Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Patti Smith: "We're All Marginalized" by James Nuttall ©

The cliche 'needs no introduction' seems void in this instance, since my latest interviewee has certainly earned the right to one.

Her 1975 debut album, Horses, was named number one in NME's '20 Near-As-Damn-Perfect Initial Efforts'. The prototype for punk as we know it, it was also named as one of the 100 greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone and Time magazine. The album was a breakthrough, and it set the tone for her music for the next 37 years... always political, never conventional. 

Patti Smith has been one of the most influential artists in rock music history. Voted the 47th greatest artist of all time in Rolling Stone magazine, she has influenced musicians like Madonna, Shirley Manson, The Smiths, Bono, KT Tunstall and Blondie. A seven-time-nominee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she was finally inducted in 2007. Smith has written many poetry books, and also published her memoir, Just Kids, in 2010, which won the National Best Book Award. Last year she received the Polar Music Prize. This year sees the released of her eleventh studio album, Banga. Released to rave reviews, she is currently on tour promoting it. 

With such accolades under her belt, imagine my surprise when I saw her casually strolling down a Wolverhampton high-street with guitar god, Lenny Kaye, on her way back from praying at the local St Peters church. Swamped by autograph hounds she was clad in exactly the same clothes she would be wearing for the evening's show: plain black jacket, white t-shirt and blue jeans with peace signs drawn on in biro. The only difference were the silver boots that were replaced by black ones for the concert. Imagine my shock when, after she's signed my albums, I find her writing her email address on the back of my ticket to arrange an interview for the next leg of her UK tour. Imagine my light-headedness when, five minutes later, she walks over and utters those three magical words: "come with us."

Strolling past the stunned onlooking sycophants and autograph dealers, I suddenly find myself being escorted into the backstage area of the Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall, and placed in a dressing room with the pioneering Godmother of Punk, who later said she didn't do interviews before shows, so the honors kept on coming. Turning to her road manager, she said "I'm giving him 15 minutes, so just come and get me." 

Thinking I'd better treat this interview as though it were my last 15 minutes on Earth, we dived straight into talking about religion. Smith has used religious imagery and philosophy frequently in her work.The reissue versions of her albums all contain biblical quotes and phrases, handwritten by Smith and printed onto the CD's and liner notes. 

"My mother gave me the concept of God when I was very little" Patti says. "She taught me how to pray, and basically her teaching was that we weren't alone here; that there was something higher to aspire to. I was very happy to see that there was another level that maybe was a bit freer." 

And that was worked into the music? 
Patti Smith: Godmother of Punk Rock

"It works into the music in different ways. Some of it isn't spiritual, like, for instance, the first lines of Gloria ("Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine") are not really about spirituality, that is more about a reaction to the rules and regulations of the church, where a lot of obstacles are placed between us and the freedom of conceiving God the way we want. It was also a deceleration of existence and responsibility. I wanted the freedom to make mistakes and to explore and I would take responsibility for them."

"I find the concept of Christ in the purist form comforting and inspiring, but I'm interested in all faiths, it doesn't matter to me. I pray in all kinds of churches, synagogues (and) mosques. Today I went to St Peters here and lit candles for my children, my late husband, my band and the people. I would describe my spiritualism as partially humanistic and partially a private, limitless communication with our creator as I can see them."

So did she think that she would change the world of music to the extent she did?

(Laughing) "No, I didn't think my music would change the world. I didn't plan to ever do an album, but when I got a contract and was asked to do a record, my motivation for doing Horses was to create a bridge between everything I had learned and come up with and that was now gone because of the death of so many great people. Also a bridge between the pioneers of our cultural voice and the new guard. I was very worried about the changes. We had the Nixon Administration in America, we had a lot of assassinations. All the hopes that we had in the sixties and all the work we were doing, and all the evolution of our voice through people like Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jefferson Airplane... the evolution of rock and roll, and I was concerned that it would become a commodity, and I was just trying to make a statement and inspire new people to have a loftier approach to rock and roll."

"Also to communicate to people I perceived to  be marginalized in that period: anti-war people, homosexuals, young artists and poets, because they were my people as I conceived. I believe that in our world now 90 per cent of the people are marginalized, our governments and corporations are so powerful and so huge that we're all marginalized. There's a democracy of the arts now and you don't feel one strong, concentrated voice, its spread out globally through technology because more and more people are creating. Our culture is different and we have a much more materialistic culture than we did in the sixties. In order to be plugged into the 21st century people immediately have to be more materialistic. But since the eighties when I got married, had children and wrote People Have the Power with my husband (the late Fred 'Sonic' Smith) I feel that the potential is there to speak to all people globally."
Smith live at the Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall, 25th June 2012. The opening night for the 'Banga' Tour.

