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.
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