|08.01.2007, 03:30 PM||#1|
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Join Date: Dec 2006
She doesn’t seem to hear the motorcycle. Or to even know it’s there, roaring and coughing and rumbling only a few yards away. Patti Smith is immune to it, sitting calmly on a commissary patio outside NBC’s Studio 3, where she’ll soon be taping an appearance on The Tonight Show for a quick burst of stormy weather and her version of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” The other guests tonight? Dr. Phil and “the Jay Leno of Australia.” But it could just as easily be Leno himself on top of that rumbling motorbike, revving up another one of his custom hogs, and she wouldn’t know the difference. Smith makes her own noise.
“I guess it’s an interesting time for me,” she says, staring straight ahead, concentrating on her own words, maybe visualizing them right in front of her. “I never dreamed that I would still be performing at this time in my life, but I am. And I still think I have something to contribute.”
Her latest contribution is Twelve, a collection of new interpretations of old tunes, from Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” to a vaguely bluegrass take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Covering the songs of other artists has always been a part-time pastime for Smith, whose eruption from the New York rock underground essentially began with her stretched-out, free-verse explosion of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” which Smith began cryptically with the words “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine … .”
When “Gloria” appeared on her 1975 debut album, Horses, she was nearly as old as Mick Jagger, but it still represented a clear generational break from the classic rock past, a rebellion against the overkill of the corporate rock machine. Smith would become the “punk priestess,” a singer-poet-sage, a South Jersey girl feeding off her obsession with the Stones, Dylan, and the great poets of France and the Beat Generation. She helped reinvent rock as a setting for bold, even literary revolt that can still be heard in much that has followed. Her 1979 “retirement” was a devastating loss for fans and the punk genre she helped create. But after the 1994 death of her husband, the MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith, she returned to action just in time for the ’90s alt-rock movement. Now 60, Smith’s renewed career proves that age is no hurdle as she approaches the BIG themes (death, love, war, politics, etc.) with an astonishing blend of ease and fire.
That original punk revolution turned in on itself, as all revolutions do, becoming just another pop niche, another clique and fashion statement for kids in mohawks and piercings picked out with mom. In 2007, Patti Smith’s deeply personal music wouldn’t qualify on the punk-rock corporate scale. It’s too raw, too intimate.
Locals can see for themselves when Smith and her band perform the songs of Twelve, and others from her three decades of recordings, in a free August 16 concert at Santa Monica Pier’s Twilight Dance Series. (Info at Twilightdance.org.)
CityBeat: You’ve always included material by other songwriters in your work. What led you to record an entire album like this?
Patti Smith: I always wanted to. I just never felt qualified in the past to do a wide range of cover songs. I’ve tried all kinds of songs, and I always sing ’em bad or I can’t hit the notes. I’m no Christina Aguilera, that’s for sure. I just feel like at this point, I know everything I’m going to know about my voice, and as a human being I’ve gone through a lot of different things and I just felt ready to tackle challenging songs.
How did you choose the tracks?
It took a couple of years for “Gloria” to evolve into what it was. And in this instance, you know, you go into the studio and we have like a Vulcan Mind-Meld and see where we go with the song. Most of these songs happened organically in the studio. We didn’t work on them for two years live.
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|08.01.2007, 03:31 PM||#2|
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Join Date: Dec 2006
Some of them were very deliberate choices, like “Are You Experienced?” That was the first song we cut. We did it at Electric Ladyland [studios]. The spoken-word part is really Jimi’s lyrics from “Moon, Turn the Tides.” I chose [Tears for Fears’] “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” really for the lyrics. I was in a café and just feeling so frustrated and aghast at the news and what’s happening in our world, whether it’s just corporate globalization and just the greed of pharmaceutical companies, what’s happening in Iraq. And this song comes on, and it was just like a little answer. And I felt that song, just a little pop song, says in the sentence exactly what is systemically wrong with our world because about one percent of our population is ruling our world instead of the people.
With “Gloria,” you spent a couple of years with it before recording it, and it became as much your song as Van Morrison’s.
Yeah, but also I have to say that you can’t really do that with most songs [anymore], because artists won’t give you the licensing. I developed [a version of] the Prince song “When Doves Cry” and put a biblical verse in the middle of it, and he blocked it. He made me take off the Bible verse, and the Hendrix Foundation does not allow you to put your own poetry on a Jimi Hendrix song. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to do that, and I actually had to pull songs off records and hold up release dates of records because an artist didn’t want poetry on their song, which is their right. So I didn’t want to screw around with that on this record, because it’s painful. You know, you work really hard on a song and you invest in it and embellish it – whether it’s from the Bible or one’s own poetry – and it just winds up in a can somewhere like some old Orson Welles movie. So I just decided on this record to remain as true to the artist’s lyrical conception as possible.
