Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs in Conversation: Our 1988 Feature

This interview was originally conducted in March 1979 and later appeared in the April 1988 issue of SPIN.

Patti Smith has been on the rock ‘n’ roll scene forever: first as a serious fan off in the wilds of New Jersey, later as a hipster in San Francisco, a writer collaborating with artists like Sam Shepard and Tom Verlaine, an enfant terrible on the New York poetry scene, and as a journalist for Creem. Her interview with Keith Richards is a classic: she asked him one question, then picked up her gear and split.

By 1973, Patti was performing poetry on stage with the likes of Ann Waldman and Dick Higgins. While they stood stock-still, intoning their verses with the monotony of high school English teachers, Patti came on like a cross between Tristan Tzara and Little Richard, swinging what hips she had, tossing her hair, and singing her poems like there was a Motown beat there, just behind each line.

When she added Lenny Kaye on guitar, the poetry turned to physical song, mineral song, and she turned the downtown poetry and music scene on its head, sacrificing nothing, but expanding the temple, letting light in through the windows, and opening the door for the likes of Chrissie Hynde.

Her independent single, “Piss Factory,” recorded while she was still working, stocking books at the Gotham Book Mart, inspired the first generation of punks, seers, and methedrine mystics and led to her signing with Arista Records.

Horses, released in 1975, remains one of the bright spots of the Seventies and defined a moment with a sense of joy, anger, and freedom. None of her subsequent records (Radio Ethiopia, Easter, Wave) lived up to that wild moment, but each was filled with a daring and a vision that remains unmatched and unchallenged.

This interview was conducted in William Burroughs‘ loft in the Bowery, two blocks from CBGB’s, in March of 1979. Burroughs’ place (affectionately referred to as The Bunker because it had once been a YMCA locker room, and was still bleak and devoid of windows or light) proved a good confessional, and Burroughs an excellent Father Confessor.

Burroughs had first met Patti in 1974, when he returned to NYC after living outside the U.S. for twenty years. Theirs is a fond, respectful friendship that’s endured to this day. It was conducted at a time when Patti was questioning the music industry and her place within it, and at a time when she was taking serious stock of her life and her work. Up until that point they had been one.

This was Patti Smith’s last interview before leaving the music business.

In March of 1980, she married Fred “Sonic” Smith, formerly of the MC5, and moved to Detroit to begin a new life.

* * *

Smith:  When I entered rock ‘n’ roll, I entered into it in a political sort of way, not as a career. I don’t know if this is off the track, but I entered it because I felt that rock ‘n’ roll, after the death of a lot of the Sixties people, and after the disillusionment of a lot of people after the Sixties and early Seventies, people really just wanted to be left alone for a little while.

I didn’t panic at first in 1970-71, even ’72. I felt that maybe people were recharging. But when ’73 came around, and early ’74, it was just getting worse and worse, and there was no indication of anything new, of anyone regathering their strength and coming back to do anything. I felt that it was important for some of us that had a lot of strength to initiate some new energy.

Because I hadn’t done anything in the Sixties, but worked privately, I felt that it was a time for me to do something. All I really hoped to do was initiate some response from other people. I didn’t have any aspirations of a career, or anything like that.

Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs in Conversation: Our 1988 Feature

I look at the world, I get very broken-hearted about what happens in the world. I hate to see people hurt. I see what’s happening with Iran, and I’m mostly worried that Iran will lose its culture, or that somebody will destroy [Sufi poet] Rumi’s grave. I worry about things that are not, I suppose, really so important to anybody.

But the things that I was involved with politically in America, were very simple things having to do with the minds of teenagers, and how they were being shaped. I feel that when I was a teenager, I was very lucky. I grew up out of the John F. Kennedy, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones era, and there was a lot of food for thought in those times. There were a lot things that inspired me, not so much activistly [sic], but my mind was constantly fertile.

And I felt that in the early-middle Seventies, there wasn’t much happening at all to stimulate the minds of the new generations. The radio was like the Fifties again, the alternative radio that we had built up in the Sixties was becoming very business-oriented, and programmed like a glorified Top Forty. And there was no centralized communication ground for the youth of the future, no sense of unity at all in the country, and I felt that—

Burroughs: Do you feel that there is now?

I don’t feel so much there is now, but I think there’s more possibility for it to happen. I think that there’s a re-awakening of the spirit of the kids. I mean, I’m not a nostalgic person. I’ve no desire to look back and moan about the Sixties. I look forward to the Eighties and Nineties.

But I think, simultaneously, kids are getting stirred up. I feel that in my own way, I was able to at least put a stick in the coals a little. Now it’s ’79 and I’m still involved in this thing, but it’s come to a point in my life that, like you said, I have to stop and say, “What am I doing?” It’s getting to the point now where, after having a hit single and having certain amounts of success and having people gravitate towards me because I have a success potential—it’s time for me to really try to understand exactly what I’m doing.

