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Patti Smith Interview

The music icon Patti Smith talks about her love for her fans, how drugs help her create and her fight against censorship.

By Beat StaffPublished 7 years ago 19 min read
Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis

She sauntered into One Fifth Avenue Bar very late the other night. In her black silk French rain coat, street punk pants, and tough, tight smile, she looked every inch the superstar. One year earlier, when this interview was first conducted, in 1975, her debut album, Horses – Arista Record's gamble on the poetic intelligence of the record-buying masses – premiered to universal critical acclaim. Of the album John Rockwell of The New York Times said simply, "She has it in her to become as significant an artist as American pop has produced."

Which she has. The question was whether or not they would love her in Sioux Falls as they did at CBGB's, the now-closed iconic artsy Manhattan dive bar where she first worked out her eerie, intense rock poems set to Lenny Kaye's marauding guitar. A Patti Smith performance has always been pure energy, as artful and mesmerizing as any stage performance anywhere. It is hard to find the right adjectives to describe the intensity of her presence, which offers up her poetry, personal mythology of (mostly dead) superstars, macho sexuality and hallucinatory fantasy life. Her weird genius would be right at home during the heyday of the artistic and literary Symbolist movement in France, but secret ecstasies, visions and obscure forms of communication are not too common down at the local Burger King.

She used to perform at the Mercer Arts Center in 1972, where she was not easily understood. Her hair was dyed and cut just like Keith Richard's, whom she adored. She'd been famous as artist-and-leather-genius Robert Mappelthorpe's live-in wraith, and she poured out these poems full of personal treasures which became three slender poetry collections, “Seventh Heaven”, “Kodak” and “Witt”.

Her hyperactive, almost frenzied artistic production followed a lousy adolescence with a great family in southern New Jersey. Not beautiful, she was entranced by beauty; frail and sickly, she was drawn to power; despising categories, she still loathed her peculiar singularity.

She becamе pregnant at nineteen, bore a child, let it go.

She spent some time in Paris. She spoke no French, but the roots were there and recognizable, so she would go back again and again.

She returned to New York on the occasion of The Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones' death. His golden aura had entranced her. And there were still Jimi Hendrix, Marianne Faithful, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin left -for a little while, at least.

Over the previous six years, she had moved through the artistic media of New York. At some point she and Mappelthorpe moved into the Chelsea Hotel, where she ran around with Bobby Neuwirth and Janis and Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult. They all worshiped her. Her manic genius poured out poems, songs, strange invocations. She coauthored a play, Cowboy Mouth, with playwright Sam Shepard. She made a movie for the Museum of Modern Art, a BBC television special. Creem published her poems. She wrote for Rolling Stone.

I first ran into Patti in 1970 when she wandered onstage at Mercer Arts clutching a toy piano and quoting from "Witt". She was a strange diamond among lots of dogs, pretentious metal misfits, street crazies and jaded socialites sniffing whatever energy was coming down. Every move she made was as precisely perfect as ballet, she was unintelligible and a little arch.

A year later she hit popular music venue The Bottom Line and she was perfect. The hecklers had turned into hard-core acolytes; the energy was flowing back and forth like tides, and one knew, precisely, that this erotic archangel had it all. If Bruce Springsteen was the future of rock & roll, Patti was its perfect present and past.

She has since survived numerous major tours and completed eleven records. Her inner landscapes keep shifting and her references – to drugs, to the poet Rimbaud’s lifelong dreams; to her mother's response to the whole hysterical, irresistible frenzy of it all – are in constant need of translation. One had also better be well-versed in various forms of contemporary worship, from Rastafarianism to gospel trances. But it is such joyful work making the connections, it is such a natural high, that Patti Smith has remained part of the core and center of real rock & roll for so many years.

Head: Radio Ethiopia seems a lot more lyrical than Horses.

Patti Smith: It's got a lot more presence. Well, we've been on the road for a year. The first record really reflected exactly what we knew: Being alone by ourselves, fantasizing, playing in small clubs, the fragile adoration of the people who believe in ya. But then you go on the road for a year and it's real manic. There aren't forty people who love you, but four thousand. You have to really project. You can't be as fragile. It's the power of projection that you learn on the road. So the new record reflects what we learned from the kids, the fans. Before, as an artist, I was a real fan. Morrison, Hendrix. If I’m a fan of anybody these days, I’m especially a fan of my audience.

Do you like performing in large halls?

