If you can indeed judge a person by the company they keep, then Patti Smith's resume is virtually unequaled. Without any bit of pretension while recounting tales of her life, Smith sounds like a virtual encyclopedia of underground culture. She has counted among her friends, peers and acquaintances the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, the Dalai Lama, Bob Dylan, Michael Stipe, Sam Shepherd and Robert Mapplethorpe. And the list goes on.
Smith's role in popular culture transcends that of musician, though that is where her greatest fame has come. She is an icon in her own right -- a woman who was part of New York's early Seventies poetry scene who has been published countless times; her art hangs in New York's Museum of Modern Art. Yet she freely left music for a seventeen-year period -- during which time she made only one album, Dream of Life -- to devote herself to her family. Few people could leave the public eye for as long as she did and return to it so seamlessly, but her road back has not been easy, as she's gained her wisdom over hardships that would destroy many people. She lost her closest friend (Mapplethorpe), her brother, writer-friends Ginsberg and Burroughs, and her husband (Fred "Sonic" Smith, of the influential MC5). In the face of tragedy she carries on, triumphantly.
Her new album, Gung Ho, is her eighth recording, the third in the last four years. It is a powerful, compelling CD that reaffirms her status as rock's leading revolutionary. If we do need the wakeup call she suggests, then it seems fitting that she be the first musician to sound the alarm in the twenty-first century.
Are there any songs off the new album that you feel translate especially well to the stage?
"Lo and Beholden" is one of my favorites. "Gung Ho" is a very long song; it's eleven minutes of lyrics. So right now I read it, but I like the experience of that song, or that piece -- it's more of a piece. "Gone Pie" and "Glitter in Their Eyes"...there isn't any song on this record that I dread. Sometimes there are songs that I dread or I'm afraid I can't sing good. "China Bird" is a very beautiful song, a demanding vocal but I'm excited about doing that. I hope I hit all my notes but I feel generally just really gung ho about this record.
You were quoted recently as saying that you were trying to be a Paul Revere character in the Seventies -- "the person waking people up and warning them." What do you see yourself as today in terms of live performing?
Well, I still think that Paul Revere's work is not finished. I look at what's happening in our culture and I think that it's important for people to voice their concerns. I'm seeing things happen now that I've never seen before at such a huge extent: people's concepts of themselves in terms of their material things, their lifestyle, what they own, what they look like. We've become a very external society. And young people [are being] targeted as a demographic mode. When people think of twelve to twenty-five [year-olds], I think more emphasis is placed on their consumer possibilities; how they can be fed all kinds of ideas about their body language, their hair, their clothing, their music. A lot less time is put into how they're feeling about themselves as human beings, their spiritual content, their education. I see it just through my twelve-year-old daughter. I see her targeted all day long. That's one of the reasons why Oliver [Ray, guitarist] and I wrote "Glitter in Their Eyes." We talked about the idea of how people are being exploited. It sort of reminds me a little, in my mind, of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," in that it's trying to wake people up or hopefully make people aware of what's going on around them and how they're being used.
You took a trip to Vietnam recently. What was that like?
We went to Vietnam and Cambodia, and then Cambodia to Angkor Wat. And of course Angkor Wat is one of the most beautiful places on the planet in terms of its ancient heritage, and its temples and the jungle, and a lot of them are fairly unspoiled except by nature. And we were seeing unfortunately there that business is moving in, specifically Korean business, who are eyeing Angkor Wat just as Disney came into 42nd Street and totally transformed 42nd Street into a tourist trap. They're coming into Angkor Wat and building all these huge hotels and trying to get rid of the beggar children, because they don't look good. And they're redesigning, uh, the whole fabric of Cambodian culture just to make it consumer-friendly.
You've been so closely associated with New York throughout your musical career. How much of an effect does where you're living have on your writing?
Well, I'm not really sure 'cause I have moved around a bit. I like New York really. Not even because how it feeds me creatively but because it's a nice hometown. It's pedestrian-friendly and I don't drive. I can get anywhere and the people are friendly. I've always thought of New York as a really friendly city. I was brought up in a very rural community, and I got flack my whole life about my appearance, or my hair, or my body language. And I came to New York and nobody cared about what I looked like, or how my hair was. I could just be a human being. I always like New York, especially in the past, 'cause it was a struggling city, and you could live cheap. I'm not that happy to see New York become a prosperous tourist city. I don't really like how New York's been transformed in the Giuliani era. It's really expensive to live there now. It's really hard for artists to live there. People have become very material-oriented, but I still love it. I like cities.
But I think an artist should be able to create anywhere. I can create by the sea or in the middle of a field, or in New York City, but I'm not dependent on my surroundings. They might shape them some, but I'm more dependent on human interaction.
You've gone through so many hardships over the last few years. What effect have those had on you?
If I can be of any service in our culture it's really just to try to remind people to care about themselves, love themselves. Love their life force. I've seen the best minds of my generation gone. I've lost many, many friends through natural causes, through alcohol, through drugs, through AIDS. And every time I lose a friend or a loved one, it reminds me how great life is.