What biblical verse was that?
It was from the “Song of Solomon,” where she says something like: “Oh my love, my dove, I wait for you.” It was really quite beautiful, there was nothing compromising to it. I mean, Prince writes great songs, and I chose to do this song because he wrote such a beautiful song, but it’s really his right, so I don’t want to criticize another artist to exercise their right.
So on this record my aim wasn’t to develop my own poetry. My aim was to take songs that had either beautiful or relevant lyrics and make the lyrics very articulate and make them so people can hear them. I have danced to “Gimme Shelter” a thousand times and was never totally aware of the potency of that song lyrically. I knew it was a great song, but the fire of that song is so overwhelming that I never even thought about the lyrics. So my agenda was to be very attentive to each artist’s lyrics.
Who are your inspirations as a singer? You have a very unique style.
I never really had aspirations of being a singer. I liked to perform, but I grew up in a time where everybody sang on the streets in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and most of my friends sang better than me. We just all sang really to amuse ourselves, and I can’t say where I got my singing voice from because I still don’t really understand it. I know who influenced me as a performer, whether it was Lotte Lenya or Nina Simone and Darlene Love. I study Maria Callas all the time. I guess what I learn from other singers isn’t really vocal technique, because I’m totally unschooled, but I do learn how to deliver the inner narrative of the song emotionally or to tell a story.
Grace Slick was a really big inspiration. She delivered something revolutionary poetically, with strength that was really beyond gender, and she made a big impression on me. But I never thought of singing. When I first started performing I was doing poetry, and I fell into chanting and then a little bit of singing. It just happened organically. But I didn’t know anything about singing when I did Horses. I was just singing from the seat of my pants.
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|08.01.2007, 03:31 PM||#3|
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Join Date: Dec 2006
I read that you met Hendrix in New York.
I met Jimi Hendrix in 1970 when they had a party at Electric Ladyland. I was pretty young, 23 or something. I didn’t have the nerve to go in, so I just sat on the steps. And then he was leaving. He was on his way to England to do the Isle of Wight Festival and he was by himself and he saw me on the steps. He started talking to me, and then he told me all about what he was going to do with the studio and his rock ’n’ roll as a universal language. I was so excited, and then he left and never came back. But I remembered what he said, and I’ve always tried to incorporate his hopes and dreams for rock ’n’ roll into my own philosophy.
One song of yours that is often performed by others is “Dancing Barefoot.” It’s practically a standard. Does it surprise you when a song has that kind of impact?
I’m always real optimistic. I always think every time we do something that the whole world is going to love it. I don’t do things hoping that I’ll stay in a little underground room and that just a handful of hip people will like it. Every record I do, I always have hopes that everybody will like it. I have a big imagination.
It’s often been written that Dylan and the Stones were important influences for you, and also the Beats and other poets. Was the first thing to open your mind music or poetry?
Books. I always wanted to read, and I loved reading. When I was a kid, I read fairy tales and classics and Peter Pan and Pinocchio, and it was just always books. And then when I got older, rock ’n’ roll really took over everything. I loved art. I loved Picasso, the Abstract Expressionists, French film. But rock ’n’ roll encompassed everything: political feelings and poetry, sexuality, revolution. It was all there, and we had such a strong sense of community. We were all sort of listening to the same stuff and being guided and expanded by our music. There was just so much happening, but it all seemed a part of this big collective that had to do with politics, art, poetry.
Were you reading the Beats from early on, or did you find them later?
I didn’t read them until I met them, truthfully. When I moved into the Chelsea Hotel in 1969, I met these people. I met Gregory Corso and William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and they became my friends and mentors. Then I was doing readings with them. So I was hearing them and listening to them and learning from them, and to this day I’m still mining Allen Ginsberg. But the great thing about the Beat poets is they were doing something new, but all of them were highly connected with the past. They had their mentors, too. To read Allen Ginsberg is to read William Blake and Walt Whitman. To read Gregory Corso is to read Byron, Keats, and Shelley. So these people, as political and groundbreaking as they were, still kept the thread with the great work of the past. I believe in that. That’s how I conduct myself.
That thread seemed to come very naturally to you.
I was given the tools. You look at Jim Morrison, obviously reading Rimbaud, and so was Bob Dylan. You have your blood ancestors and you have your spiritual ancestors, and I think that all of us, some who feel disenfranchised from the world or our families or our community, can always find friends and mentors in this spiritual line.
