On February 10, 1971, Patti Smith gave her first public poetry reading — at St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery in New York City, accompanied by guitarist and rock critic Lenny Kaye. “We climaxed the reading,” Smith recalled in Complete, her 1998 anthology of lyrics, poems and artwork, “with his sonic interpretation of a stock car race with electric guitar while I read ‘Ballad of a Bad Boy.’ It seemed to have a negative effect. I took that as a positive sign.”
Thirty-three years later, Smith is still at war with convention and condescension. Her superb new album, Trampin’ — Smith’s first for the Columbia label after a virtual lifetime at Arista Records — is a call for action and optimism in a world gripped by terror and fear, a promise that the darkness is never permanent when you believe in light. “Recruit the dreams that sing to thee,” she sings at the end of the first track, “Jubilee,” over the crackling martial stomp of her band. “Let freedom ring.”
“I can’t speak for the average American — I’ve never been the average American,” Smith says with a bright, girlish smile, sitting on a couch in her art studio, a tiny humble room in Lower Manhattan where she labors on her writing, painting and photography. “But there are things I am concerned about — the environment, the exploitation of children, war. These are human concerns, and I want everybody to hear and think about these things.”
Smith spoke about those concerns and a lot more during two long interviews in March and April, featured in the current issue of Rolling Stone. What follows are additional extensive excerpts from those conversations, in which she discusses her rock & roll dreams in the 1970s and continuing faith in the power of the music to ring in change; her controversial support of Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election and the impending November contest; the songs on Trampin’ and the making of the album, which she produced with her great, long-serving group: Kaye, guitarist Oliver Ray, bassist Tony Shanahan and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty.
Smith, 57, also speaks frankly of her ongoing life in rock & roll and the still-distant prospect of retirement: “There’s nothing they can offer me — even a million dollars — that could make me do the work if it didn’t feel right. As long as I keep listening to my nature, as long as I have the strength of my comrades, we will continue.”
THE WORKING ARTIST
If you had not gotten another major-label record deal, would you have walked away from music?
I could have done something — probably more improvisational things, playing the clarinet, writing poetry. If I feel like I can contribute, I will work. I’ve actually felt more drive to make records in the past couple of years than I have in other parts of my life.
I work the way I work. I don’t expect anything from anybody. Like when I do my art — I don’t expect a government grant. I will do my work whether I have a patron or not. I look at record companies that way. Michealangelo had the Vatican. I had Clive Davis at Arista. Now I have Columbia. I don’t feel I’m doing anything wrong by working in the traditional framework. Because I’ve never done anything to placate the traditional framework.
When you started working with Lenny Kaye in the early Seventies, fusing rock and poetry, did you feel you deserved a record deal?
My initial hope was to infuse some energy into the world of poetry and to inspire people to reclaim rock & roll as a forum for political, spiritual and revolutionary energy and dialogue. I didn’t expect to make records. I was more into stirring up trouble. And I had been offered record contracts in the past, believe it or not — in 1971.
Really? Under what circumstances?
Someone had a vision that I might do something interesting with one of their artists, in a Sonny-and-Cher kind of situation [smiles]. I was actually offered a very lucrative situation. But it wasn’t correct for me. It wasn’t appropriate. But people did see things in me, before I saw things in myself.
How would you describe the differences between the Patti Smith Group of the 1970s and the band you have today?
Richard Sohl. Richard was one of the founding fathers of the original band. [Sohl, Smith’s pianist in the 1970s, died in 1990.] But I’m present-oriented. If I go back there, I have to think of a whole world of people who are gone. I’m a person who honors the past and honors my influences. I have great memories of things. But I have so much more work to do. I’m more attached to the present.
THE POETRY IN ROCK
When I talked to Lenny in December about the new album, he mentioned that you and the band got together for a rehearsal in February, 2003 to find out — and this is how he put it — “whether we had a future. Our heritage is honorable, and we didn’t want to drag that through the mud.” What did you feel, at that point, the band’s future could, or should, be?
As a band, we go through our ups and downs. But we keep revalidating our worth, and that keeps me going. This band has already been together longer than the original band.
The thing is, we all contribute. Everyone brings in music, and I really choose the music that I can enter. For instance, “Gandhi” is rooted in one night of improvising. We were at the Roxy [in Los Angeles] or somewhere, in the middle of “Rock and Roll Nigger,” which I often improvise on, and a few of these lines about Gandhi came to me. I tabled them in my mind. I started reading his books and books about him. I had the rhythm in my mind, the band just fell in and we did it in rehearsal a few times. But I wanted it to be improvised in the studio. So we didn’t practice it any more — “Gandhi” is only a couple of chords, but it has a lot to do with listening to each other.