‘Cause I didn’t start doing what I was doing to build myself a career. And I find myself at a time in my life when, if I’m not careful, that’s exactly what’s gonna be built for me. Or what I could find myself working for is other people’s ideas of my career.

On the other hand, I’m a very strong person. I mean, all these things happened, but I feel like I’ve just pulled out of a time of temptation. I don’t feel like I’ve ever sold out or done anything that I’m ashamed of, but I feel that I have entered into a period of temptation. And that’s why I’ve been very quiet for about a year, because I’ve had to think about what I’m doing. Initially, all I wanted out of life was to communicate with myself and most of all, to achieve perfect communication with another person—as well as doing great work. To do great work, and thus communicate with myself, but most of all, to be able to honestly communicate with another person, totally…totally. Telepathically, or whatever.

I’ve no desire to be like some movie star and leave a trail of husbands behind me, you know?

Yeah.

I feel like I don’t want to bullshit the people, and I don’t like to be bullshitted either. I don’t like any abstract, cow-like adoration for no reason. But I’ve often said, and I still find it the best way to describe it, it’s like a very ecstatic, mutual kind of vampirism that you have to have with the people. Sometimes, I need their energy, and especially after my injury, when I was first trying to learn how to be on the stage again, I was not only afraid, but my energy…I couldn’t really move around so much. I mean, you were at one of those performances when I was starting to get back [CBGB’s, 1977]. I hadn’t been out of bed for a few months, and I was addicted to pills, or whatever, and had to be carried on to the stage…

I remember getting on the stage and I was thinking, “This was crazy, to do this show. I can’t even walk, I’ll have to sit.” And I had them put a chair on the stage and I thought, “Well, they won’t mind if I sit on the chair.” Their energy, their psychic and spiritual, as well as physical energy, lifted me up.

Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs in Conversation: Our 1988 Feature

Would you say it contributed to your recovery?

I felt that it did. These doctors told me, “If you’re not operated on, you’ll never perform again.” Well, I refused to be operated on. I didn’t believe any of that stuff, but I was on so much Percodan and things…And it was getting to a point after a couple of months where I really started wondering, having never injured myself before…I couldn’t even get to the bathroom.

Well, those nine days that I spent with the people [the “Out of Traction/Back in Action” shows], doing a couple of sets a night at CBGB’s, around Easter time in ’77, was the best therapy that I had. I took my [neck-brace] collar off by the end of it. I couldn’t stand it. It was real. I don’t quite understand it myself, but I don’t find it overtly mystical.

This injury occurred in Tampa, right?

Yes.

I had one of the worst performances of my life in Tampa.

That particular performance was the culmination of one of my three periods. Performing was something new to me. After the initial stage of performing, where like I said, my first aspirations were political, in my own kind of way, then I found it got beyond that. I went beyond, because my politics are very simple. Basically, I just wanted to inspire kids, get ’em off their ass, get ’em thinking, get ’em pissed off, as pissed off as I was. Get them to look around at what was going on, even in the simplest way. Just get them to ask a few questions. You know, interject a little extra joy and pain into their lives.

But after a while, I got very intoxicated with the ritual of performing. I have great pride that I feel that our group, more than any other group at this time—except for the new kids who are experimenting—as a rock ‘n’ roll band, had more guts than any other rock ‘n’ roll band. It’s that we always attempt something beyond what we can do, every night, which is excruciatingly painful for most of the band. For me, it’s a joy. For, I’d say for half the band, it’s a joy, and half the band, it’s total pain to have to shoot beyond themselves in that kind of pressure situation, in front of people. But that was part of the rules of coming into our band.

I mean, I formed the band with my eyes open, but each guy had to have his eyes open too—that we were going to attempt things that were perhaps not always the thing to do in order to perpetuate ourselves as rock ‘n’ roll stars. They had to understand that we were going for certain things that were sometimes going to be detrimental to our advancement in the social and business circles of rock ‘n’ roll. And it was very tough.

Well, the same question arises with painting, or with writing—

Yeah, but the thing is, when you’re painting or you’re writing, you make that decision, and it’s your own decision. But in a rock ‘n’ roll band, you’re involved in a lot of different people’s lives. And a lot of money’s involved.

You’re involved in a whole organization—your agent, the members of the band, all kinds of people.

These have actually been the hardest years of my life, because I was so idealistic about rock ‘n’ roll. I loved it so much, and I though it was like, you know, the people’s art. I really believed that of it. And because I believed it so much, I wasn’t prepared for—even though it is true that a lot of people tried to prepare me—I wasn’t at all prepared for the corruption within.

Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs in Conversation: Our 1988 Feature

Well Patti, that’s certainly implicit in the large amounts of money involved. Wherever there are those sums of money involved, there will be corruption. That’s just par for the course.