Does that mean the music industry is also marginalized nowadays?

"We just live in a different culture, some of it is good and some of it isn't. Some of it I think is unhealthy, some of it I think is confining. What some people feel is democracy is confining to others. I was talking to Neil Young a week or two ago and we were both talking about how in the past, the stage was your laboratory. You could go and do concerts but have a certain amount of time where you were working out new things... you didn't have lyrics or anything set, but you wanted to work out a song between you and the people, and it was really between you and the people. But now with technology, people post everything you do, they've already made a judgement on it before you can finish it and they make a judgement on you for not being together, for seeming like you can't remember your own lyrics when really you're just writing them with the people. Also you're subject to so much media. You go onstage and instead of feeling a oneness with the people you have to negotiate people filming you, taking photographs of you, recording you, looking at what they're recording, texting. I'm not speaking in judgement about it, but my concept of performance is connection and keeping our channels open, so one has to figure out how to negotiate the 21st century."

And how do you negotiate the 21st century?

"As a performer I could see the new people and what was coming. It's what an artist does, it's like when Walt Whitman said 'I am with you, young poet 300 years from now.' My concept was a little edgier perhaps, but it's the same idea. Art and self expression is infinite and after an artist dies his work fluctuates. It's like a bloodline." 

Is that part of the reason why the deluxe edition of Banga is also a book? 

"We put out a limited amount. I like the special edition because I like a book, the CD is relatively modern but it gives you the permanence of a book. I worked very hard on it. I think of all our records as sort of an oral book or an abstract movie. When you put records together it's like a soundtrack for a life, and I always put records together for people to listen to from beginning to end at least a few times. Each one of my records has the listener in mind to go through various things in listening: a certain amount of lightheartedness or joy, sorrow, fear or hope... there's a lot of things encoded in the record. It's a very sixties concept... it's meant to take you somewhere. Hopefully if you do a good job an album is like a drug, it takes you on a little trip." 

How did you feel being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

"I was nominated seven times before I actually made it, so it's not like it was a big surprise, either they were going to fuck with me for the rest of my life or not. I didn't even want us to have a R&R Hall of Fame, when I was younger I lobbied against it. I thought rock and roll didn't need a hall of fame, we have our gods, but still we choose them. But they did make a hall of fame, they invited me in and I accepted. No matter what one thinks of these things, there's always a small amount of pride attached. In the whole arena of rock and roll to be chosen, whether one is cynical or not, for someone like me, it was obvious that someone like Elvis Presley would be there, I'm not an obvious choice.

 It's gratifying enough to know that what we did seems important to people. I always dreamed I'd write books, so it's very gratifying to know that it endured like a good book, and I'm proud of that."  
The Patti Smith Group as it is today. Left to right:Tom Verlaine, Tony Shanahan, Jay Dee Daughtery, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye.

But your lyrics could read like a great poetry book... 

"Well I began as a writer, I'm not a musician. I write little melodies, I write a few songs by myself. I wrote Banga, but I don't think like a musician I think with language. Usually Tony, our bass player, or Lenny arranges them. If I write a song I do the whole thing because I can hear it from beginning to end. But often we will write a song on guitar riffs and arrange them together as a band."  

Wolverhampton was the first night of Patti's tour, which will go throughout the summer, and winter months. During the course of the interview ghostly sounds could be heard from the auditorium, alas, this was a technical glitch in the PA system. Not a good start to her tour. How does she cope with these things?

"These things happen, believe me. Soemtimes It's more harrowing than other times. I thought that I didn't get nervous but I've been realising that I have to take a piss a lot, and I find that that translates into nervousness. I have a really great band, we have great camaraderie. Sometimes I'll feel a little nervous when we're going into a place we've never been and I think "will anybody come"... then I go out and there's thousands of people. But that's my only worry, I still worry people won't come, but they do... oh, they do."  

By James Nuttall © 2012

Tour dates and news can be found at:

Many thanks to Patti Smith for her time and music...  

My signed copy of Horses- the first ever punk album, and the prototype for many to follow.