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Forty Years of Rolling Stone: Patti Smith

The singer talks about growing up in the Sixties and whether or not there’s hope for the post-9/11 generation

Patti Smith

Patti Smith

Kevin Kane/WireImage

You and George W. Bush were both born in 1946 and witnessed the same upheavals and changes in the Sixties. How do you account for the difference between his ideals and yours?
He comes from wealth and a political arena. His father was president. I take my ideals from my parents. My father fought in World War II. He was drafted and felt he had done his patriotic duty. But he was a pacifist. When we dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he was crushed by that.

My parents were idealistic. I don’t even like calling them liberal. They were just people who never acknowledged differences like homosexuality or race. They opened their home to everyone. I was brought up in a home with no prejudice. And I grew up not believing in an enemy. When Bush wanted to go into Iraq, it was common sense to me — it was wrong and immoral, and it would be disastrous for the American people. That came from growing up with my mother and father.

Are you shocked that someone of your generation, someone who saw all that you did, saw it so differently?
I’m more shocked that my generation as a whole failed to rally by the millions — against going into Iraq and against how the media slept with the Bush administration. I find it heartbreaking not just in the choices we made but in what we taught our children. The next generations have not been politically active. They have not rallied by the millions. There is so much they can do. And I have faith that future generations will be more conscious, especially about the environment.

Why has your generation lost so much of the vision and energy that defined it in the Sixties?
It’s hard for me to say. I wasn’t part of that revolution. I was a Seventies person. I embraced the Sixties musically and ideologically but not lifestylewise. I didn’t like the idea of a mass drug culture.

What didn’t you like about it?
I thought drugs were a sacred thing that American Indians used in sweat lodges and self-realization, that jazz musicians might use to speak to God. They were not a recreational tool. But people bought into the lifestyle. In the end, they got tired, burned out. They had a lot of fun but wanted families, to make a living, to be comfortable. They got that in the Reagan and Clinton administrations and didn’t want to give that up.

Did you ever take LSD?
I tried it three times. The first was in 1974 with Robert Mapplethorpe [the acclaimed artist and photographer who took the cover shot of Smith’s 1975 debut, Horses, and whose sexually charged images were attacked by conservatives in the Eighties. He died of AIDS in 1989].

That was almost ten years after everyone else did it.
I never felt like I needed it. When I finally took it, I walked around New York. It was at the time of a garbage strike, and I recall thinking there was a lot of corruption in the world. Robert said, “Patti, it’s supposed to make you feel good.” Instead, I felt like John Brown. I felt like all around was filth and corruption.

Did you participate in civil rights demonstrations or anti-war protests in the Sixties?
No. I lived in southern New Jersey. It was rural. I wasn’t privy to what was happening in the world. When I was in high school, most of my friends were black. My world was so small I didn’t even know there was a civil rights movement. In my school, girls didn’t even get driver’s education. Boys learned to drive and girls had cooking. I was bad at that, so I took art classes.

A lot of kids I knew in school got killed [in Vietnam]. My brother Todd had to go into the Navy. But I went my way. I was not the norm. Also, in 1968 I had literally just started working for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign — I was so excited and proud — when he was killed. I had already been through the first Kennedy assassination. It scared me and sickened me.

The Vietnam War depressed me so much as it went on and on that I actually stopped doing art for a while. I felt so ineffectual as a human being. I felt art was pointless — which was the wrong way to think. I vowed never to let the actions of the world depress me so much that I couldn’t be productive.

Do you think people are frozen by sadness and fear because of 9/11 and the war on terror, just as you were during Vietnam?
I can only say, in my defense, I was pretty young. And there is more information now. I’d go home and say, “Daddy, can you explain the Vietnam War to me?” And he’d say, “No, I can’t. I can’t understand it.”

