patti smith from the observer
- i got the land cds on cdr last week great compilation though i wish
somebody wouyld stick Hey Joe out again and give WKBAI 75 an official
she was also on Later on Friday -is that repeated tonight on BBC2 or
was that last night?
This is who I am
She rejects the title High Priestess of Punk. She advocates
compassion for terrorists. And she's fond of golf. At 55, Patti Smith
remains as wayward as ever
Sunday April 28, 2002
'I have a reputation.' Fifteen minutes into a rare interview, Patti
Smith is angry. We are sitting on a sofa backstage at the BBC and
she's pursing her lips. 'People sometimes see me as this high
priestess of performance. Like I am constantly out to shock people.
But often I just feel passionately about things. And I just have my
own way of bringing across that passion.'
She fidgets with the cuffs of her shirt. 'I guess some people take
that the wrong way. But I don't listen to them.'
It's difficult to realise that Smith is 55 years old. It's now more
than a quarter of a century since her friend, the late artist Robert
Mapplethorpe, immor talised Smith against a white wall for the sleeve
of her breakthrough record, Horses . That picture, in which Smith
wears a white shirt with a jacket draped over one shoulder, is among
the most powerful images in rock photography. Except for her once
dark hair, now silvery-grey and running thick and wild down her back,
that photograph could easily be replicated today. She looks now as
she did then - classical, thin, androgynous and unburdened by time.
Her face is remarkably smooth, with few wrinkles, and there remains,
on the surface, a coiled insolence: 'I've always looked the same.'.
She is friendly and chatty, sipping tea and relating anecdotes,
occasionally leaning forward to emphasise or clarify a point. This
affable humour is at odds with her reputation as a fierce,
argumentative critic. Two months ago, she was on stage at an annual
fundraising event at New York's Carnegie Hall: 'It's a Free Tibet
concert, right? So you'd expect the people there to be sympathetic to
all kinds of things. I mean how much more of a left-wing cause can
Introducing a poem about John Walker Lindh, the 21-year-old
Californian who converted to Islam and joined the Taliban, she told
the audience: 'We should reach out to him with our humanity. We
should be compassionate in our judgmental attitudes towards him. He
was seduced by an ideology and deserves our compassion and
One section of the crowd booed. And Smith remembers someone from the
front yelling out: 'Fuck Walker.' Another shouted: 'Screw
Unperturbed or, more likely, encouraged by the heckling, Smith
continued. And finished. 'I have had disagreements with many of my
fans over my career. People are always walking up to me and telling
me that I'm wrong about this or wrong about that. But I have an
obligation to get people to accept me. And they have to accept my
opinions. I have to show them another way of looking at things. It's
a way of saying who I am.'
She argues that her true audience knows how she feels. 'But my peers
and most Americans don't think the way I do. I have been threatened
and people get angry with me. So I have to sit and explain to them.
And talk to them. And tell them to respect the fact that Walker did
an American thing. Americans have the freedom of speech and the
freedom of expression. He wasn't a dilettante, he was pursuing things
in a different way. But it was an American way.'
The singularity of her self-belief has been a hallmark of a career
which has seen her record only seven albums since her debut, Horses ,
in 1975. 'I do them only when I feel ready and not before. I have no
need to be famous,' she says. Horses is frequently mentioned,
alongside The Beach Boys's Pet Sounds and Nirvana's Nevermind, as one
of the most influential albums of all time. Seven years ago, the late
Joey Ramone described Smith to me as 'a groundbreaking act. She took
what had traditionally been seen as boys' music, and reclaimed it.
She didn't care what anyone thought'.
Yet long before her canonisation by the rock fraternity, Smith had
abandoned rock music. Her long absence fermented her reputation among
successive generations as 'the godmother of punk'. It's a title she
disputes - in slightly irritated fashion. 'I was an artist before I
was a poet. And I was a rock'n'roll singer later.'
As if to prove the point, her latest undertaking is her first
compilation: the 2-CD set Land: 1975-2002. The first CD was compiled
after 10,000 fans polled their favourite songs. Opener 'Dancing
Barefoot' won the most votes and is track one, with the rest neatly
following in order of popularity. But the rest of the lavish package,
including archive material and an essay by Susan Sontag, proves that
Smith comes from a musically gentler genealogy than punk; one that
deified instead of denied literary instincts. 'I call this
rock'n'roll. But in a way I'm just saying, "This is who and what I
am. And you have to try and accept me for it".'
That avowed intent is still on display. The same night, she's at the
BBC singing 'Because the Night', her only major chart hit to date, a
song she co-wrote in 1978 with fellow New Jersey musician Bruce
Springsteen. Accompanied only by the acoustic guitar of her partner,
Oliver Ray, she dances and flails her arms. Her fingers move and she
snaps her heels on the floor. Then, suddenly, inexplicably, she is
moved to tears. She returns later for 'Dancing Barefoot', prefacing
the song with a short monologue about war.
The in-house audience of fans and music industry workers grows
silent. Smith carries on. She dances erotically and carefully
controls her voice. The noises she generates have little in common
with those of most rock singers. She looks for rhythms, exploiting
the backbeat of a song with a mischievous sense of adventure. But
that war monologue sounded predetermined, a way deliberately to jolt
the comfortable audience who had contentedly sashayed their way
through the evening's other performances.
She had told me earlier: 'I think terrorists should be looked at as
soldiers. We should sit down with them and try and include them in
the diplomatic process. After all, their way of fighting is their
only way of fighting. And remember, the Americans come from that
history, too. Terrorism was the only way in which we were able to
defeat the English.'
She sounds scornful, the embodiment of 'Rock'n'Roll Nigger', her own
song from 1978 that bases itself on the premise that artists are
often lone outsiders. She should know. In 1979, aged 31, and after a
huge concert for 70,000 people in Florence, she suddenly resigned
from the music industry. 'One doesn't grow on the road with a
rock'n'roll band. There is a lot of indulgence and pressure. You're
only working towards fame and fortune, and they were not my prime
After moving to Michigan, she married the musician Fred (Sonic)
Smith. It was eight years before she returned to public life. 'Fred
gave me something I'd never come across before.'
The married life Smith then led hints at a conventional side to her
nature that has rarely presented itself in her albums. 'I wanted to
study, be an artist. As a person doing records, I wanted to not only
give people fun and excitement but to serve them in a way. I met a
person who I greatly respected and loved. And who knew more about a
lot of things than me. And I went to Michigan and got married. He
learned how to become a private pilot and together we studied
everything from golf to Proust. Because we didn't have much money, I
learned how the average citizen lives.'
Fred Smith died aged 45 in 1994 after a heart attack. Lost in memory,
she looks off into the distance, occasionally cupping her hands over
her face. Then she smile and for the first time in our interview
breaks that unlined face into laughter. 'I have a tendency to go on,'
she says. 'But sometimes our minds just go somewhere and you can't
stop them.' She walks away, her mind presumably already preoccupied.
Land: 1975-2002 is out now on Arista