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.
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.
What was it like for you to return to New York after nearly 15 years for the reading in Central Park in the summer of 1993?
For me, the greatest memory was that both Fred and my brother Todd were there. It was the last time we were all together at a performance. And Fred didn't like the heat. But he was a very proud man and quite a dresser. He wore a black suit and a white, snap-tab-collar shirt. He had that Dylan type of '60s look – like the cover of Tarantula. And he refused to take his jacket off. I remember every once in a while looking back at Fred and my brother, and the two of them were standing there like proud fathers.
Fred obviously took great pride in your work and shared your passion for music. Why wasn't he more active publicly during your years together?
He hated the music business. He hated what it did to him when he was young. Even when we did Dream of Life, the record was not well-received, which broke his heart, because he worked really hard on it.
He was really gifted and very sensitive. He would not self-advertise. He would not ask anybody for anything. What he wanted was someone – someone like David Geffen – to come to him and say, "Fred, you're a fine man and a good worker, and I'll let you do a record." He felt he deserved that. But he would never ask for that. And, of course, he never got it.
Did he take any consolation in the cult status of the MC5?
Not at all. He felt pride when somebody like Kurt Cobain acknowledged him. Sonic Youth took their name from him. But he did not want to be remembered as "He did this in 1969." Fred was really funny: He didn't want a whole lot for himself, but he wanted me to have a gold record. I said, "I don't really care whether I have a gold record." But he wanted me to have one.
That's my greatest sadness: that people didn't get to see or hear more of him. I looked forward to him coming out more in the world.
Did you ever see Fred play with the MC5?
I'd never even heard of the MC5. I'd never heard of them in South Jersey. I'd never heard of the Doors or the Velvet Underground. I didn't know about those things until I came to New York.
The one thing that is funny: Do you remember the magazine Eye? In the '60s I used to love rock magazines; I'd cut out pictures of Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Well, I cut out a picture of this guy because he was so beautiful. I had it on the wall for years. I cut it out of the group picture he was in, so I never found out his name or anything. And it was Fred.
But Lenny [Kaye] was deeply into the MC5. Lenny brought their thing into our work. In fact, "Radio Ethiopia" was actually written in tribute to the MC5. But that was out of Lenny's experience, not mine.
How did you meet Fred?
It was March 9, 1976. The band was in Detroit for the first time. Arista Records had a little party for us at one of those hot-dog places. I'm not one much for parties, so I wanted to get out of there. I was going out the back door – there was a white radiator, I remember. I was standing there with Lenny; I happened to look up, and this guy is standing there as I was leaving Lenny introduced me to him: "This is Fred 'Sonic' Smith, the legendary guitar player for the MC5," and that was it. Changed my life.
As far as your fans and the music business were concerned, you literally disappeared during the 1980s. How did you and Fred spend those missing years?
That was a great period for me. Until Jackson had to go to school, Fred and I spent a lot of time traveling through America, living in cheap motels by the sea. We'd get a little motel with a kitchenette, get a monthly rate. Fred would find a little airport and get pilot lessons. He studied aviation; I'd write and take care of Jackson. I had a typewriter and a couple of books. It was a simple, nomadic, sparse life.
Was there a period of adjustment for you, going from rock & roll stardom to almost complete anonymity?
Only in terms of missing the camaraderie of my band. And I certainly missed New York City. I missed the bookstores; I missed the warmth of the city. I've always found New York City extremely warm and loving.
But I was actually living a beautiful life. I often spent my days with my notebooks, watching Jackson gather shells or make a sand castle. Then we'd come back to the motel. Jackson would be asleep, and Fred and I would talk about how things went with his piloting and what I was working on.
Because people don't see you or see what you're doing doesn't mean you don't exist. When Robert [Mapplethorpe] and I spent the end of the '60s in Brooklyn [N.Y.] working on our art and poetry, no one knew who we were. Nobody knew our names. But we worked like demons. And no one really cared about Fred and I during the '80s. But our self-concept had to come from the work we were doing, from our communication, not from outside sources.
What did you live on financially?
We had some money, some royalties. We experienced difficult times. Sometimes we'd have windfalls – Bruce Springsteen recorded "Because the Night" [on Live, 1975-1985]. I might complain about that song because I get sick of it [laughs], but I've been really grateful for it. That song has bailed us out a few times. [The MC5's] "Kick Out the Jams" bailed us out, too.