I like performing anywhere there's a lot of energy. Like Jesus says, "When two people are gathered together in my name..." Well, I feel the same way. I like performing in an interview situation, or for eight thousand people, or in a club. As long as all the energy is directed towards the same place. When I perform someplace, and the people have it in their heads that they want to see something artistic - then it's a drag. But when they're loose...

How loose do they get at your concerts?

Real loose. Jumpin' up on stage and grabbin' me. Everything. I've had it all.

Do you get bothered?

I like it. It's real rock & roll. If nobody leaped on the stage and cried, ‘Fuck me!'... In the old days, especially when I’d go to a concert – Johnny Winters, The Stones, or Hendrix – I'd scream and get beat up and try to get on the stage. I got stomped by Grateful Dead guys for trying to get on the stage when they were on. And got my foot broken with the Stones.

How do you feel about violence towards you personally as a performer?

Oh sure, I've been attacked. After the show the kids come back. But I understand it, y'know? It's not that I want it to happen, but when it does I get into it. I can dig it. It's a nightmare, but a nightmare I can relate to. I know what it's about. I've seen those Elvis Presley movies where the girls were tryin' ta pull his clothes off. Hey, I know what rock & roll is all about. I came into this thing with my eyes open. I didn't come in thinking that people should treat me like some precious jewel because I write poetry. I came in fully wanting to be open to anything rock & roll has to offer.

Have your feelings changed though, since you started out this way?

I feel stronger. I feel like I've been doin' it all my life. It's still art. I been doin' art since I was four years old. Rock & roll has now entered the art spectrum. And because of that I put the same energies into working within the context of rock & roll as I did when I wanted to be a sculptor. Before it was going to the museum and looking at Brancusi. Now I spend all my time studyin' Hendrix films.

Why Hendrix?

‘Cuz he was the greatest.

Do you write your poetry alone, like on subways, or do you like to be around people?

Ya know, the reason I was late is because I was writin' a poem at my record company. I have a lot of trouble gettin' my liner notes done. I write anywhere. Yeah, I like bein’ alone. Then I get really stoned and put on my records: Hendrix, Money, Turn the Tides, Radio Ethiopia, Havanis. I especially like Havanis, gettin' real stoned and gettin' into my electric typewriter. A real strong stream, a real concentrated stream. But sometimes I also like conspiracy. I have a friend who's a painter; I like working while he's painting. I like working while my old man practices guitar.

When you get straight and reread what you write, do you save it all?

Well, there's two kinds of writin'. There's like little diary stuff. Sometimes I just write. I keep notebooks all the time. Some of it will never see the light. I spend a lot of time writin' out tables of contents for books I never write. I record dreams or whatever's happenin' at the moment. Write it before you lose it. I mostly use everythin' I write unless I lose it.

Does living in New York City have a great effect on what you write? The noise, the hustle - it's not exactly a peaceful place.

I don't like peaceful places. I like what's goin' on outside. I like bein’ in some little skylight room on top of the world, but I like to know that I'm up above a world where there's a lot of action happenin'. I can't go to the country to get myself together. I go to the country and I get really nuts. I can't stand the sound of crickets. And I'm from the country.

There must be some quiet places for you - when you were in Paris did you spend any kind of inspirational time in the museums?

Oh, yeah. I been to Paris about ten times. To get inspiration I go to a bunch of places. To Jim Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise, that’s the first place I go. In fact, this time around... No! It was our first European tour. It was really cool, because they had this white Aston Martin or somethin' waitin' for me. You know, I don't get treated that way in America. They really love art over there. In America I'm lucky if I get a station wagon. I'm just sayin' that I happen to be treated like a princess in Paris. So anyway, I had this white car and they said, ‘Where do you wanna go?' And I said, ‘To see Jim Morrison.’ So they took me to the graveyard in a big white car. I remember the first time I went. I was all by myself in the pouring rain. Really fucked up and the mud was splattering all over me. This time it was a bright day and I was in this white car smokin' a cigarette. It's all the same, though.

Just you and the chauffeur?

Yeah, me and him and my dark glasses and a pack of cigarettes.

Do you smoke a lot? Cigarettes, I mean.

Oh, I don't inhale. I just like the look. Really on top of it. I like that Jeanne Moreau woman-with-her-cigarette look. I don't inhale though, so it doesn't hurt my lungs. It's all for show. My own show.

And you smoke Kools?

