In his ongoing series of stories rescued from the dumpster of time, Gary Steel gifts us his August 1998 interview with Patti Smith, who had just returned after her retirement 16 years before.
When I rang her home in New York last week, Smith was in a domestic flap, doing what Mums do, organising the kids, and packing for her Australasian tour.
Times have changed for Smith, now 52 and mother of two, but going by her latest album, Peace And Noise, she’s lost none of her transcendant spirit, wild energy or moral outrage.
Between her commercial ascendancy in tthe late ‘70s (remember her co-authored Springsteen anthem, ‘Because The Night’?) and her triumphant return to the world stage in 1995, Smith got married and retired to Detroit suburbia with her husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. His tragic death in 1994 prompted her return to music at a time when the post-grunge environment was reeling from her influence. Even now, it’s impossible to listen to Hole – or any other gutsy no-holds-barred woman-led American rock – without detecting Patti Smith at its core.
But while Smith’s formative break-on-through attitude may have flirted with less than healthy images of death and sex in time honoured poetic tradition, she now claims that her generation always loved life in a way that’s alien to suicide-obsessed ‘90s youth, and the music it spawned.
Having two kids of her own has intensified her desire to try and do her bit for a generation she defines as spiritually malnourished.
“They’re not given enough spiritual guidance, and I don’t mean religion, I mean spiritual in the sense of their sense of their inner beauty,” says Smith. “I think it’s more important to develop a child’s soul than to develop its looks. Young people are pushed so much to look and act a certain way, and if they don’t measure up they start thinking they’re not any good. It should be simpler: have respect for each other and have fun and try to help one another. Be happy to be alive. Simple things.”
Smith – who will be taking her daughter on tour (her son is staying home, he hates flying), professes a great interest in the concerns of young people in New Zealand.
“Young people are getting too materially oriented, and they’re having trouble finding their self-respect. Through TV and the media they see so much stuff, and they’re being taught to be more body conscious, more fashion conscious, to be materially conscious way too young.”
In contrast, “When I was 11 or 12 years old I liked Davy Crockett and walking with my dog, running through the fields. I wasn’t concerned with what my hair looked like, what my clothes looked like, I didn’t care about that stuff, I just wanted to be free!”
This is a wiser, more responsible Patti Smith than the hyperactive hellraiser who never failed to provide good copy for rock writers with her infamous streams of articulate invective and downright shocking behaviour… for a woman.
But she’s still got that throaty growl of a voice, and I feel that at any moment, should I get her gall, she might just explode. On-the-road reports indicate that her stage performance has lost none of its ballsy unpredictability or fire, it’s just that the topics of her newer songs are more politically and spiritually focussed than her youthful rants.
“Human beings as they evolve, they don’t necessarily lose their anger or passions,” says Smith. “They might have different passions or things they’re concerned with, but there’s a lot of things in the world to be angry and passionate about. My concerns are global and I’m concerned about nuclear disarmament, I’m concerned about the environment, I’m concerned with violence… and all that comes out in music. Also when I’m performing a lot of the energy I get I derive from the atmosphere and the people. If they bring the energy, I’ll spit it back at them, double.”
Are you a better person than before?
“I hope I’m better. I’m older of course and I have more responsibility. I’ve got some grey hair and stuff, but I’m healthy and I’ve got a lot of energy. I’ve learned stuff. Getting older has its downside, physically, but it also has its good things. If you keep studying and working, the quality of your mind gets even better. It’s not all a drag!”
One of the main reasons Smith’s making the tour Downunder is her longstanding desire to visit New Zealand, and she’s looking forward, in her 50-minute pre-Bob spot, to giving us a representative glimmer of her musical history.
“We’re a very live band, essentially a classic rock’n’roll band, and we’ll be doing songs from all of the albums. Every night we’ll be doing different songs, but we’ll be drawing from the whole catalogue. I like playing the new material, but I also like playing songs that people like and remember, so I think there’s a pretty good mix of songs. I like to improvise and I like a spontaneous style of performance, I like to interact with the people, and I like when the people talk to you and sing along. I like to exchange energy with the people. I’m very interested to see what it will be like in New Zealand: what people are thinking about, what their troubles are and what their dreams are, what their spiritual concerns are.”
After her husband’s death in 1994, she moved back to her old stomping ground, New York. Although she loves being back, the felt absence of her best friends holds a tragic resonance.
The chain of tragedy started with the Aids death of her best friend (and former lover), controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, followed by pianist/bandmate Richard Sohl, her husband and her brother (all victims of heart failure).
“I’m happy to be back. I like New York. Unfortunately a lot of my friends passed away, a lot in the Aids epidemic, some of my best friends. Probably my closest friends have passed away.”
Smith is understandably touchy about the subject of her ‘retirement’ years, when she rejected the industry of music marketing to concentrate on her marriage, family, and her private artist endeavours, resulting in several volumes of poetry.
To her, they weren’t the wilderness years, and her absence from the media spotlight shouldn’t reflect on the way people view her art.
“I was the oldest kid of a large family, I was brought up in a low economic situation, and I had to help raise my brother and sisters, so it wasn’t foreign to me, that kind of responsibility, and raising children is hard work, but it didn’t make me any less an artist.
“I think if you’re an artist, you prove it by the work you do, not the life you lead. Had (The Doors’) Jim Morrison led a less artistic lifestyle he might be alive today to do more art. It’s not the excessive lifestyle that attracts me about great workers, it’s the work that they do. And you know, I’m sort of a bohemian type person anyway. So I did all the things I was supposed to do anyway. I washed diapers and took care of the kids while they were sick, but I still don’t comb my hair! I try to do the things that are important, but they don’t change the way that I am. the main thing is to be responsible, take care of your young, but you can be true to yourself and do that. I’ve never felt it to be a compromise.”
+ Patti Smith is the special guest at Bob Dylan’s shows, Auckland’s North Shore Events Centre (Sept 7 and 8), Wellington’s Queens Wharf Events Centre (Sept 10), and Christchurch’s Westpac Trust Centre (Sept 12).
* This piece was originally published by the Sunday Star Times in August, 1998.