We made a demo at Philip Glass’ studio. We had three days, and on the last night — it was midnight — I said, “Let’s try a couple of ‘Gandhi’s.” I had the first few lines, we did it twice, and the second one is on the record. It has flaws, but it’s live and improvised. I was proud of that communication — that late at night, at the end of things.
“Stride of the Mind” has a great grinding riff. But that title is so brilliant, it sounds like that was the starting point, rather than the music.
It was Oliver’s riff. As soon as he started playing it, I loved it. I wrote the first verse right away. Some songs take more labor. I have to think about it, think of the shifts. When Oliver wrote the music for “Cash,” I had different lyrics, but I wasn’t totally satisfied. Then on the day Johnny Cash died, I was sitting on this couch, there was a newspaper lying there, and it had a picture of Johnny Cash in that long black coat. I was looking at it, this music was playing and I was contemplating, not just Johnny Cash, but men with a certain way, somebody like Fred [“Sonic” Smith, the MC5 guitarist and Patti’s husband, who died in 1994] — a certain kind of man who contributes, who is a good person, but also has a hard way. They take the hard road. I was just contemplating all of that, and the lyrics came to me.
People thought of you, in the beginning, primarily as a poet — and that words were both paramount and first.
I write poetry differently. I write poetry that is good talking, that has a rhythm in it without music. Poetry comes more naturally to me than writing lyrics. Also, I have no responsibility to anybody but myself. I write a poem — it’s my poem. If it’s a bad poem, it’s my poem. When you’re writing lyrics to somebody else’s music, you have a responsibility, and I feel the weight of that responsibility.
Did “Piss Factory”, the B-side of your first single in 1974, start as a poem or a spoken song?
“Piss Factory” was a poem. We had worked on [the A-side] “Hey Joe,” and I literally had an hour to do the B-side — record it, mix it. I had my poem, Richard and Lenny did this thing, and I read over it. That was it. We did it twice and picked the best one.
So you really have a division of entry, into what becomes a poem and what becomes a song.
Absolutely. And where they fuse, in an interesting way, is when something is totally improvised, like “Radio Baghdad.” I’ve learned how to improvise from listening to John Coltrane records. I know the responsibility of the improviser. You go out as far as you can, then you return. Coltrane goes out and talks to God. But he knows the people are waiting, so he returns.
I’m not an actress. I’ll have some nights when nothing will come. That’s why I started playing electric guitar, because I can express myself sonically. I can’t play chords, but I’m not interested in playing them. When I can’t express myself through language, I do it through sound. Also, the band can express certain things. I’ll step back and listen to them — be privileged and lucky that they’re taking over.
BUSH, NADER AND BLAKE
You actively campaigned for Ralph Nader in his 2000 run for the presidency. But one of the things you spoke about when I saw you play in December was getting Bush out of the White House — which is not the same as voting for the candidate of your choice.
No, what I said was, if you don’t want Bush in there anymore, then register to vote and vote for your choice. Don’t sit and complain about it. I don’t believe in this thing where this is not the election year for third-party candidates. It’s important that our process be reaffirmed in every election year — that we have more voices out there.
In “Gandhi,” you sing “Awake from your slumber/Get ’em with the numbers.” One of the lessons of 2000 is that, technically, Al Gore had the numbers. He won the popular vote for president — and still lost the election.
Al Gore is probably a good man. But if he had been stronger and truer to himself, he would have won. He didn’t attract me because I didn’t think he was being true to himself. I’m not a politician. I don’t like politics. Ralph Nader came into my life right after my father passed away. My father loved him. He was one of the few people my father admired and trusted. Just by coincidence, when my father died, I got a call from the Nader camp. I didn’t know where I was going to put my energies. I was curious. I went to hear him speak, and I could see what attracted my father. When I listen to Ralph Nader, I feel comforted and inspired. I feel like he’s someone with a like mind. Can I turn my back on that?
As far as this election goes, I want to see — and I’m sure Ralph wants to see — the Bush administration toppled. But he also thinks of the future. Certain ideas and ideals must be preserved. And when you do things like that, you’re not going to be thanked by anyone — but the future. No one thanked William Blake in his time. He died penniless and obscure and ridiculed. And his work resounds now, and we all learn from it.
How autobiographical is the song “In My Blakean Year?” Did Blake’s work inspire you as a young person, or later on? Allen Ginsberg often spoke of his own Blakean epiphany, of the impact Blake’s words and art had on his own.
I was reading William Blake as a child. Songs of Innocence was next to Winnie the Pooh and Black Beauty. And I learned things — about chimney sweeps and the terrible child labor of his time. I could see he cared about children. The second way I came to Blake was as a painter: I studied his work and palette. More recently, I’ve studied Blake the man. And what I learned was that this was a man who had visions as a child, who was ridiculed and even beaten for having these visions. But he maintained those visions his whole life. Wherever they came from, whether he animated them from within or they were from God, William Blake held on to his vision. He never got a break in his life. His work never sold. He lived in poverty. When he spoke out, he nearly lost his life. He could have been hanged for insurrection.
