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Patti Smith on When to Break Rules and Nap on Logs

Patti Smith

Since the early 1970s, punk godmother Patti Smith has served as the guardian of an idiosyncratic — and meandering — brand of artistry. After releasing four critically acclaimed albums (including her seminal 1975 debut, Horses), Patti Smith headed to Michigan with her husband, MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith, for a quiet, 15-year stretch of family time. “I’m not career bent,” she says. And this “strategy” seems to have worked out well for her, as she’s earned, in the past five years, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids.

Smith may have turned 65 last year, but she is far from retiring. Next month, her exhibition of grainy, poignant Polaroids moves from a Connecticut museum to the Detroit Institute of Arts, and she heads out on a four-month tour of Europe in support of her new album Banga, a collection of tender elegies, elastic narrative romps, and driving rock anthems featuring musical contributions from her son, Jackson, daughter, Jesse, and longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye, among others. Out June 5, it’s Smith’s 11th studio album and first of new material since 2004. And on a rainy late-spring day, she took a break from reading Haruki Murakami’s Wild Sheep Chase and writing some “Murakami-esque” musings for her website to share a few nuggets of hard-earned knowledge — needless to say, the punk poet-laureate has got some to spare, but she also acknowledges that the straightest path to wisdom is paved with questions.

It’s important that an artist asks himself if the things he’s offering the world have merit.
Are they of worth? Are they worth the paper they’re on, the amount of materials that went into making them? Creating art is supposed to come from the highest part of one’s self, so naturally you’re going to have questions. In “Constantine’s Dream” [a ten-minute-plus improvisational meditation found near the end of Banga], there are many questions. It questions the role of artists in our society. The questions are there, and they’re not answerable questions. They’re more things that we contemplate and ruminate constantly. As an artist, one thinks, “What is the purpose of art? Can we make a difference? Is art just more pollution in an already polluted world?” There are a million questions one asks oneself.

I always have some kind of elegy, because we’re always losing someone.
With the song for Amy Winehouse [“This Is the Girl”], I didn’t know her — I wrote it out of respect for her artistry and her youth. The song “Maria” — I did know Maria [Schneider, the actress] in the ’70s, but “Maria” is not just about Maria. I would say it is the more emotional song on the record; it’s the one that looks back on a beautiful time and sort of encapsulates the ’70s in a certain way for me. It’s a nice little R&B song, but an emotional song. The rest of the record is really driven by life, and driven by exploration, driven by concern for our environment, driven by, you know, a lot of questions that I’m constantly asking myself as an artist about the process of art.

I don’t break rules that are going to harm anyone.
In terms of my own trajectory, I’ve only broken rules for the good of the work or the good of my family. I’m not career bent, so if I’ve broken rules that have twisted and turned or even obliterated my so-called career, that’s not really a big concern of mine. My major concern was to do good work. That’s my main rule: The work has to be worthy. Everything else falls away after that. The important thing is really to do good work and to be able to step back from it and say, “I believe this is good work. I believe that it has worth in the world.”

I don’t care if a review is good or bad.
I just look for insight, something intelligent. Sometimes people just attack me, or the stuff they say is just personal. I’m not looking for flattery. Sometimes people who write on your work have insights that you don’t have yourself. I’m not very analytical, so I always find it interesting if someone sees something that I didn’t, or gives me a good piece of criticism that I can learn from, but I’m not interested in sarcastic, snide attacks, and I’ve seen plenty of them. It doesn’t matter to me. Journalism itself is important. A journalist can really elevate a piece of work and magnify it through their eyes. And they can share with the people things of merit — or if something is dangerously terrible, they can warn them. I think journalism should be taken seriously.

Sometimes I have to put my personal work aside.
Like right now, I have two or three book projects I’m working on, and they’ll have to quietly be put aside for a while because I’m serving the album, serving my band. That’s sometimes difficult. I still read all the time and write a bit, but I really look forward to when I don’t have any duties, and I can just go off and quietly write, which is what I really love.

I do like to go out into the world and see the people.
I’m not very social, so [touring] gives me an opportunity to communicate with a large number of people. We have a very young audience, especially in Europe. And it’s really nice to meet a new generation and feel their energy and their encouragement. Stepping out on a stage and finding several thousand people under 25 or under 30 very happy to share their energy with you — it’s a great thing. I write every single day, even if it’s just a little.
And I read every day. I try to study. Every day I like to feel that I’ve learned something or enjoyed somebody’s work or worked on my own work, because that’s what I do. I don’t have a nine-to-five job, so I try to make certain that I do some kind of work every day.

What do I do on my break? Work.
If I have a complete break, what I like to do is just walk along the ocean. I don’t know how to swim, but I love the ocean. Sometimes I’ll find a big rock or a log or something to fall asleep on next to the ocean. That’s a complete break.