And I don’t even feel bitter. I don’t always blame the corrupters, I blame the corrupted as much as the corrupter. I mean, I would say the corrupters are usually stronger than those corrupted, that’s why people get corrupted—but we still have the option not to be corrupted. And I’ve had that option, that’s the one thing that I did do. And when I first got a record contract, my record contract was one of the most unusual contracts of its time [1975], because although I got a lot of money for what is called a poet in those days—not so much money as they give kids now, but at the time, it was a lot of money and a lot of faith put into me—but I also got full artistic control of what I did. I mean, I don’t think even Bob Dylan had that, I mean, at the time of his first contract!

And although all these years have been a fight, I still always in the end get what I want, if I can hold out long enough. The truth of the matter is, managers and record company presidents and everybody, all these people have offered me things.

And although all these years have been a fight, I still always in the end get what I want, if I can hold out long enough. The truth of the matter is, managers and record company presidents and everybody, all these people have offered me things.

For instance, this last record [Wave, Arista 1979] was done two months ago. It still isn’t out because I had to have long discussions with the people who were involved in this aspect of my life. And some of them really cared about me, in their own way. But all of them have a very different definition of success than I do. That’s made it very difficult.

See, I feel right now, it’s like…how we’re talking now is different than how I used to daydream that we would talk, y’know—

But it doesn’t really matter. Actually, I’m very exhausted, because I’ve just spent two months in almost a psychic kind of war, between myself and the people who are helping to perpetuate my records. And I actually have respect for these people, even though I fight them. A lot of people would call me naive because I respect these people that I have to fight, but I still respect the fact that these people are my investors. But they try to get aesthetically involved with what I do, and it holds up my work.

They might even be right in some of the things that they suggested, because what they’re trying to do for me is make a lot of money, and make me what they say is a big star—and also make themselves everything, but they have my interest in mind.

That’s their function.

But I must protect—I mean, I have to feel like I can stand behind the work that I do, flawed or not. I can stand behind a piece of flawed work that was done with integrity; sometimes it’s tough, but I can take it, ’cause I know there’s a future. I know that I’ll do another piece of work, that sometimes a piece of work is a springboard to the next piece of work. I can accept that.

Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs in Conversation: Our 1988 Feature

Well, you’ve spoken of that, and also of the fact that your orchestra is trying to do something that’s just a little bit beyond it; well, this implies that you’re going somewhere. If you talk of a springboard, you’re going from here to here—or you talk of the band playing a little beyond, surely that means there would be something beyond that, and beyond that.

I look to my future with so much joy, because I am at the most wonderful I mean, superficially, my whole life’s on crazy ground. You know I’ve moved to Detroit. It’s wrenching to—I mean, I’ve lived in New York City for twelve years. I’ve struggled and built a certain emotional tabernacle here, some kind of tabernacle that represents my work here.

And I’m very proud of the work I did here. I feel that I did good work in this City. And I love this City, you know. To leave New York was a very tough thing. But I did it with great joy, too—you know, like a pioneer. It’s like you have to “Go West!” I’ve always been a very East Coast girl. I was raised in South Jersey—Philly, Camden, all the coolest cities. Actually, though, when I was a teenager I thought that the coolest city wasn’t New York, it was Detroit—because I was from the Motown, and stuff…

But the thing is, I’m very happy because I have met the person in my life that I’ve been waiting to meet since I was a little girl. I feel that I have met that person. I always believed that I would meet that person. It was my greatest dream, to meet the person who I recognized as my person. And it came late in my life, I mean later than I thought. I thought it would be the person I met when I was sixteen, you know…

And that person is open to me. For the first time, I’m not pursuing—the person has opened up to me another way to express myself truly, which is music. And even though I’ve been dealing in rock ‘n’ roll, and always thinking of myself as sort of a spokesman kind of person…

Well Patti, just regarding me as someone who knows very little—as I do know very little—about music and what’s going on now, just give me a little talk. Tell me what’s going on, and where things are going.

There isn’t anything to know. The Seventies basically were a period where different people were trying to take a throne, you see? The only people that were interesting at all — not always even anyone that I liked—were people like David Bowie. And I don’t demean David Bowie, in fact some of his work has been inspirational to me, but he’s still… he’s not an American. You know, he doesn’t move me. I don’t want to say anything negative, because he does enough positive things that make him worthwhile to me.

But he didn’t excite me in the Seventies. I think what it was, was a hunger that we didn’t know that a lot of us had. We all felt loneliness as a hunger for something to happen. As we thought we were lonely, a group like Television thinks they’re alone. The boys that later became the Sex Pistols thought they were alone. All of us people that should have been perpetuating, or helping to build on, the Sixties, we were dormant. And we thought we were alone.

