This story is from the April 26th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
“It was something I had to wrestle with: Who am I now and what can I give to the people?” Patti Smith says, sitting at a desk in the second-floor art studio of her Manhattan home. Her new Columbia album, Banga, out on June 5th, is the poet-singer’s first set of original songs since 2004’s Trampin’ and took more than two years to make. She is explaining why.
“I’m on my own, without a companion, without a husband,” Smith, 65, says, referring to Fred “Sonic” Smith, who died in 1994. “I’m older, well-traveled. As a human being, I’m pretty happy.” Smith is also a bestselling author. Just Kids, her 2010 memoir about life in New York in the Seventies with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, was a worldwide hit, translated into 30 languages. But “to give people a new record, I have to evolve, have new things to share. I needed those years of traipsing around.”
Smith produced Banga with her devoted band – guitarist Lenny Kaye, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and bassist Tony Shanahan – and recorded it close to home, mostly at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, where she cut her iconic 1975 debut LP, Horses. Her son Jackson and daughter Jesse play guitar and piano, respectively. Television guitarist Tom Verlaine contributes signature-psychedelia solos on “April Fool” and “Nine,” the latter written by Smith as a birthday present for Johnny Depp. And that’s the actor on acoustic guitar in the intro to the title song, taken from Smith’s original demo.
Banga is also, literally, a trip – “the network of my mind and the correspondences of things,” as Smith puts it. “The two things that constantly inspired me were books and travel.” “April Fool” came out of her immersion in the stories of the 19th-century Russian author Nikolai Gogol. The long improvisation “Constantine’s Dream” began with “a terrible nightmare about environmental apocalypse,” Smith says. It evolved with her reading of the life of St. Francis and included a pilgrimage to Italy, “to see his tomb, the monastery he built, where he had his visions.”
There is “a whole journey to the record,” Shanahan says, beginning with the New World dream in “Amerigo,” named after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, “to man’s destruction of mankind in ‘Constantine’s Dream.’ ” There is a hopeful coda: a cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” sung by Smith with a group of schoolchildren. “They come in under her,” the bassist says, “and she dissipates as they sing” – the young taking over from their elders.
“Banga,” a singalong rave-up, was written early for the album but finally recorded last year. (Listen to an exclusive stream of the track below.) Smitten by The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s comic masterpiece about the devil running wild in Stalinist Russia, Smith took a field trip to Moscow to visit sites associated with the novel. “That’s what I love about my band,” she says with delight. “I can tell them, ‘We’re going on a tour, we won’t make a huge amount of money, but we’ll see where the Master and Margarita lived.'”
“Banga,” though, is named after a dog that, in the book, sits with Pontius Pilate as he awaits forgiveness, in eternity, for sending Christ to the cross. “This dog, to me, is the epitome of love and loyalty,” Smith says, “from the simple act of waiting with his master, for centuries.”
Smith, who made her debut as a singer in 1971, with Kaye, at St. Mark’s Church in New York, has “never sounded better,” Shanahan says. He cites “This Is the Girl,” a eulogy for Amy Winehouse: “The way Patti sings major notes over a minor chord – there is something beautiful about that.”
Smith still refuses to call herself a musician: “Writing is my thread.” She is currently working on a detective novel and adapting Just Kids into a screenplay. But the long gap between records “won’t happen again.” Smith intends to keep performing “while my voice is strong and clean and there is good communication.
“I’m proud of my band,” Smith declares. “We can play for 50,000 people in Europe. The next day, we can do an acoustic poetry thing for 300 people. We have no problem.” She smiles broadly. “From a birthday party to the foot of the Pyramids – just tell us where you want us.”
Listen to Patti Smith’s “Banga”: