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.
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