Well, of course. While in France I also usually go see Delacroix's house. And Rimbaud's. I usually stay at the hotel where Rimbaud and Verlaine had their biggest fights. I'm a real romantic. Where Rimbaud had hashish with Charles Cros. Charleville, where Rimbaud was born. And the Charleville Museum. I lived in Paris with my sister for three or four months. Ya know why I really love Paris? I'm crazy about coffee. And there are cafes you can hang out in all night.

Do your fans give you expensive gifts? Say, a half-ounce of cocaine?

I've had ounces.

Now there's a gift.

And grass. But one time a guy sent me a letter. His name was Timothy. No number or last name or nothin'. And two $50 bills in it. Brand new. And I couldn't give 'em back. I thought: free money.

Is money really important to you?

I like it, but it's not important. It doesn’t matter. But I like to spend it. I like to call up a friend and take him somewhere. See, my friends that I have now, I've had for twelve, fifteen years. So now that I'm makin' money; well, all of us are. Like, our art is really peaking. But I just happen to be making the most dough. So I like to call my friends and say, ‘Meet me at such and such hotel,’ and then buy lunch or dinner, leave a big tip, and then we go shoppin' at Bergdorf's. But also I give it away a lot. I want to make a program to, like, build, to work on the irrigation in Ethiopia. I mean, money to me is meant to be spread around, ya know? It's not even like charity. I'm not gonna act like a philanthropist. I really dig it. I never had money. All my life we never had money. And I'm very clever, I can take care of myself. Plus, my old man takes care of me. I don't need to make money. I got a guy that's supported me for six years.

Well then, is power important to you?

Power, but not, like, dictatorial power. Power to initiate change, to affect people in a really spiralling way. To be a catalyst. Just like when I worked at Scribner's bookstore for five years. I was smart and I was strong. A kid would come in and want Rod McKuen, stuff like that. To me, power was bein’ able to talk to that kid, and he'd leave with Maldorer, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas. Now I feel like I'm doin' the same kinda thing.

It was about this time that Robert Mappelthorpe gave you your start. Paid for that first book of poetry.

No, he didn't give me the start that way. He did lend me the money for my single. But he did much more than that. I was nineteen years old, really shattered. I'd been through a lot of hard times. I had all this powerful energy and I didn't know how to direct it. Robert really disciplined me to direct all my mania–all my telepathic energy–into art. Concentrating on the god within, or at least a creative demon. I was really emotionally fucked up.

Are you evened out now?

Oh yeah. I mean I go through pain, but I try to translate everything into work. Plus, I’m almost thirty and I've been through so much stuff. Every time I go through something new, I have so much scar tissue that I suffer pain now, but it doesn't take me so long to get back on my feet. I can get back on top real fast. I'm in the ring! Y'know when you're an artist and you're, like, struggling, nobody cares. You get beat down, and stay down for a while. But when you're in the middle of the ring you gotta get up fast, because there's all these people watchin'. You don't have time.

But the heroines you used to write about in Seventh Heaven and Witt, they all really lost it.

Oh, they lost, but they at least started out great. There are so few women I can celebrate.

You know, when you really start to make it, and it all happens, it creates a whole new kind of energy around you.

Yeah, but if you're smart, it'll make you a stronger person.

What about Edie Sedgwick and Marianne Faithful? You avoided exploding like they did.

I was also lucky. First of all–a real obvious thing–I've never been real fucked up on drugs. All those girls, they were so fragile. I guess I have a lotta inner strength to begin with. Some of these people–I knew Janis real well–they were all very emotional. A lot like, say, my mother. I mean we're all emotional, but you can't be real emotional and try to do work. What I mean is you can't let your emotions consume you. If you can't transcend that emotion into work, then you can't do anything. I'm real emotional. I mean, if I'm really fucked up and cryin' sittin' in a room.

And barbiturates and booze only make it worse.

Myself, I use drugs to work. I never use them to escape. For pleasure I use people. If I'm real depressed–I have some real wonderful friends–I turn to people. ‘Cuz when you turn to drugs all you're doing is turning inside, anyway. When I'm in trouble or emotionally fucked up, I don't wanna look in a mirror. I only use drugs for construction. It's like one of my architectural tools now. I don't go to a party and get all fucked up. Or sit in a hotel room all sad and messed up and take drugs.

Those women did use drugs as an escape, now they're dead.