What I learned from William Blake is, don’t give up. And don’t expect anything. Like when you were asking me, did I deserve a record deal? Don’t expect it. I have a great life. I’ve seen dark times too and have had, in certain times of my life, nothing. No material things, not much prospects — except my own imagination. But if you perceive that you have a gift, you already have life. Everything else is, as they say, gravy.
“My Blakean Year” is not any specific year. It’s more of a time. It could be a week, a decade. Also, there’s the line in there: “Throw off your stupid cloak, embrace all that you fear.” That’s the one thing in our country — I know we have a horrible deficit, all of these horrible things happening. But the worst thing the Bush administration has done is instill huge amounts of fear in our people. That is deplorable. We have to replace that fear with awareness and a determination to make things better.
ON “HOWL” AND HAPPINESS
You recorded the song “Spell (Footnotes to ‘Howl’)” for your 1997 album Peace and Noise, and you frequently read from Ginsberg’s epic poem in concert. The last time I saw you perform, in December, you started quoting from it in the middle of “Land.” What is it about “Howl,” which was written nearly half a century ago, that continues to move you?
It’s strange. When everyone was reading Howl, when I was younger, I didn’t appreciate it. When my friends were into the Beats, I was into the French. I was a hundred years behind, which is usually the case with me. Then I was fortunate enough to meet Allen and count him as one of my friends.
But it wasn’t until Allen died that I started connecting with his work. And it’s nice for me, because I haven’t used it up. I think it has less to do with the content of Howl and more to do with accessing Allen’s activist — and active — spirit. He was totally open. He loved rock & roll. He loved performance. He loved young people. I was always much closer to William [S. Burroughs]. But at the end of Allen’s life, it seemed like he knew he was dying, and he spent a lot of time depositing his knowledge and energy into all of us.
I can’t even tell you what Howl is about. But the language and vibrancy, the blood of the city in that poem: it’s very fresh to me. I often have Howl with me on stage, because we sometimes do “Footnotes.” And when I was in the middle of “Land” that night, Johnny is wrestling with the future, and he finds these words — the fall of “the best minds of my generation” — unfortunately resonating. We keep finding the best minds of our generation either assassinated or discarded, brought down by drugs or disease. And we have to do two things: Try, somehow, to remember the best aspects of those minds, and do the best to become a good mind ourselves.
What music and artists do you listen to now for pleasure and inspiration?
I love Maria Callas, Strauss and Bach. I love Charley Patton. What I look for in music is something that speaks to me, that makes me feel better. Michael Stipe’s voice makes me feel good. He has that special quality that makes you feel, “Oh, man, what a drag — but everything will be OK.” Jerry Garcia has that kind of voice.
Then you have a beautiful silky voice like Skip James. If I feel a certain kind of anguish, I might turn to [the early Sixties R&B singer] Chuck Jackson. I tend to listen to the same music I listened to as a kid: Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix. At night, if you’re feeling low and you need something that empowers you, put on “1983 (A Merman I Shall Turn to Be)” [from Electric Ladyland]. Music has always been a sort of deliverance for me. It has always helped me not feel alone.
The last track on your new album is a cover of “Trampin’,’ a hymn made famous by the gospel singer Marian Anderson. How did you first hear the song, and what moved you to record it?
I go through phases when I’m working on my drawings and paintings. I get hooked on one thing. I was listening to Marian Anderson quite a bit while I was working on lyrics for this record. I also started listening to her after my mom died. I heard this little song, and it made me think of my mom, in a really positive way. It just became my private theme song. Then I got it in my mind to cover it for the record, because it just has piano, and my daughter Jesse plays piano. I asked her if she wanted to do it with me, and she worked really hard on it.
It’s another one of those songs that makes me feel like everything’s gonna be OK. I have my low periods, like anybody else. But I hardly go through a day that I don’t just feel happy to be here — so happy to look at my kids, look at my work, look at my books. I can stand in front of dusty piles of books and laugh — they’re just so great. If I had nothing else, no other reason to live, if I lived in a hovel and had a plate of eggs every once in awhile and these books — and my glasses, of course [laughs]. I’m basically an optimistic person. I refuse to be unhappy.
And this band has given me more confidence than I ever had before. I know that I have more experience now, but it’s not just that. There is something about the way we all work together. I’m not trying to idealize our situation. We have our struggles. I wish that Richard was still alive — if I could have one selfish wish. But beyond that, I wouldn’t want to be in any other time period. This is the time I choose: with these people, these comrades; with the guitar that I have, the mike stand and the crew.
We’re living in the present — and that is everything.