Back For Good: Looking Up to Patti Smith

Keir DuBois looks up to Patti Smith. (Originally published in the Artsweek section of the UCSB Daily Nexus on 10/23/97).

Patti Smith is very happy. The “Godmother of Punk” certainly doesn’t seem angry enough to merit that title. Perhaps that’s because she’s had enough of deep pain. Her last album, 1996’s Gone Again, swung low into despair and mourning over the deaths of her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred Smith, and of her friend, artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. That pain was enough to bring her out of the semi-retirement she’s enjoyed (with the exception of a 1988 album) since 1980. With Gone Again, and the new Peace and Noise, Smith returns to the fore with a vengeance, reasserting the poetic power she has held over rock and roll for twenty years.

Artsweek: Peace and Noise is your second album in 2 years. What was the impetus for the new activity after all that time off?

Patti Smith: Fred and I were working toward a new record, and around 1993 we started building material and ideas for what we thought would be pretty much a politically articulate record addressing issues we were both interested in. When Fred passed away I didn’t quite have the heart to work on that record and instead sat down and wrote most of the songs for Gone Again in rememberance of Fred. It was really a record that I constructed around him as a man, and having done that, after I regrouped and strengthened myself, I felt I could continue to work on the type of record that we had set out to do, that would address things he and I thought were important.

Did making Peace and Noise get you excited about recording again?

Yeah certainly, because I was honored to be able to communicate certain things about Fred. As his wife and his friend I felt it my duty and something I wanted to do, but it wasn’t the most joyful of experiences, and so to enter the recording studio and to addreess these other subjects was invigorating.

Recently I saw you on TV in this documentary on PBS about New York in 1975 and the whole scene that revolved around CBGB’s, with Television and the Ramones and other bands. Would it be weird for you to see yourself on PBS?

You mean would it be strange for me to see myself in the 70s? No, I mean, I don’t know how to answer that, but it’s no more strange than seeing pictures of myself in my Easter outfit when I was a little girl. It’s a part of my evolution as a human being. Sometimes it’s very touching to see myself with my old band, but when I look at myself back then, or listen to my old work, the thing is not to be judgemental, like artists are of themselves, but to examine it and hopefully find that it was done with the best of intentions, which I think I can always say that it was.

So looking back there’s nothing that you regret?

Well no, not in terms of work. I think that I always did the best work that I knew how to do at that particular time. That doesn’t mean that it’s great work and it doesn’t mean that it always measures up, but I know as an artist I always gave everything that I had. my regrets as a human being are personal, like falling short as a friend somewhere. I mean, we’ve all had regrets of how we’re handled ourselves as human beings but as an evolving artist i think i did just about all I could.

Does it bother you that kids now tend to discover your work through your collaborations with other more currently high profile artists?

No, not at all- It’s still communication, you know? I’m happy that the work would connect with anybody at any particular time. When I was doing my work in the 70’s I was very conscious of addressing a certain aspect of the population. I really felt I was addressing people more like myself, who were miscast, people that didn’t have any perceptible place in society, and remind them that they weren’t alone. At this time of my life, i just do my work in hopes of communicating with whomever might need to hear it, at any age.

What does your son like to listen to?

My son Jackson is fifteen and a guitar player, a very good guitar player, probably will be great, and he likes Stevie Ray Vaughan. He likes all kinds of music but that’s one of his heroes. Of course, he admires his father’s work and plays quite a bit like Fred. Jackson’s very open; he was listening to Segovia the other day and he’ll listen to Pavarotti. He’s very interested in all kinds of music but Stevie Ray Vaughan is his where he gets his essential inspiration.

Many musicians who have children with interests like that might say “I’d rather you not get into that kind of work” because they know all the pitfalls and they don’t want to see that happen to their kids. But you encourage it?

Well, the thing is, I think there are pitfalls in every walk of life. I’ve known some of the people that are the least together or have the worst drug problems to be in big business; you see the businessman who seems to have it all together but has four martinis a day. Jackson’s a natural musician so I encourage him to study all aspects of that calling. I think if people tend to their work instead of the trappings around their work they’ll do a lot better. I mean, I see it all the time where people seem preoccupied is with making it. Getting a record contract, going on the road, scoring this and scoring that. What they often don’t talk about is the developmnent of their work or what they’re trying to communicate with their work. I just encourage jackson to focus on develpoing his craft and the other things will fall into place later.

Just so that he’s having fun with it now, right?

Well, yeah, having fun and being a good student. (laughs).

One of the songs on the new album, “Spell,” involves Allen Ginsberg. Did he and the other Beats, like Burroughs and Kerouac, influence your work?

“Spell” was written by Allen, like a footnote to “Howl,” you know. As a writer I was probably much more influenced by William Burroughs. I knew both of them but I was closer to William and more influenced by his style of writing. The language on Horses is a direct offspring of his “Wild Boys.” I wasn’t so consciously influnced by Allen; he and the other beat writers didn’t influence me so directly. It was more indirect because Bob Dylan was so influenced by them and I’m in turn influenced by Bob Dylan. What Allen did as a person, or things he did culturally I found very inspiring. What he always tried to do was merge various aspects of our culture, to marry Buddhism and poetry and rock and roll and jazz, to bring all of these forces together to find some common ground. That was the tremendous energy of Allen Ginsberg. With William I truthfully just loved his style, as a man and as a writer, so I very much was attached to him.

So do you have any advice for budding poets?

I think that people that have a calling just need to keep working and be focused on the development of their craft. Not that they shouldn’t try to perform or get published, but not to look at such things as a barometer of their worth. They’ll learn themselves, because in the end, fame is fleeting. People will sell two million records and then the the next year nobody remembers them. What’s really important is the quaility of the work, and if it’s good work it will endure. I think that if one has a true calling they should follow that calling, but they should also be ready to go through a certain amount of pain. To feel that is an honor or a privilege, cause it’s not easy; being any type of artist is rough work. Very few people are given a break and part of it is being able to do the work itself. The reward often is just being part of that human chain of the whole evolutionary process of art, and sometimes there’s a lot of humiliation attached to it.

It’s a really unforgiving business.

It is. After all this time, even though people say nice things about me in the paper or other artists praise my work, I still endure continuous humiliation in trying to get my work across or in trying to get people to understand. It doesnt really stop. Sometimes people on a large scale, they just dont get it, but you cant let that kind of thing be your driving force. You have to be sturdy- being an artist is not for the faint hearted and you have to be proud that you are what you are. You have to be a proud bum.