But we learned to live really frugally. And when we could no longer live like that, we did Dream of Life. That's why we were getting ready to record the summer before Fred died – it was time to finance our next few years.
How far along were the two of you in planning the new album before he died?
He had the title, Gone Again. That was going to be the title cut, although he had a different concept for the lyric. And he wanted it to be a rock album. He was competitive – for me. He actually seemed to have more ambition for me than I had for myself.
What was his original concept for the song "Gone Again"?
He wanted it to have an American Indian spirit, because that was part of his heritage. I was to be the woman of the tribe who lived in the mountains, and in times of hardship, when things got really rough – they had a heavy snow, crops failed, warriors died – she would come down and recount the history of the tribe. There was famine and drought, and then the rains came and the corn grew high. The warriors died, but then a baby was born. It was a song of renewal. And that was the last music he wrote.
I hadn't written the lyrics yet. It was the last song I recorded, and when I was finally ready, it took a different turn. Instead, I paid homage to the warrior – the warrior who fell.
You also pay tribute to Kurt Cobain in "About a Boy." What was it about his life and music that touched you?
When Nirvana came out, I was really excited. Not so much for myself – my time had passed for putting so much passion into music and pinning my faith on a band. I'd had the Rolling Stones. I was happy for the kids to have [Nirvana]. I didn't know anything about his torments or personal life. I saw the work and the energy, and I was excited by that.
So it was a tremendous shock – quite a blow to me – when he died. I remember being upstairs taking care of the kids. I came down, and Fred told me to sit down at the table. When he did it a certain way, I knew it was serious. He sat me down and said, "Your boy is dead." And when he told me how . . .
That day, we went to a record store for something, some Beethoven thing Fred wanted. And I remember kids were outside crying. They didn't seem to know what to do with themselves. I felt a little like Captain Picard: I couldn't mess with the Prime Directive. It was not my place to say anything. These kids didn't know anything about me. But I really wanted to comfort them, tell them it was all right, that his choice was a very rare choice. I started writing "About a Boy" right after that.
What did you want to say in the song about his choice?
He had the song "About a Girl," and I got the title from that. Initially I had two parallel things I wanted to express in the double meaning of the chorus ["About a boy/Beyond it all"]. When I was a kid, the ones who were beyond it all were the ones who felt they were beyond responsibility. But I was also shifting it to mean beyond it all in terms of earthly things – and hopefully beyond all earthly pain, to some better place. Nirvana. [Smiles]
But I have to admit, originally it was written with a little more frustration and anger. In 1988-89,I watched my best friend die – slowly. Robert Mapplethorpe, in that time period, did every single thing he could to hold on to his life force. He let himself be a guinea pig for every type of drug. He met with mystics; he met with priests. Any scientist he could find. He was fighting to live even in his last hours. He was in a coma, but his breathing was so hard the room reverberated.
When you watch someone you care for fight so hard to hold onto their life, then see another person just throw their life away, I guess I had less patience for that. You want to take a person by the scruff of the neck and say, "OK. You're suffering? This is suffering. Check it out."
I don't say any of these things with any kind of judgment. It's just frustration, concern for how something like that affects young people. I am aware that I am somewhat estranged and out of touch, maybe even a little out of time. But I'm not so out of time that I can't see that young people feel even worse than I ever did. I remember the early '50s and fallout shelters. But still, life in general seemed pretty safe. Now kids must look around – there are viral conditions, pollution, still the threat of nuclear war, AIDS. Drugs are so plentiful and scary.
How hard has it been for you as a mother to navigate your own children through that minefield?
I was lucky because they had a father who was continually involved in their growth process. We were never separated from our children – ever. They knew what our philosophies were, and I know they felt protected.
What was also important was to tell them about God, to say prayers with them. I never promoted any religion to them because I don't believe in that. But the concept of God, or a Creator, has always been alive in our household. My mother taught me to pray when I was a little girl, and I'll always be grateful to her. Because in that way I never felt completely alone.
I know that Jackson perceives the world around him as completely mad. He studies CNN and the Weather Channel to check the state of the world. And I can see the admonishment in his eyes: "What have all you people done?" I see him walking around shaking his head. I'm glad he has Stevie Ray Vaughan to guide him right now [laughs]. He can find some abstract joy or guidance in music – music being an inspiring and somewhat safe haven.
Lenny Kaye told me that on the night Jerry Garcia died, you were in the studio and recorded a version of the Grateful Dead's "Black Peter."
Oliver [Ray] is really into the Grateful Dead, and he told me a couple of months before, "You should do this song." He thought it was perfect for me. But we never got around to it.
When we came to the studio that day, we were actually going to work on "About a Boy." And there was a picture of Jerry Garcia – someone had cut out a picture of him and taped it on the wall in the lounge. From years of experience, when I see something like that, my heart just drops. I knew something had happened.
But it was funny. I stood there by myself looking at it and thought, "He's dead." And I examined how I felt, how I'd already been through so much death in the past months, and I realized that I actually felt happy. I don't mean happy that he died. I felt a certain amount of joy that he had had a happy death. That he was really OK. And I thought that was a tribute to him as a man. He was a kind man and very giving, and I really felt that even in his death, he was a giving man. We decided to do something special for him, so I said, "Let's do this song."
The next night we did "About a Boy," and it was really funny, because I thought of him when I was singing it. Kurt Cobain, he's really the first verse. The second verse is for my brother Todd, and the third verse is actually for Fred. But as I was singing it, I kept thinking about Jerry Garcia. I started thinking, "Well, who is this song about?" Well, it's about that certain aspect of guys: They're all boys; they all have that thing about them that is so beautiful and so exasperating. So it really became about all boys – the boy within us all.
During your absence, you were cited by young women in rock as a pioneering inspiration. Do you see or hear much of yourself in the work of say, Courtney Love, Kim Gordon or L7?
I hate genderizing things. That's not a riff for me; it's a basic philosophy of work. I'm happy to be a woman. I'm a mother; I'm a wife. I like it when men open doors for me. But as an artist, I don't feel any gender restriction. When I'm performing, it's a very – for me – transcendent experience. I can't say I feel like a male or female. Or both. What I feel is not in the human vocabulary.
But if we are going to use those terms, I would say those girls have done a great job, considering what was out there when I was younger. When I heard Hole, I was amazed to hear a girl sing like that. Janis Joplin was her own thing; she was into Big Mama Thornton and Bessie Smith. But what Courtney Love does, I'd never heard a girl do that.
In a 1971 issue of Rolling Stone, you reviewed an album by the German actress and singer Lotte Lenya, and at the end you wrote, "It was hard for me to face up to being a girl. I thought girls were dumb. But Lotte Lenya showed me how high and low down you can shoot being a woman."
She was pretty tough. I only saw rare footage of her doing "Pirate Jenny," but she was pretty strong. And when I was a teenager, I listened to Nina Simone, another strong female. But in terms of women I could relate to, there weren't too many. I related to Lotte Lenya, but I related more to Bob Dylan. I loved Billie Holiday, but as a performer I related more to Mick Jagger.
What were some of your seminal rock & roll epiphanies?
I grew up with the whole history of rock & roll. I was a little girl when Little Richard hit the scene. I remember the first time I heard Jim Morrison on the radio: "Riders on the Storm." We were in a car, me and a friend of mine. We stopped the car – we couldn't go on: "What is this? What are we hearing?" I remember that sense of wonder.
When "Like a Rolling Stone" came out, I was in college – I think I was a freshman. It was so overwhelming that nobody went to class. We were just roaming around, talking about this song. I didn't know what Dylan was talking about in the song. But it didn't matter. It needed no translation. It just made you feel like you weren't alone – that someone was speaking your language.
Michael Stipe of R.E.M. says that your first album, Horses, had the same effect on him. In the '70s, were you conscious of that revelatory impact?
No, but I aspired to that. In a grateful way. Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland – I waited for those records, pored over them. It was inspiring, and it helped me get through all those difficult adolescent times when you feel like a jerk and isolated.
So when we did Horses, I was really conscious of that responsibility. But I never dreamed it would have that kind of impact on people. I was just trying to do a good job and uphold a certain tradition.
What was your vision – musically, lyrically, spiritually – at the time you recorded Horses? It was a pivotal album in its time but does not sound at all dated today.
Part of that is because it came out of five years' work. The opening lines – "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine" – I wrote in 1970. "Redondo Beach" was an early poem. The process of doing a record happened organically from years of improvising, gaining a voice and gathering my ideas.
But the early intention, right from my first performance with Lenny at St. Mark's Church [in New York] in February of '71, was merely to kick a little life into what I perceived as a dead poetry scene. It seemed self-absorbed and cliquish. It didn't make me feel expansive or beautiful or intoxicated or elevated at all. I was trying to kick poetry in the ass.
People felt that I was stepping on hallowed ground, being irreverent. But I didn't care because the people who were supportive were cool. What do you care when 80 percent of the poets in America were against you but you have William Burroughs on your side?
Did you read at rock & roll shows in the early days?
Sometimes I'd get jobs opening up for other acts. The New York Dolls would play with three or four other bands you never heard of, and I'd have to open the whole night. Nobody wanted to see me. I had no microphone. I'd just yell my poetry. And these guys would yell, "Get a job! Get back in the kitchen!" I just shot it back at them. But as I started developing with Lenny and Richard [Sohl], we got sturdier, and our thing started to get more defined.
I seriously worried that I was seeing the decline of rock & roll. It was stadium rock and glitter bands. It was getting square from Peter Frampton on up. So I started aggressively pursuing what we were doing. But still not self-motivated – I don't care if anybody believes me or not. My design was to shake things up, to motivate people and bring a different type of work ethic back into rock & roll.
Was there a defining moment when you sensed that real change was imminent?
Seeing Television. On Easter of 1974, Lenny and I were invited to the premiere of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones. It was such an exciting night. I had my Horses clothes on; I looked like Baudelaire. I was so thrilled to be asked to see the premiere of a movie. I'd never been to one.
After the movie, Lenny told me he had promised to go down to CBGB to see this new group. It was about midnight, and there were like 14 people there. We saw Television, and I thought they were great. I really felt that was it, what I was hoping for: to see people approach things in a different way with a street ethic but also their full mental faculties. Of course, Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell – he was in the group at the time – were both poets.
Then we started working together. They opened for us at Max's Kansas City; I think we did eight weeks together at CBGB. They were really heightened nights. Sometimes I see 8mm footage that somebody took and think, "God, did I have guts!" Because I wasn't much of a singer. But I had bravado, and I could improvise.
Does the term "punk rock" do justice to what you were trying to achieve?
When I hurt my neck in 1977 [Smith fell off the stage during a concert in Tampa, Fla.], I remember this kid Legs McNeil came to visit me. He brought me the first issue of his new magazine called Punk, and it had a little drawing of me on the cover. He brought it as a present. And I said to him, "Why did you call it Punk?" Because when I grew up, a punk was like an asshole, a jerk. And he said, "It doesn't mean that anymore." He was trying to let me know that punk was cool. [Laughs] I was already an old codger.
But I don't think it applies. What we were doing in 1974 was merging poetry and rock & roll and all of our other references – Tom Verlaine being into John Coltrane, those kinds of improvisational energies. Of course, we were flawed; maybe the guitars were out of tune. But I felt that what we were doing was unique and important. We weren't dummies in rags who didn't know shit. I may have known only a few chords – but they were the right ones.
Are there any songs from the '70s that you find difficult to perform now because of painful personal associations or meanings that don't apply anymore?
We have fun sometimes doing "Gloria," because at the end of the night, we're all so wiped out it's just fun to spell "G-L-O-R-I-A" together. But I couldn't sing the beginning ["Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine"] because I've outgrown that concept. That concept came from wanting to be free of responsibility. If I wanted to be a petty thief, if I wanted to commit art that wasn't orthodox, that was my right. I wasn't saying Jesus didn't exist or that I didn't think he was a great man. I wanted to take responsibility for my own actions; I didn't want to lay them on him. I didn't want a conscience.
My concepts of Christ are more developed now. I look at him as a very intelligent, charismatic revolutionary who was so precise and benevolent and had so much foresight that he produced a body of thought and a body of hope that still reverberates into our time. I don't regret saying those lines; I'm not recanting, I've just moved past them.
There are other songs I find difficult mostly because of Richard [Sohl] – all the Horses songs especially. It's just too sad. People really want us to do "Free Money." It's just that Richard used to open "Free Money" with that beautiful piano. And I truthfully miss him.
What is it like for you to perform "Piss Factory" now, 22 years after you recorded it? Even though you wrote it as an expression of your own adolescent frustration, the poem still has a potent, contemporary resonance.
It's important for people to remember the crap they had to go through. Teenagehood, to me, is the toughest thing in life. Maybe some people loved their teenage years; I found them really difficult.
But it's not a negative piece. It's not about the factory or those people in it. They're all minor characters. What it's really about is the human spirit. I was saying that as a young person, I still had desire – desire to do well. Perhaps some of these people in the factory lost all desire. I can understand how that can happen. It can be a rough life. But I also know that it is possible, as long as a person has a breath in their body, to feel alive. What "Piss Factory" is about is: someone who in the midst of the dead felt alive.