After the ’60s were over and you began making your own writing and music in the ’70s, did you feel like you were continuing something – or that you were part of something new?
I wasn’t even sure how I felt. I know what my goals were. I had an actual cognizant goal to create a bridge between our past, or our very recent past, and our futures. In ’73, ’74, I felt a floundering. We lost some of our great people – Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. Bob Dylan had retreated after his motorcycle accident. There were new things happening, and a lot of it seemed very self-indulgent, glamorous. We weren’t growing in the way that I imagined we would grow, and I was very concerned about the state of rock ’n’ roll. It might seem presumptuous, but in that period of my life I loved rock ’n’ roll probably more than anything, and I didn’t want to see it get so decadent. Basically, I just wanted to be some clarion call and to remind the new guard to take over rock ’n’ roll. It’s the people’s art, and I really felt that we needed to step up and not let it get into the hands of corporations and big business and merchandising and rich rock stars.
It also led to another kind of audience. It opened up the minds of those who were hearing it.
Everybody did their part. Now I think we’re on the tip of another interesting time. I feel the same kind of energy brewing as I did then. I can’t say that I completely comprehend it, but I can feel that the new guard is up to all kinds of stuff, and they’ve got whole new tools and a whole new landscape that we didn’t have. They have the Internet. They have file-sharing. They work under the radar of the music business. They’re feeling things out, and they will gather their strength and see that collectively they have a huge amount of power in this world to make political change, to merge really quickly through technology. And if they set their minds to it and decide to make change – whether it’s toward developing new political parties or uniting to make change in terms of our environment or just musically, completely transfigure the landscape – they’re on their way.
You’ve had a special relationship with photography, initially as a kind of a muse for Robert Mapplethorpe and other important photographers.
I was really proud of that. I’ve always loved photography. When I was young, I loved looking at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and looking at the great photographs by Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, Avedon, William Klein. There are so many great photographers just in the fashion world. And then going out of that, Stieglitz, Robert Frank, Julia Margaret Cameron. I’ve always loved art, and I’ve always loved the idea of the artist’s muse, whether it was Frida Kahlo, being both artist and muse for Diego Rivera, or just the famous models of the late 19th century. To have a place in the canon of muses is a very nice thing. I was the first person that Robert Mapplethorpe photographed, and I was his first model, and I know he liked to photograph me.
You lived together for a while?
About five years.
When he was photographing you, was it always a serious session of “We’re going to make photographs now,” or could it sometimes be casual?
At the Chelsea Hotel, he just followed me around endlessly, taking photographs. You know, he was figuring things out, which he did very quickly. After a short period of time, he knew exactly what he wanted. He wasn’t a snapshot guy. And he wasn’t a guy who did motor-driving. He took 12 pictures or he’d take six. He knew what he wanted, and when he got it, that was it. He never labored. I always think it’s funny when people want to take my picture now and they tell me how much they like Robert, and then they want to take 300 pictures to get one shot. And I always say, after they take the eighth one, by now, the cover of Horses would have been done.
Did seeing how his photographs captured you affect your own perspective? Or surprise you?
No, because I just was the way that I was. I could see how much he cared for me in his pictures. So that’s still something that I see when I look at a photograph that Robert took of me. I know what’s in his mind. I know the aspect of me that he saw in that photograph, that maybe someone else wouldn’t have seen. He was my boyfriend for some years, and then we evolved in different ways and we were best friends.
Recently in Aperture magazine, you published some photographs of your own. How long have you been taking pictures?
I’ve taken pictures throughout the years. After Fred died, I picked up the Polaroid camera and started taking meditative still lifes. It was a way of dealing with the complexity of my feelings or grieving. I wasn’t able to write, because the things that I was processing – losing Robert and then Richard Sohl, my piano player, then Fred, then my brother – I could hardly speak about it. Taking photographs was a very abstract and silent way of dealing with my feelings.
When I started going back on the road, I find when I’m performing and singing on the rivers of the road, it’s very hard to write. But it’s a very good place to take photographs, and especially because you visit so many interesting places. Therefore, I have pictures of Keats’s bed and Virginia Woolf’s desk or Hermann Hesse’s typewriter. I might be in 30 countries in 40 days, so it gives me all of these different points of view. When you’re performing, my concern is how the people are doing. Are they having fun? Are they being challenged? Are we building an interesting night? Are we communicating? So it’s very nice for me to have something that’s just mine, that I can do in solitary. I really just like going off down an alley somewhere, finding a little church or courtyard or child or something and just having a moment that’s mine.
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