I'm not makin' a platform about it. I’m just sayin’ for me, personally, I think drugs are sacred and should be used for work. That's what I believe in. Drugs have a real shamanistic value. I can handle drugs. I've never had a problem. Never had a glue problem, never had a Tiger Rose (opium) problem all my life.

How do you feel about pot being legalized?

Oh yeah. I wanna open up a chain. Y'know how they have MacDonald's and stuff? I'd like to open up a chain of cafes. Like they have in Morocco, where people can just sit and meditate; tell stories and have pot and hashish. And there would be a little thresher mat and a stage and somebody gets up and tells everyone a story like A Thousand and One Nights every night. It's just a place where you can always go and take drugs. Listen, people are going to take drugs. So they might as well have a place to go which would help you transcend into another state. Always someone telling a story or I'd stop in and tell one.

Some places, like New York discos, are getting pretty loose in terms of drug tolerance.

I can't go. I'm a great dancer. I love to dance. But when I go to discotheques, people talk to me so much that I can’t dance. It's like Edith Piaf. She was very religious and they asked her, ‘Why don't you go to church?' She said, ‘Because everybody looks at me.’

Was your family very religious? How do you see God?

You look in the mirror. No, I would hope God is beyond me. You know, I think God is everyone's private fantasy. To me He's really a heavy guy. My whole record, Radio Ethiopia, is a challenge to Him. Well, two-thirds of it. ‘Come on God, turn around, make a move.' I've gone as far as I can. To me it's very personal and very sexual. As an artist I find Him another thing to challenge. God destroyed the first artists, the Tower of Babel-the first piece of art. He doesn't like people entering into competition in the traditional Christian sense with Him. That was my understanding from the King James Bible. Not a big fan of the artist. That's why in all religions–like when Armageddon comes–art's the first thing to go. The art museums crumble. Art isn't slated to be part of the New World. I've been in lots of religions, so I know what I'm talking about. Artists defy God, they challenge Him, the God within or without. Myself, I'd like to see God get more heavily into art.

Who is your audience? What age range?

I would hope it's everybody. Very diverse. Our first album sold a couple hundred thousand, real good for a first record.

Are you happy about being a woman these days?

Women are the obvious creators, the mothers of civilization. I think a new era for women is coming. Definitely a new era for me, which has nothing to do with feminism. It has to do with me: My body and my brain and all my fantasies and desires hooking up with me physically. Plus, I just dig it.

You don't ornament yourself as a sex object the way other women might spend hours before a mirror, putting on make-up?

Well, I’m a very sexual person. Pornography, eroticism, that's what I work on in private. None of that has been published yet. I'm still workin' on it. I think that pornography is the most. I think that rock & roll right now is the most important thing. I think that pornography has yet to see its day. Really high-class pornography. But it's something I think about all the time. Pornography linked with elegance and grace and intelligence-it's only happened a few times. Alexander Trocchi Wrote some amazingly beautiful pornographic books, like Helen and Desire. William Burroughs' The Wild Boys is a beautiful piece of erotic writing.

What form of expression would you take in creating erotic art?

I feel I'm involved in it right now. On stage at this point, as much as I know how, I’ve been accused of everything, including masturbation. And I come on stage. Almost every night I come on stage. Sex–coming–is about concentration. I can come while I'm writing, if I'm really there. Orgasm is peaking your concentration.

Is that an end for you, do you work consciously for that?

Well, any woman is capable of multiple orgasms. What I mean is, a woman can come all day, and even women don't realize how heavy this is. When I first realized what coming meant, that I could come twenty times if I could come once, over and over again like the ocean. Even self-induced. I'm not necessarily talkin' about sex now.

Yeah, but the male chauvinist has kept women locked up from this knowledge since forever, so that now I meet so many women who can't come at all.

I don't like that term. I don’t deal with terminology. It’s individual. We can't blame the social evolution for anything. We just have to fight it. You blame the social order for the weakness and greed of people and you don't get anything done. I'm asked to censor my work. I just fight censorship. I don't spend a lot of time wondering why censorship is in the social order.

Photo by Philip Montgomery

Even now there's objection to your lyrics?

For my single, “My Generation/Gloria", even on FM, it says on the label: “'My Generation’ contains language which might be objectionable.” To who? 'fuck' and 'shit’? It's American slang!


About the Creator

Beat Staff

Constantly humming, always tapping, forever in the Beat. We constantly fight over artists, and the best song of this year. Karaoke is a must.

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