: The economic changes in New York City, particularly on the Bowery in the last few years, have been a factor in the club's closing. Did you notice those changes when you moved back to New York, from Detroit, in 1996?

PS: I felt heartbroken. I came to New York [from southern New Jersey] in 1967. The city was down and out, and so were we. We have a song called "Citizenship." It goes, "'68, it broke the Yardbirds/We were broke as well." And we were. But New York was an artist- and poet-friendly city. You could find a place for sixty-five dollars a month, find a crappy practice place and do your work. We all had jobs. I always worked in a bookstore. Lenny worked at a record shop, Village Oldies. I think Jay [Dee Daugherty, drummer] worked at Crazy Eddie's or Radio Shack. We could get by.

I used to love walking to CBGB. When you came up the Bowery, back then, it was all winos. In the winter, they would have oil cans, set them on fire and warm themselves. You could see their bottles lined up, and they'd have old overcoats on. Sometimes you couldn't distinguish us from the winos. These guys looked at us like we were the weirdos.

DF: Did you feel threatened?

PS: I never felt threatened. I feel more threatened now. I feel confined by the intense commercialism. The stores, the shopping, these people all night long in their limos, acting like they own our little streets. New York to me was the worker city, the artist city. It was a place to get your shit together. Now it's a place people come to with their shit together. They have a lot of money, and they want condos. They want high life. They come to film here and have fashion shows. You try to walk on your street, and they act like they own it.

Cities should be edgy. They are edgy parts of America. They are not suburbia. They are supposed to be a melting pot of struggles, a collective force of ideas and energy. I watched horrified recently -- NYU students coming in with truckloads of fancy stuff. Magic Chef stoves and boxes with new computers. I mean, these are not struggling college kids. Get a hot plate. Drink some Nescafé.

DF: You played one new song during the show, "Without Chains," about a young Muslim man held without charge for four years at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. It was as if you wanted the crowd to know that, for all of the nostalgia in the room that night, there was still serious business going on outside.

PS: We had emotional duties, and I respected that. But I also thought it was important to do a song like that. Even the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" -- I was thinking about the words to that: "War, children, it's just a shot away." To me, a song like that is more meaningful than ever.

DF: You also put your own spin on it in the show. You sang "Love, peace, forgiveness, it's just a breath away."

PS: Well, I always have to add a word or two. I have to put my two cents in.

We are still who we are. I did my duty to the club. But my band -- we still have our own identity. And that's what we do. We were doing the same thing in 1974. Our message then was, rock & roll was losing its power. We have to take it over again. But it was not a message for myself. It was a message for new generations, the people after us. I considered us a bridge. You could walk over us and get to the other side.

I guess it's just the kind of person I am and how I see my duty. I still feel the same way. I'm going to be sixty this year. I've seen a lot of stuff, gone through a lot of things. But I'm still here. I've got new ideas, and I have some things to impart.

One thing I feel about our present condition is, I'm the same age as George Bush. So I'm not looking at my generation to save the world. The hope is in the future. I can't speak with intense pride about how my generation is conducting itself in this world. I have to look to the new generations to do better than we did.

DF: You ended the night by reading a list of departed souls -- such as Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone and your pianist Richard Sohl -- as you sang "Elegie" from Horses. What inspired that?

PS: I was thinking of this movie The Mission. The last line is from the cardinal, writing to the pope, about this mission that has been completely destroyed. And the line he writes is, "The dead live on in the memory of the living." As I was reading that little list, those people seemed in that moment -- because of the intense emotional energy in that room -- to be alive. Everyone in the room knew or heard of or loved one of those people. That collective love and sorrow and recognition made those people seem as alive as any of us.

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