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

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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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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