In the three decades since her debut, Patti Smith, rock’s poet laureate and subject of a new documentary, found domestic bliss and endured tragic loss. That longevity shocks even her: “When I did Horses, I never expected to make another album.”
With casual androgyny now as common as rehab and pop-star poetry a recurring joke, it’s hard to imagine how strange Patti Smith must’ve seemed when she exploded out of New York with Horses 33 years ago. Defiant, literary, and rocking, Smith’s debut, and the albums that followed, weren’t only great pieces of art, they were life-changers. Just ask Michael Stipe or Courtney Love. They were life-changers for Smith, too: Feeling burned out, she recorded only one album between 1980 and 1996, choosing instead to spend time with her husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, and their two children. “I’d given all I had to give,” says Smith, 61, speaking from the hills of Spain, where she’s staying with relatives of the Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca. “I had to go away if I wanted to learn to be a human being.”
Personal loss brought Smith back to music in the mid-’90s, and since then she has released a steady stream of urgent, explicitly political, and often joyous albums. Empty-nest syndrome has not been a problem. Following the release of both Patti Smith: Dream of Life, director Steven Sebring’s gorgeous new documentary film, and The Coral Sea, a musical collaboration with Kevin Shields, Smith spoke, sometimes haltingly, about a life spent outside the expected margins.
You were raised in New Jersey as a Jehovah’s Witness. Was there a lot of rock music in your house growing up?
My mom loved rock’n’roll. My father hated it. We couldn’t play it when he was around. He liked classical music and Duke Ellington. I still heard it on the radio — I grew up in the 1950s, when rock’n’roll was king. I had a handful of records, but when I was 11 years old, I liked Puccini as much as Little Richard. They both made sense to me.
I guess one ended up making more sense than the other.
I don’t know about that. I’m not a very analytical person. I have various impulses. I’ve often quoted Walt Whitman’s phrase “I contain multitudes.” I understand that. The same person who wrote “Rock N Roll Nigger” has also written lullabies.
So you never intended to be a rock musician?
I knew I needed to leave New Jersey to develop as an artist. But my goal in life was never to become a musician. I’m not a musician. I drew and wrote poetry for ten years before I wrote Horses. I published books. Why do people want to know exactly who I am? Am I a poet? Am I this or that? I’ve always made people wary.
First they called me a rock poet. Then I was a poet that dabbled in rock. Then I was a rock person who dabbled in art. But for me, working in different forms seemed like a very organic process. From an early age, I studied people like Da Vinci and William Blake and Jean Cocteau. They all did a lot of different things. But if you want to call me anything, call me a worker. I do work.
How did Horses come about?
I came into music because I thought the presentation of poetry wasn’t vibrant enough. So I merged improvised poetry with basic rock chords. That was my original mission. But I had a secondary mission, which became the larger mission: I wanted to pump blood back into the heart of rock’n’roll.
Where had the blood gone?
When I started making music, we’d lost a lot of our great people. Jim Morrison had died. Jimi Hendrix. Janis Joplin. Dylan had retreated somewhat. Leading up to when I released my first single [1974’s “Piss Factory”], rock was moving in a direction I didn’t like. Rock was my generation’s revolutionary, sexual, poetic, and political voice, but it had become corporatized. It was going into stadiums. It was so far removed from its basic roots.
That feeling seemed to be in the air in New York in the mid-’70s.
There was a countermovement of people like me who were dissatisfied with the way rock had been glamorized. People like Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell and Debbie Harry and myself wanted to continue the efforts of bands like the MC5 and Jefferson Airplane. We were merging jazz and politics and poetry and different kinds of performance. It was a cultural revolution.
You mention Debbie Harry, but apart from the two of you, the punk scene, in hindsight anyway, seems like it was such a boys’ club.
I never thought about gender. I never felt oppressed because of my gender. When I’m writing a poem or drawing, I’m not a female; I’m an artist. But we’ve always had strong women: Grace Slick, Tina Turner, Yoko Ono, Debbie Harry, Sinéad O’Connor, Cat Power — she’s a bit fragile, but she’s tough. Those are all strong individuals. Christina Aguilera’s a little piece of dynamite. But I’m more concerned with the work people do than their gender. When I was younger, I was pretty judgmental. Things had to be a certain way. Now I just want to see the work. It doesn’t matter who does it.
CBGB is now a John Varvatos store. Most of the Ramones are gone. Same with the New York Dolls. Has punk rock run its course?
Those kinds of ideas to me are ludicrous. I’m not a critic. I’m not a journalist. I’m not a philosopher. Arguing that punk has run its course is like saying painting ran its course after the Renaissance. There are kids out there you’ve never heard of who believe they’re punk rock. And they’re right. They’re in Norway or Kansas, and they don’t think punk rock has run its course. Punk is an idea. It’s freedom. And it’ll be around 200 years from now for the people who want it.
It was pretty punk to call a song “Rock N Roll Nigger” [from the 1978 album Easter]. Nas tried to do something similar recently and caught a lot of flak.
There were two problems with Easter.
Your armpit being the other one?
The rackjobbers didn’t want to stock the album because you could see my armpit hair on the cover! And then the back cover had the title “Rock N Roll Nigger.” I was warned if I didn’t airbrush the hair and retitle the song, the album wouldn’t sell.
I’m not saying I wasn’t flawed or amateurish. But you can never say I did anything to appease the music business.
It turned out to be your biggest seller.
That didn’t matter. The point was that I was never interested in compromise. Changing Easter was never an issue for me. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. I’m grateful that Clive Davis signed me in 1975. I’m proud to put out albums on Columbia. But I’m not desperate. I always knew that if I didn’t have complete control over everything I did, I could walk away. I could print out my poems myself or go sing in the street. I’m not saying I was always great. Or that I wasn’t flawed, or my singing wasn’t amateurish, or I wasn’t presumptuous in my thinking. You can say all those things. But you can never say I did anything to appease the music business.
You did stop making records for nine years.
I’d been thinking about stopping for the two albums before [1979’s] Wave. It was a decision I had to make. It wasn’t easy. I had a band. My brother was the head of the road crew. I liked the camaraderie. It wasn’t a decision made overnight.
Why’d you finally do it?
My mission was accomplished. My idea was always to do Horses and move on. When I did Horses, I never expected to make another album. But it did well, and I kept going. The fact that I made four albums meant I gave more than I ever knew I had in me. By 1979, I really felt I’d done and said everything. And I was spending all my time on the road. You don’t evolve on the road. You just repeat what you’re doing. You gather fame and fortune, but you don’t gather knowledge. If I was ever going to be able to give people more as an artist, I had to leave.
Did you ever regret it?
When I got married in 1980, I was hoping to spend my entire life with my husband. But since he had a shorter life span [he died from a heart attack in 1994], the time when I was away from music ended up being the only time that I spent alone with him. That’s proof to me that I made the right choice.
How did you support yourself when you weren’t recording or touring?
We lived very simply. We didn’t go anywhere. We did everything ourselves.
This was in Michigan?
Yes, which helped. We were frugal. I did all the cooking and cleaning. Fred did all the repair work in the house. Occasionally, he or I would get royalty checks. It was great. I had a chance to learn and study. My husband taught me about politics and golf and how to play the clarinet. In the 16 years I was out of the public eye, I did more writing than I’d done ever before. I wrote three novels that have yet to be published. I painted. I drew. I had my children. It was a very good time in my life.
Did you always think you’d come back?
No, actually, I didn’t. I had no hunger to perform. What I missed were my friends and family in New York. I missed the city’s coffee shops. I used to love to be able to walk out the door and get a cup of coffee. But I had things in Michigan that I never had in New York. Like my own pear tree.
So what made you return with [1988’s] Dream of Life?
Two reasons: Fred wanted to write songs for me. He wrote the music for the album. It was a gift from him to me. Making that album was an act of love between us. Also, as parents, releasing a record helped us make a living.
But then you dropped out again.
That makes it seem like I wasn’t working. I was working at being a wife and a mother. You can’t overlook that. It was impossible to go on tour with small children. I wasn’t going to get a nanny. When my kids grew up, I had more freedom.
Your friend Robert Mapplethorpe died from AIDS in 1989. Fred died in 1994. Your brother Todd died a month after him.
I lost them all. Men, all between the ages of 37 and 45. That was the lowest point of my life. Before Fred died, we were thinking of doing an album called Going West. We’d written quite a few of the songs, but then he got sick. … I was a widow with two children and no resources. I was determined to get back on my feet. I decided to finish the songs and do an album called Gone Again. It was a sketchy trajectory, but I was able to come back and make that album as a tribute to Fred. Right around that same time is when Steven started working on his film.
Having been followed around with a camera, can you sympathize with people on reality TV?
Steven’s movie is nothing like that. I don’t like things like Behind the Music. I don’t have anything to offer VH1. I don’t have any controversy surrounding me. I don’t have any dark, romantic, self-destructive tales to tell. Yes, I’ve had to negotiate personal tragedy, but that’s not the kind of thing I’m going to let be exploited in a trashy reality show. Nothing was planned with Steven’s film. He was just there. I liked having him there. I met Steven shortly after I lost my brother, so when he came into my life, it was like I was given a new brother. I think it’s terrible what’s allowed to happen in our culture, with people being followed around by cameras. I’m not even interested in other people’s private lives.
Weren’t you interested in learning about poets like Rimbaud or Verlaine?
Rimbaud’s been dead a long time. I like PBS, not VH1. Trust me, if Rimbaud was alive, I’d have never looked into his life.
Can you at least understand the impulse?