My disappointment is how we all saw how terrible Vietnam was, and yet we — and our appointed leaders — allowed ourselves to be drawn into the same thing. I was watching C-Span when the Democrats folded and voted in Bush’s favor [to authorize military action in Iraq]. I was actually crying out, “No, don’t do it!” I wanted to go into the TV, grab Hillary [Clinton], get on my knees and say, “Hillary, don’t do it. I know you’re a better person.”

Was that vote a betrayal of your — and her — generation’s ideals?
It was worse than a betrayal. It was clear-cut. This was morally and legally wrong on every count, and for no apparent reason. You can say fear, because of September 11th. But I live down the street [from Ground Zero]. Nothing could have led me to that decision.

You left South Jersey in 1967 and moved to New York. What did you hope to find?
I came to get a job. One of my ideas was to be a tour guide at the Museum of Modern Art. I found every single painting in there and studied them. My other idea was to work in a bookstore, because I loved books. I made sixty-five dollars a week at Scribner’s, and Robert and I paid eighty-five dollars a month for an apartment in Brooklyn, so we did all right.

Did you dive into the counterculture when you got here?
When I came to New York, the big talk in Brooklyn was the Brooklyn Dodgers moving to California [in 1958]. They were still complaining about it so much on the subway I thought it had just happened.

We didn’t have any money. Robert got a job as an usher at the Fillmore East for a while, so he got to see some bands. He’d come home and tell me about them. But we were on the poverty level. Our money went to rent, food and a little bit of art supplies.

You wrote a couple of pieces for ROLLING STONE in 1971, including a review of an anthology by the German singer Lotte Lenya. How important was the magazine to you?
I can remember the first time I bought ROLLING STONE. It was the John Lennon cover [Issue One]. When I was living in New Jersey, the only things you could find were teen magazines like Tiger Beat. You had to buy a whole magazine for one picture of Bob Dylan. So ROLLING STONE was a revelation. I had a real connection with it early on.

I didn’t consider myself an active rock writer. But in the early Seventies, writing rock & roll pieces seemed like a burgeoning art form. I asked Jann Wenner myself if I could review the Lotte Lenya record. I loved her. I learned about her from Bob Dylan — he has a Lotte Lenya record on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home. Jann was skeptical, but he gave me the chance. Not only did he publish it, but it was in a box with a nice picture of her. Later, she sent me a message — a handwritten note. It was a big thrill.

Did you like psychedelic music? How much did it influence the music you made later?
I loved Grace Slick. She was not singing R&B or jazz or blues. Her vocal on [Jefferson Airplane’s] “White Rabbit” was, to me, the first rock vocal by a female that was beyond gender. I had no thoughts of singing then, but as I evolved, I felt that early experience with Grace Slick gave me special permission. And Johnny Winter was one of the greatest performers I’ve seen. He was confrontational, with such demonic humor. He would leap out, amongst the people, and sing right in your face. He made a big impact on me.

Do you hear any of the daring and social engagement of late-Sixties rock in the current music around you?
I don’t think people then were motivated to get rich and famous. That came along, and it was “OK, we’ll take it, baby.” But those artists were driven to push envelopes, to create space. They had words and music, and they documented the times. Jimi Hendrix had hopes and dreams and started a new universal language.

My husband Fred [the late MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith] used to tell me that the MC5 really believed they could change the world. They didn’t just say it. They were intoxicated with this feeling that they could stop the war in Vietnam, that they could stop prejudice. And their music reflected that. They were going to fucking start a revolution.

Why is that no longer a guiding principle?
It’s a more material world. People have credit cards. Kids have credit cards. We don’t have a draft. Three thousand parents have lost their kids to this war, not 50,000. Of course, there will be hundreds of thousands of parents who will have kids that have been maimed and emotionally damaged by this. We don’t know the toll this war will take on all of those kids over there.

