"Godmother of punk" Patti Smith, who has become renowned over the
years for more than her music, will appear in Seattle Jan. 25.
By Tom Keogh
January 21, 2010
Often called the "godmother of punk," Patti Smith made her Seattle
debut at the Paramount nearly 35 years ago, with her band, the Patti
Smith Group. Next Monday, she'll stand alone on stage at Benaroya
Hall, an accomplished singer-songwriter, author, visual artist, poet
and rock icon whose early music along with the Ramones, Television
and Talking Heads ushered in the New Wave of American rock and roll
in the mid-1970s.
Smith's new memoir, "Just Kids," about her longtime close friendship
with the late, controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, will
delve into the years before either of them found their calling, let
alone fame. In Smith's case, her fame grew rapidly following her
stunning first album, "Horses," with its bursts of feverish, lyrical
inspiration and minimalist production by former Velvet Underground
member John Cale. Smith's later rewrite and recording of Bruce
Springsteen's "Because the Night" broadened her audience before she
left the music business in 1980 to marry former MC5 guitarist Fred
Fred Smith's death in 1994, along with three other significant losses
Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith Group pianist Richard Sohl and Patti
Smith's brother, Todd brought her back into the spotlight with one
of her finest works, "Gone Again," an equally mournful and
high-energy album about many aspects of grief.
Several records later, Smith seems to be everywhere as a performer,
human-rights activist, supporter of progressive politicians and much
else. Her musical influence has been acknowledged by R.E.M., Sonic
Youth, Morissey and many others.
Q: Let me start by asking what you'll be doing in your appearance at
A: I thought I'd do a number of things. I'll read from my new book,
and sing, and ask people if they have questions. When I do things
like this, I design the evenings as they go on. So I'll be
celebrating the book and communicating in different ways.
Q: The book is "Just Kids." What is it about?
A: It's a book I promised Robert Mapplethorpe I would write. It's
about our friendship, which began in 1967. We were just kids, and
struggled with a lot of things together. A lot of our friends are
gone. It's a memoir with letters, journals, and memories. It's based
Q: Will you have musicians with you when you
A: No, I'm by myself. It's not a concert. I'll play guitar, though
I'm a limited player.
Q: At this point in your career and life, your impact as an artist
can be seen everywhere. Scores of other artists cite you as a major
influence. You've performed at political, anti-war and human-rights
rallies [including one in 2003 in memory of Evergreen State College
student Rachel Corrie, killed in the Gaza Strip while protesting
Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes]. Your song, "People Have the
Power," is played by Bruce Springsteen and others at similar events.
What is it like for you to see such a sprawling legacy?
A: It's a good thing to see you've been productive and have resonated
with people. But it's also always important to be working on
something new, too, and not spend a lot of time looking back. Most
artists are involved with protest of one kind or another. Fred and I
wrote "People Have the Power" in 1986, and it stays alive and vibrant
because of others who perform it: Bruce, Eddie Vedder, grass-roots kids.
Q: Part of what you were about during the punk years of the 1970s was
highlighting rock and roll as a powerful, populist force for changing
hearts and minds.
A: Sure. I always felt rock had a wide spectrum. There are political
aspects to it, artistic aspects, dance and sexual aspects. It's
important to me in every way. The political part is not just reserved
for a song like "Ohio" [the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young classic
about the Kent State shootings], but in other great songs you can
dance to. It's an important cultural voice. When our band started, we
worried that rock could be lost, and the voice of the people with it.
It's not just a business.
Q: It seemed for a while during those years that rock culture was at
war with itself. I remember going to see your occasional
collaborator, Tom Verlaine, and his great New York band, Television,
at a Seattle club and watching in horror as a clueless opening act
would-be rock aristocrats in the early-'70s mold pushed a kid off
the stage to the concrete floor.
A: Young kids were always jumping onto our stage. We'd hand them a
guitar and say, get to work.
Q: When I attended a couple of your concerts, I wondered if it was
hard for you to balance your ideals with emerging stardom as a performer.
A: No, I didn't feel like a star, and I don't feel like a star now. I
feel appreciated, but not on that level of celebrity and commercial
success. I'm more people-oriented. I don't like being separated from
life with an alternate ego. I'm the same offstage as on, except I'm
more aggressive and physical in performance. That's only natural.
Q: Your 1975 debut album, "Horses," is still cited as one of the
greatest records of all time. I've often heard that the making of it
was tense and difficult. Can you elaborate?
A: I'd never made a record, and had no sense of how making a record
was both like and not like performing live. We only did a few
overdubs, so I didn't get the idea that recording was different than
live performance. John Cale was great but I wasn't open to being told
how to perform. At the same time, while it was my record, it was hard
to lead the situation as a woman. But John and I got the work done.
He was older and more sophisticated than me and my band. He's really
smart, and has a wide knowledge of music.
Q: On one of the most dramatic tracks on the album, a mostly
spoken-word piece called "Birdland," you sounded as if you were in a trance.
A: "Birdland" was an improvisation. Lenny [Kaye] and Rich [Sohl] and
I improvised. I knew the story I wanted to tell. There were no
finished lyrics on that or on "Land." We were channeling the music
and the words, I was very conscious of the characters when I was
speaking, the disenfranchised, the outsiders. It was no small task.
We were on a mission. I had a deep sense of concentration. It was an
intense thing. I had a migraine the next day. The intensity of that
concentration is so strong, it wears out your adrenal glands. In
concert, you have the collaborative energy of people who come to see
you. It gives you strength. I'll tell people in concert, I need this
collective energy to leap over the next hurdle.
Q: It's a high order of inspiration.
A: We all use that creative impulse. There are many ways you use your
intuition. You get a feel or sense of things. Mothers use it to
understand what their children need. We all have a story and special
gifts. I'm happy to be an artist, but I also admire people with other
gifts: baking beautiful loaves of bread, diagnosing what's wrong with
a person. There's beauty in everything.
Q: After you were married and started a family, you went into
semiretirement from music. You emerged again in 1996, in an
atmosphere of great personal loss and sorrow.
A: It was very difficult. Fred and I were going to do a record
together. But he died, and instead I made "Gone Again," which was
extremely painful. All I can hear on it is grief from one song to the
next. I worked with Tom Verlaine, and Lenny, but I didn't even know
if anyone cared or remembered me. When I went back to performing, it
took me a bit, but after I took the stage a couple of times, I
realized it was something I knew how to do. Bob Dylan offered me my
first tour in 16 years. I opened for him on some shows, including
Philadelphia, where I first saw him perform. He told me to choose a
song of his and we would perform it together. I chose "Dark Eyes,"
and we sang it every night. You can see it on YouTube. I was happy to
be singing with him.
Q: Do you have to pick and choose the causes you support as an
artist-activist? Is it possible to do too much and wear out your welcome?
A: No. I'm not so big. Sometimes the only reason I wish I had more
status is that I'd have more use. No matter how much you speak about
war or the environment, these things still exist. You have to
constantly use our voice and educate. These things are really important.
Q: What are you working on these days?
A: A new record, an exhibit in New York and I'm working on detective stories.
Q: Detective stories? Can you talk about them?
A: No (laughing).
Tom Keogh: email@example.com