Patti Smith: Family Life, Recent Loss, and New Album 'Gone Again'

"When I perform, I can't say I feel like a male or a female. What I feel is not in the human vocabulary"

Patti Smith in New York City.
Catherine McGann/Getty Images
July 11, 1996

She looks thin, frail, vulnerable. The hood of her sweat jacket is pulled up over her long, graying hair like a monk's cowl, and she grasps a book as if she were about to read from a catechism. But there is a valiant authority in Patti Smith's voice as she stands alone under the spotlight at the Roxy in Los Angeles a few minutes before her band plugs in.

"An artist wears his work in place of wounds," she says with the vigor of pride and hard experience, reading from the introduction to Early Work 1970-1979, her 1994 collection of poetry and prose. "Here then is a glimpse of the sores of my generation." Smith speaks of "freedom, future, fragrances" and pays homage to those kindred spirits who did not survive the pursuit of revelation – "We were as innocent and dangerous as children racing across a minefield" – before turning to the piece's closing benediction.

"In art and dream, may you proceed with abandon," she says in a prayer-like cadence. "In life, may you proceed with balance and stealth."

"I've always believed in having a sense of balance and stealth," Smith says a few days later at Electric Lady Studios, in New York, between mixing sessions for her new album, Gone Again. "I learned a lot from Arthur Rimbaud. People talk about how he wanted to be a seer and do that through the derangement of the senses. What they forget was that he also advocated, sternly and austerely, that one must be able to go through all that – and then articulate it. Just to go off and get wasted, into death even, is waste."

After 16 years of almost hermetic seclusion in Detroit, Patti Smith has returned to work with the intensely focused energy of her first heyday, when she kick-started the '70s punk revolt with her 1975 debut album, Horses. During the past 12 months, she has given several spoken-word performances, toured with her band as an opening act for Bob Dylan and appeared on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, singing a haunting ballad, "Walkin Blind," composed by the young poet and songwriter Oliver Ray. And Smith has reunited with old compatriots like guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty of the original Patti Smith Group and ex-Television guitarist Tom Verlaine to make Gone Again, a transcendent blend of electric ravers, fireside ballads and free-form hymns.

But Smith, who turns 50 this year, is not the single-minded rebel angel of her youth. She is now a devoted mother of two – a son, Jackson, who is 13, and a daughter, Jesse, who is 9 – and she has suffered great loss in recent years. In late 1994, her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, guitarist with '60s agit-rockers the MC5, died of heart failure. A few weeks later, Smith's brother Todd, who was her road manager, suffered a fatal stroke. Richard Sohl, Smith's long-serving pianist, died of a heart attack in 1990, and a close friend and lifelong collaborator, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, succumbed to AIDS in 1989. Her new book, The Coral Sea (W. W. Norton), was written as a memorial to him. Smith is donating her royalties from the book to the Robert Mapplethorpe Laboratory for AIDS Research at the Deaconess Hospital/Harvard Medical School, in Boston.

Photos: Patti Smith Through the Years

Smith now reflects on her 1988 album, Dream of Life, with mixed feelings: "I see the last major portrait Robert took of me on the cover. Some of Richard's last musical statements are on that record. And the record was almost completely crafted by Fred. But I also think of the fact that during the process of making that record, I had a child [Jesse]. I was with child and watching my friends die."

Yet for an album made in the wake of such prolonged mourning, Gone Again shivers and quakes with a robust spirit of renewal. As Smith sings in her raging cover of Dylan's "Wicked Messenger," "If you cannot bring good news, then don't bring any."

"Good news doesn't necessarily have to be a positive thing," she contends. "Bringing good news is imparting hope to one's fellow man. The idea of redemption is always good news, even if it means sacrifice or some difficult times."

Born on Dec 30.1946, in Chicago, and raised in southern New Jersey, Smith – the eldest of four children – quickly found both succor and purpose in the marriage of poetry and rock & roll. Her explosive early '70s poem "Piss Factory," issued as an independent single in 1974 and inspired by her humiliating experience as a teenager stuck in a shit-hole summer job, was fired up by the rhythms and lyrics of songs like "Twist and Shout" and "Mustang Sally." During her formative, underground club shows in New York, Smith fused the incantatory howl of Mick Jagger with the mutinous romanticism of the French writer Jean Genet and then nailed that combo to cataclysmic effect on Horses and the records that followed: Radio Ethiopia (1976); Easter (1978), which includes her sole Top 20 hit, "Because the Night," co-written with Bruce Springsteen; and Wave (1979). Even after she married Fred Smith in 1980 and moved to Detroit to raise a family, Patti Smith remained an inspirational figure to the post-punk generations that followed her, from R.E.M. and Sonic Youth to Courtney Love and PJ Harvey.

R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe clearly remembers the impact Horses had on him as a teenager. "It was really visceral," he raves. "It grabbed me like nothing else I'd heard before. There was something that was very real, very no-bullshit. And in 1976, there wasn't very much of that around.

"When you listen to a record, you know if you're listening to someone who loves music or whether it's someone who doesn't know what else to do or it's just convenient to them," he adds. "Patti is absolutely a music fan. She loves what music means in her life; she wants to return that. And she has done so – tenfold."

Smith, who is relocating back to New York this year, finds no irony, only coincidence, in the fact that she is releasing a new album in the same year that the Sex Pistols are re-forming for the money and the Ramones are in the midst of the world's longest farewell tour. But she acknowledges that Gone Again, the publication of The Coral Sea, her continued performing and even this interview – her most extensive and comprehensive since the late '70s, conducted in three lengthy sessions in New York and at her home, in Detroit – mark the start of a new, productive era for her.

"I plan to do as much as I can," Smith says happily, her eyes wide with enthusiasm. "Fred and I were ready to start moving out into the world, so I'm continuing on that program – as long as I can do the work and Jackson, Jesse and I can have a good life together."

I was struck, by the undiminished strength and clarity of your singing on the Dylan tour and at the Roxy. How did you keep your voice in shape during such a long sabbatical?
Fred kept up with my voice. Even when we weren't recording, we still wrote songs a lot, or he'd have me stand at the piano singing. And my voice got even stronger after he passed away. I think my voice magnifies his spirit. I really believe that.

And there are other, simpler things. I don't smoke cigarettes. I don't take drugs. I don't drink alcohol. I don't have a lot of things ravaging away. Also, when you're a mother, you do a certain amount of yelling to your kids. [Smiles] I guess that was good practice.

Over the years, you played just a handful of low-key shows with Fred, mostly in the Detroit area. Didn't you ever feel the urge to perform regularly?
Not really. It's not a real drive of mine anymore. It doesn't mean I don't care about it. But it's not a thing that drives me deeply. I cherish writing as my main work.

Once I'm onstage, I do enjoy it. Each night is an adventure. And I like to keep it that way. I don't want to turn it into record promotion or self-promotion. I like to think that now, when I'm performing, I'm coming around and saying hello to everybody.

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