Maybe things come too easy now. When I wanted to hear “White Rabbit,” I had to save my money, get on a bus to Philadelphia, get my single, get back on the bus and hope the electric bill was paid so I could play my record. You didn’t just dial it up on your cell phone and pay for it with your credit card. Everything was a choice: Am I going to get Jimi Hendrix’s new album or Surrealistic Pillow? You didn’t just dial them up and get them all.

I’m not saying, “Oh, in the good old days…” I don’t believe in that. But things are different. Things have changed so much since the millennium that we’re out of breath. We don’t know how this stuff will affect us. I’m watching my kids on cell phones — I think of those microwaves going into their brains. I’m horrified they’re going to get some horrible disease from that.

How have you changed, in a lasting way, since 1967?
I don’t feel that much different. I hope I’m a better person, that’s all — better in that one tries to be more considerate of the feelings of others. When you’re young, you’re basically concerned with yourself — unless you’re Mother Teresa.

One change was going to Detroit, getting married and having kids — going through a lot of the same struggles my parents did. Fred and I didn’t have a lot of money. We did everything ourselves. If the diapers needed washing or the floors needed to be scrubbed, I did it. If the house was flooded and needed to be cleaned — things of a more manual labor — Fred did it.

I learned that being an artist did not make me a privileged character. I was still an artist. I was also a human being with the same concerns and insecurities as others: Am I a good mom? Am I giving my kids the right foods? How long should I let my daughter cry? As difficult as I thought things were, I thought of my parents, who had four of us, in this tiny house in South Jersey. All day, my mother did what she had to in the house. Then, at four in the afternoon, she went to her waitressing job, worked till ten at night, then came home and got other things done. I think now of that sacrifice, and it’s just awesome.

Have we forgotten the importance of sacrifice?
That could be possible. My parents had to sacrifice because of World War II. Then there was Vietnam, and people had to sacrifice their sons and daughters. Kids had to sacrifice certain things to fight the government. And in the Sixties, nobody had any money. People will say, “Oh, you lived in the Chelsea Hotel with all these famous people.” The weren’t so famous then. William Burroughs didn’t have any money. Jim Carroll never had any money. Sam Shepard had a little money. Everybody was scraping around — but scraping around in a colorful manner.

I hated credit cards when they came out. I would have protested credit cards. My friends were getting them in the mail, buying stuff. I said, “What are you doing? You can’t pay for that.” And they’d go, “What are they going to do, arrest me?” That transformed our society in an unhealthy way.

How did your generation changed the world for the better, permanently?
The women’s movement continues to be strong. It is active and vigilant. People are not going to tamper with the changes women have made since the Sixties. There would be a universal outcry.

The cultural body of work of the Sixties is forever with us. We had Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Jim Morrison — it was a special time, like some Greek-god period. I like having heroes. But I also love what kids are doing right now. I’m not a part of it. But seeing it happen in front of me, I’m amazed.

What amazes you?
They create their own music on their computers and share it with each other. They get crappy little gigs in crappy little places and go to see each other. My daughter, Jesse, was in a band for a while, and I loved their music so much — not because it was my daughter. I just loved the songs. Kids know more about structuring a song, how to sonically put it together.

But rock & roll is more than music. It is a consciousness. It merged with our ideologies — the civil rights movement, Vietnam. The music of the Sixties was synonymous with what was happening in our world. And that music will, consciously or unconsciously, still be a template for activism. If you want to know how a musician reacts to what happens to him, I always say, “Ohio” [by Neil Young]. Something happened that was wrong, that was terrible. A song was written immediately, and it went out to the people. That song made us all aware of what happened and drew us together.

It’s still possible. Maybe it will be done differently. Maybe the kids on MySpace will have an anthem that will get them out in the streets. I don’t know what they’re gonna do, because I’m not them. I’m not their leader. But I am vigilant, and I have faith in them.

Still, it’s hard work now, just being hopeful.
I just say my prayers and always thank God for people who are not only aware but active out there.

In This Article: Coverwall, Patti Smith

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