I’m an artist. I’m interested in how art gets made. I love Bob Dylan as much as I love Arthur Rimbaud. I even got to know him a little bit. But I’ve never read a book about him. I just want to know him on his own terms. I couldn’t tell you anything about Michael Stipe or Flea or any of my other friends except for the moments I’ve shared with them. People say the media is feeding the public’s hunger for celebrity news, but that’s the drug pusher’s mentality. I don’t think anybody would be pining for news about Angelina Jolie’s babies if it weren’t being given to them in the first place. Can I give you an example of what I mean?
In 2002, we got 100,000 people to come to Washington to protest the strike on Iraq. But we couldn’t get one minute on CNN. Not one minute. Because the Virginia sniper was happening at the same time. Wolf Blitzer canceled three interviews with me because he wanted to cover the Virginia sniper. That was a tragedy, but did we have to hear about it 24 hours a day? At the expense of people protesting a war? It was demoralizing.
Is it fair to assume you support Obama for president
I feel about politics the same way I do about religion: I find the best I can from different things. I like Hillary. I support Ralph Nader’s decision to run. But Obama’s the candidate and we need to support him. I’m interested to see how he does. He’s young, he’s intelligent, and he’s modern. I’m none of those things.
Come on. You’re at least one.
Well, I’m pretty smart.
What was it like working with Kevin Shields on The Coral Sea?
When I curated the Meltdown festival in London in 2005, they asked me who I wanted to work with. I wanted Jeremy Irons to read Proust, but he was off filming and couldn’t do it. Then I asked for Kevin Shields. I love My Bloody Valentine. I was told it would be impossible to get him, but I asked, and he agreed to do it. So I went to his studio and saw all his guitar effects pedals and his Mosrite guitar, but we just talked. There was no practicing. At the performance, when I started to read my poem, which is about Robert [Mapplethorpe], he understood it. He found a way to enter it. It was difficult to do, but beautiful. There were some minorly controversial moments at Meltdown, though.
We had a little film festival where we showed films by Bresson and Godard and Robert Frank. But I love Gumby, and we showed some Gumby cartoons. After I introduced the film, I went back to my seat and could hear these old English couples saying [imitates upper-class British accent], “What is this is? Is this art?” It was like Fawlty Towers or something.
Do you think your work is understood differently overseas?
Some of the concerns and ideas I have are really in certain ways too sophisticated for the United States. I don’t mean that in a conceited way. But people overseas understand that when I do a song like “Qana” [about a Lebanese town struck by Israeli missiles in 2006], I’m not criticizing the politics of the Middle East — I don’t know anything about the politics of the Middle East — I’m being a humanist. I’m lamenting that children died. Really, a lot of my stances are very similar to Thomas Paine’s or Robert Byrd’s or Jimmy Carter’s. But I don’t think the average American understands what patriotism truthfully is. That’s why when I attack our country or attack the government, it’s sometimes looked at as unpatriotic. It’s not.
When you were young, you took it upon yourself to save rock’n’roll. How’s the music doing these days?
I’m not the person to ask about the salvation of rock’n’roll. There are a lot of people doing great work: Radiohead, R.E.M., My Bloody Valentine are back. There’s Thee Silver Mt. Zion and a very strong Montreal scene. But it’s not my concern anymore.
Are you okay with that?
That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Discography: Patti Smith
A sampling of gems from her brilliant career
By fusing the flowing incantatory drama of Dylan, the Doors, and Rimbaud with the streetwise and savage energy of punk, Smith’s debut bridged generations, genres, and genders.
Patti Smith Group
After a ragged sophomore effort, Radio Ethiopia, Smith regrouped with her sleekest and hardest-rocking album. Featuring her biggest hit, the Springsteen collaboration “Because the Night,” Easter proved that Smith’s sorcery could be distilled into single-length bomb bursts.
Patti Smith Group
Todd Rundgren’s production work pushed the band further into radio-rock territory, but the high-tech gloss wasn’t a great match for Smith’s stateliest set of songs. “Frederick,” a hymn to her future husband (ex-MC5er Fred “Sonic” Smith), foretold the domestic retreat to come.
Dream of Life 3/5
Smith sounds tentative on her first album after a nine-year absence. But “The Jackson Song” (named for her son and future bandmate) and “People Have the Power” showed that Smith’s will to, respectively, love and fight hadn’t diminished. Eight years passed before she was heard from again.
Gone Again 3.5/5
Having suffered a series of tragic losses, Smith found solace in the spare strength of folk. But the haunting intensity of tracks like the Kurt Cobain–inspired “About a Boy” suggested that Smith wasn’t about to let the album’s title apply to her.
Largely recorded live in the studio, this powder keg of poetry, politics, and balls-out rock found Smith sounding musically heavier and spiritually more invigorated than at any time since her ’70s peak. For the uninitiated, totally, truthfully, a good place to start.