As I read it now, it doesn't matter whether I relate or don't relate to the whole scenario, which happened a long time ago. I'm still a human being with desires, hopes and dreams. In that respect, I haven't changed much.
What did they make in this factory besides piss?
They made baby buggies. I was a baby-buggy bumper-beeper inspector. [Laughs] You know those beepers on the buggies? I had to beep them to make sure they worked. But I kept getting demoted. I actually liked my lowest job – I had to inspect the pipes they used for the handles on the buggies – because I could take my copy of [Rimbaud's] A Season in Hell down in the basement and read.
How long did you last at the factory?
I only worked there in summers. I wanted to make money to go to college. It was just a schoolgirl thing.
But it wasn't written with a thought for anyone other than myself. That's why it's got that energy. When I wrote that piece, I didn't have any compassion for anybody else. I was fresh from having lived it, being ridiculed by those people, pushed around and roughed up.
Now I look at those same people with some compassion. I can imagine what their scenarios could have been: Maybe they were divorced, had five kids to take care of, nothing to look forward to. But I was 16, and I was concerned with myself.
Your new book about Robert Mapplethorpe, The Coral Sea, is an almost mystical narrative written in an elegant, romantic style of prose, unlike any of your other published work.
That's because hardly any of my '80s work has been published. I spent every day of the '80s working on my writing, and I actually wrote . . . I hate to call them novels, more like novella-type pieces. And this particular work comes out of that. One morning I'd just sent Jackson off to school; it was about 7:30 in the morning, and the phone rang. I knew what it would be. It was Robert's brother; Robert had passed away.
I was watching A&E at the time. They had a long series on the Romantic poets, so I was deeply into Shelley and Byron. At the time he called me, I was actually watching the movie version of the opera Tosca, but when that was over, I was going to get my Romantic-era dose. I knew Robert was dying; I was on vigil that night. I had wept quite a bit in those last two years. So I just sat there and then became immediately energized. I felt rushes of energy, nearly chaotic. But I kept it together and started writing. And I didn't stop. Every morning after Jackson went to school, while Fred was sleeping, from March to May , I worked on this.
The book describes a young man, M, undertaking a final journey before his death, but it does not recount Mapplethorpe's art or life in a literal sense.
No, it's encoded. It's not really about Robert, who had AIDS, and how he battled it. It encodes his process as an artist and things I knew about him, his childhood. The uncle in the piece is [his patron and mentor] Sam Wagstaff. Robert was very into the surrealists, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst – the idea of objects in boxes, making altarpieces. So the passenger M is also much like that.
Was it hard for you, after Mapplethorpe's death, to see him demonized by conservative politicians and right-wing activists who targeted the explicit sexuality in some of his work?
I thought it was ludicrous. If Robert was alive, he would have found it annoying. But he would also have been heartbroken by the idea of [Sen.] Jesse Helms introducing Robert's pictures of children – he photographed children beautifully and in no unnatural way – as examples of child pornography. He would have wept over that.
Robert didn't like controversy. He didn't do his work politically. He was a pure artist. When he photographed two men kissing or a man pissing in another man's mouth, he was trying, as Jean Genet did, to portray a certain aspect of the human condition nobly, elegantly. I know the kind of man he was. If someone said, "This picture of a cock offends me," he would have taken it down and put a flower up. Because to him they were the same photograph. And they were. Robert's photographs of flowers were very evocative.
He had no problem with labeling his work. The small body of S&M photographs that he had, he put in a portfolio called X. He agreed with stickers that said one had to be over 18 to walk into a room that had this work. It was not for everybody – he knew that.
How did you feel about the rise of the PMRC [Parents Music Resource Center] in the '80s and the use of parental advisory stickers on albums? I would think that as an artist you would have disapproved of anything that smacked of censorship.
I had no problem as an artist. When I did Easter and had armpit hair on the cover and we used the word fuck in "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger," [Arista Records President] Clive Davis told me, "This is not mainstream material. They're not going to rack this record in certain parts of America." I had no problem with that. I didn't make my records for the mainstream.
But a parental advisory sticker implies a judgment – an artificial judgment – of more than just literal content.
Let's face it: Most of the stuff that people wanted stickered was trash anyway. I'm sorry, but I didn't find any redeeming qualities in 2 Live Crew. People have to express themselves, but it didn't deserve to be mainstream. A lot of the work that was done in the '80s, at least the little that I heard, was produced without conscience – without any real motivation, without any thought to elevate, educate or inspire.
"Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" is one of your most popular songs, and you still do it onstage. Do you regret using such a loaded and pejorative word as "nigger"?
But I was dealing with a loaded concept. The idea was like it says in the poem: "Nigger no invented for color it was made for the plague." In my studies, as I remember them, the word nigger first referred to canelike people. You could have called Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci a nigger – people that created art for the palace but had to come in the back door. Beethoven was not allowed to come in through the front door of the palace.
I was taking this archaic use of the word nigger and sort of reinventing it. It was the idea of taking a word that was specific and hurtful to people and obliterating it, blowing that apart and reinventing it so it was more like a badge of courage. Like the kids did with the word punk.
It was part of my group's attempt to break the boundaries, to obliterate labels. The way I look at it, there's good work and bad work. And just because someone says the word fuck – talks about sex or violence – doesn't make it good or worthy. If it became hip to like paintings on black velvet, that wouldn't make the paintings good. It's a fad. And fads and trends have nothing to do with art.
You often use the word "work"when referring to your art. For someone who has been characterized as a bohemian poet and singer, you have a strong, focused work ethic.
I always have. I really developed a high work ethic through Robert. He had the strongest work ethic I've ever seen. Until practically the day he died, when he was almost paralyzed and half-blind, he was still trying to draw. And my parents have strong work ethics. They both worked hard all their lives.
People think, "You romanticize all these indulgent, decadent French artists." I never romanticized their lifestyle, their waste. What I truly loved about them is the work they do. If someone had a great, romantic, self-indulgent life but did crappy art, I wouldn't be interested.
The rock & roll business changed a lot in your absence. When you retired in 1979, there were no compact discs, no MTV. John Lennon was still alive. How do you relate to the changes, and what are your hopes for the future?
We have to be more responsible. We're more educated now, more global. And as we get more global, we get more successful. And what are we going to do with that? I think we have to give it back. I look at these benefits and honors shows, and I do them, too. But it's not enough. If I had $50 million in the bank right now, today, I would find the top AIDS laboratory. I wouldn't do a benefit. I'd just write a check for $25 million, hand it to them and say, "Do whatever you can." We have to open our veins more. What did Jesus say? Give the lion's share.
I know it seems easy for me to say because I don't have that money, I'm not on that level. But I daydream about this all the time: what we can all do, how we can merge, how we can be a more powerful source. I wish there was one big bank and we said, "Fuck it, we're not gonna do all this little stuff – give here, give there. We'll make this giant pool – like $200 million." Whoever has it, they're going to put it in, it's going to develop interest, and we can go right to the source. Like Audrey Hepburn – we're going right to Somalia with it.
Rock & roll is music made, for the most part, by misfits and malcontents. Isn't the idea of getting them to agree on anything – especially money – something of a contradiction?
I still have some '60s romantic concept: Misfits or not, we're all in this together. You don't lose your code of art or your mantle because we agree on one simple fact: that when people need a helping hand, you give it. I think we're being used. We could better merge somehow and decide how things are going to be disseminated. I don't have it all thought out. And I realize I'm an outsider snot-nose with a lot to say – with empty pockets and a big mouth. But there are people out there with a lot more power than me.
Snot-noses with big pockets.
Exactly. I'm just throwing this stuff out. I keep hoping that people who are more articulate than me will understand what I mean, and they'll do it. And I'll do the laundry for it [Laughs]. I do that pretty good.
Do you miss rock & roll stardom at all – even just a little bit?
I didn't really experience a lot of that. On our last tour of Europe [in 1979], we were extremely popular, so I did see all the fame and fortune and fawning that I needed to see in a lifetime: paparazzi, people cutting my hair and pulling my clothes off. I felt like Elvis Presley for a month or two.
Fred's motto around the house – which I actually put in "Gone Again" – was, Fame is fleeting, which he took from General Patton, which General Patton took from Alexander the Great. And to strip one's self of all that is quite interesting. It's somewhat humiliating and painful at first, but once you do it, it's very liberating.
I don't look at all those things with contempt. I appreciate it when young bands say they were positively inspired by our work. And I'm proud that I can actually say, "Yes, for a brief period of my life, I was a rock & roll star." I cherish that.
But I don't need it now. Nor do I want it. That's youth's game. And quite a game. It can be an admirable, even treacherous game. But it belongs to youth.
This is a story from the July 11th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.