Our credo was, “Wake up!” I’ve said this before, but just to tell you, in case you haven’t read or anything: I wanted to be like Paul Revere. That was my whole thing I wanted to be like Paul Revere. I didn’t want to be a giant big hero, I didn’t want to die for the cause. I didn’t want to be a martyr. All that I wanted was for the people to fuckin’ wake up. That’s all I wanted them to do, and I feel that that’s what happened.

Well, as you say that this is what happened. You have the whole punk generation, essentially, who are anti-heroes. See, they’re rejecting the old values, because having been woken up, they realize that all this nonsense that they’ve been brought up on is nonsense. And all these standards. And they’re rejecting those standards. So we could regard them, if you will, as something that you have been instrumental in creating.

I still believe in genius. I don’t give a fuck, I don’t agree with these kids. I believe in heroes. See, I love these kids, but I think that I’ve spawned a lot of little monsters, though, sometimes. Because I don’t feel the same way they do. I don’t think it’s cool to shoot yourself up with heroin at 21 years old and die. I don’t think it’s cool to die at 21, you know.

I don’t want to be dead. I would exist forever. I love life, and I love being on Earth. I love being an Earthling. I don’t revel in the death of these people. I don’t love Jimi Hendrix because he died. I loved what he did when he was most alive, you know, and consulting the gods on stage. That’s what I loved I don’t have any interest in him consulting the gods to the death. I couldn’t witness that. I could only experience that.

I think that what people thought of the New Wave—after it became the New Wave—got to be such a media and fashion-oriented, imagistic kind of thing, that the initial reason for it got all distorted.

Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs in Conversation: Our 1988 Feature

But do you feel, then, that the whole music scene is going to progress?

What’s important is that there are, I hate to call it this, more imposters, than ever. I never think that anybody should do art unless they’re a great artist. I think that people have the right to express themselves in the privacy of their own home, but I don’t think they should perpetuate it on the human race unless they’ve really decided that it was something that would help in the advancement of the human race—at least in a pleasurable kind of manner.

You know what I mean. It doesn’t mean I don’t like reading Mickey Spillane, or pornography books…It used to be that art was unquestionably art. And I think that we have to get back into that frame, but that thing can only happen again by the eruption of like at least ten great people at once. I want to live in an illuminated time.

But you know, everyone isn’t as optimistic as you are.

Well, maybe that’s my main gift, you know. I mean, I know that people aren’t, especially men. I know that things have become so corrupt that the more…I also think that’s the one card I have in being female. I’m talking in a gender kind of way, but only in a certain kind of way, not in the act of creation. I mean, I wouldn’t talk to you about gender, if we were talking about performing properly, or the act of doing work.

I understand that it’s important to go beyond your gender in that process. But I’m proud to be the same gender as Anna Magnani, you know?

I know that women, by the basis of our makeup, we perpetuate civilization, and we have to be optimistic. We have to believe in the future, or else…since we’re the ones who bear the children of the future, we have to feel we’re not setting them to light on a volcano. You don’t want to bear a child and then drop it in a volcano. You want to bear a child and put him in paradise.

Yes, a lot of women do feel that way, I mean, they do feel that they don’t want to bear children at this time.

But some of us have, you know. I, for instance, bore a child twelve years ago. This child’s alive somewhere. I’ve a very Spartan feeling about it. I have no desire to meet her, or to raise her, or to have some kind of emotional reunion with her. But I would like for her to exist on a planet where there’s space for her to develop her perceptions, I think that what can give more space is joy. I mean I understand that, and I don’t believe in having nine kids at this point. I’m not a Mexican Catholic, you know, I desire for the planet to go on, and not see swans go extinct, and all that stuff…

But I don’t have any desire to live on a planet that has no heroes, and no angels, and no saints, and no art. I’m not ashamed to say it. It’s not very fashionable to think that way, I suppose, but the more unfashionable it become, the more angry, and the more strong I become in my position.

I was actually very heartbroken in the last few years, because I had to accept a lot of things about our planet and about, you know, realities. But still, like I said, just as we have the temptation to be corrupted, we have the strength to not be corrupted.

I like to think of those forty days when—I’ve talked to you about this before. The idea of Jesus. I haven’t completely accepted that thing in my mind. I’m still, I can’t just…the day that I totally accept him is going to be a very wonderful day, if it happens, but I have to think about it still. I’m still exploring that guy. But one of the stories that I really like is when he, just at this period of time, went into the desert for forty days and wrestled with the Devil, you know, when they actually had a verbal and physical battle. Forty days of someone woodpeckering your spirit, is pretty…

Yeah, it’s pretty harrowing.

And he came out of it. And so for me, whenever I think that I have it tough because I have to fight radio stations, or a record company or anything, I get pretty ashamed of myself when I think that his guy had to spend forty days without food or drink in the middle of a desert with the Devil…it doesn’t seem like it’s as painful as I make it out to be. But it does get to you.

IMPACT

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