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

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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.

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Song Stories

“Whoomp! (There It Is)”

Tag Team | 1993

Cecil Glenn — a.k.a., "D.C." — was a cook at Magic City, a nude dance club in Atlanta, when he first heard women shout "Whoomp — there it is!" Inspired by the party chant, he and partner Steve "Roll'n" Gibson wrote a song around it. Undaunted by label rejections, they borrowed $2,500 from Glenn's parents and pressed 800 singles, which quickly sold out in the Atlanta area. A record deal came soon after. Glenn said the song was meant for positive partying. "If you're going to say 'Whoomp there it is,' and you're doing something negative, we'd rather it not have come out of your mouth."

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