She Is The Root Connection: Patti Smith at 75

Celebrating the music and spirit of New York Punk’s High Priestess on a landmark birthday

Patti Smith on the cover of Dream of Life (Image: Arista)

I was in Detroit in 1988, feeling fortunate that the paper I worked for, the Boston Globe, thought the person I was doing a sit-down interview with was worthy of the travel expense, the airplane fees and hotel bills. This was back when newspapers were flush and our Arts Dept. did things like that. 

I had made a strong case, too. This was about the re-emergence of Patti Smith, after nine years away from the rock ‘n’ roll fray, and there was no woman more integral to the punk movement than Patti. 

On Dec. 30, she turns 75.

Smith had been in the vanguard of New York’s mid-’70s punk-rock/ new-wave explosion, the CBGB scene. The first words on her first album, Horses, were her defiant intonation, “Jesus died for somebody’s sings/But not mine,” beginning “Gloria.” She had taken from a poem Smith wrote when she was 19, when she was heavily influenced by Albert Camus and Franz Kafka. 

In concert, she and her band reworked a couplet in The Who’s “My Generation” to “I don’t need your fucking shit/Hope I did because of it.” And “Why don’t you all f-f-fade away?” became “Why don’t you all f-f-fuck off!” Sometimes, Smith would rip the six strings from her guitar and close it with a shout, “We created it! Let’s take it over.”

In 1978, she crossed over from the punk partisans with her Bruce Springsteen co-write “Because the Night.” But she waved goodbye to the rock ‘n’ roll world in 1979 with the album Wave. She married Fred “Sonic” Smith, former guitarist of the MC5, a revolutionary rock band of the late ’60s-early ’70s. She moved to Smith’s home turf, Detroit, and had two children, a boy, Jackson and a girl Jesse Paris. But Patti Smith — rock ‘n’ roller — was MIA. 

And then, in 1988, near the end of the depressing Reagan era, came her fifth album, Dream of Life, and its first single, the power-of-positive-dreaming song, “People Have the Power.”

Her husband had driven her through a hellish rainstorm and rush-hour traffic to make this late afternoon interview at a hotel. The traffic and the rain, Smith could bear. What’s shook her was driving past the aftermath of what looked to be an extremely recent, extremely violent, car crash in this Motor City. The more twisted the wreckage, the more fragile life looks. And, make no mistake, Patti Smith — wife, mother, poet, painter, writer, singer, artist — values life.

“I’m still shaky from this,” says Patti Smith, trying to orient herself, both from the jarring aspects of the trip but the interview process itself. She’s been out of practice, hasn’t done many and won’t do many.

“I felt really uncomfortable talking about myself again,” Smith tells me. “I was very happy not to be talking about myself. But I realize you have to communicate. I have gone through certain changes, and if I don’t communicate them, people will keep me in one place. I have grown and shifted and have things I can, perhaps, share.”

Gone was the “fuck off” Patti. “I stand guilty of being positive and hopeful,” she says, smiling. “I’ve always been optimistic. I mean, I’ve had my dark periods and certainly now I’m more worried about the condition of the planet than I’ve ever been, but I’ve always loved life and I’ve always been inspired by other people. I just saw Empire of the Sun. To see somebody do such a beautiful piece of work makes me optimistic. A new William Burroughs book, a new Jean-Luc Godard movie, a new Robert Mapplethorpe photograph. There’s a million things that make me optimistic.”

Smith, dressed in a black jacket, off-white blouse and faded black jeans, tries to compose herself, as she settles in to talk. Coffee helps. It’s her only vice, she says, and she had to give it up during her two pregnancies. Now, she says, “I’m making up for lost time.”

Mentally, I took a jump back to 1976: Smith and her group are on stage, playing — flailing, reclaiming — “My Generation.” 

“That was an inspired cry,” Smith says now, about those days. “When we did that song, we meant it; we did it with full heart. It’s a young person’s battle cry, and I think we really got it. There were plenty of bad performances, angry performances, and plenty of enlightened performances. But I was there. All my being was there.

“But I didn’t miss it,” she adds. “The day I stopped performing, that was it.”

Two years ago, I was talking to Lenny Kaye about what she and Patti were still doing – playing live, digging it, reinterpreting songs. And talking about punk. “You know, punk is such an abstract thing,” muses Kaye, Smith’s guitarist, co-songwriter and right-hand man for most of the past 45 years. “We were as much a band of the ‘60s and of the 2000s as we were in the golden age of punk. Punk is a definition now. I like punk music – really fast and angry and simple and direct with chants being shouted out, but we are only punk by association.”

 

VIDEO: Patti Smith Group performing “My Generation” at the Capitol Theatre 1978

Back to Smith in ’88, looking back on herself a dozen years earlier. “I was a much younger person, young enough to get away with the fact that a lot of my energies were adolescent energies. I don’t think I was negative or there’s anything I should feel really bad about, but it’s just that I’m 41 years old, the planet is going into the hands of people my age and a little older. Maybe it’s being a parent. Having two children, it’s become quite apparent to me, being a parent, that I have a lot more responsibility for my actions. I wanted to see myself as a person that was more caring about others and less preoccupied with myself.”

Asked about her nine-year absence from public life, shared with Kaye, comparing her missing years to Christ’s or Cleopatra’s. 

More seriously, she says, “I can say that it’s been one of the best times of my life, really, in terms of self-growth. I was on such a fast pace, you never have time to think. You’re going from one place to another and everyone’s very preoccupied with your own situation. You don’t really stop to think about what you’re doing, who you are, how you’re progressing as a person. Because everything is working toward a perpetuation of the situation — which at the time was the Patti Smith Group, which I am infinitely proud of — but that constant, vigorous touring got me in a frame of mind where you lose judgment. Some things I wasn’t happy with, both as a human being and an artist. So, all of a sudden, I went from 98 speed to a much slower speed. I got to check myself out.”

Smith wrote a novel, painted, traveled, and wrote lyrics for the Dream of Life LP while husband Fred crafted the music. It’s not, as Smith readily admits, a punk rock record. She says its aim is to be “universal.” There’s a terse quality to rockers like “Going Under” and “Up There Down There,” but a positive tone flows freely through Dream of Life, from the anthemic, opening rocker “People Have the Power” to the reflective closer, the heartstring-pulling, mature nursery rhyme, “Song for Jackson.”

“I’m well aware of the overly positive aspects of ‘People Have the Power,’ ” Smith says. “Call it naive. I don’t think being filled with hope and still having the desire and care and vision to dream is naive. The song is trying to give a little inspiration and hope in very troubled times. I don’t see the point of just spewing negativity. If I wanted to put covers over my head, I would have never wed and had two children. If I’d wanted to put the covers over my head, I would have found some opium den and gone out in Cocteau-style.”

She’d not have been the first. Some thought that might, indeed, be her fate.

“I might have thought it myself,” she says, “when I was younger.” She says she’s envisioned a romantic death, “many, many times. I don’t anymore because I can only die in my dreams. I have to get up and feed the kids and change the diapers and do the laundry. I have a lot of work to do. And Fred would kill me!”

Smith doesn’t denounce her past. “I stand on it,” she says. Still, she does distance herself from it. Smith says she views Horses, her wild, beautiful, chaotic debut LP, much the way Picasso might look back on his “blue” period. 

“I’m not comparing myself to him,” she says, “but you go through periods of work as an artist, where you look at it almost as if it were an abstract piece. I’m not the same person as I was back then. I still feel for that persona and I feel for that work. But it’s not for me; I’ve outgrown it.”                                   

Smith, one of four children, was born in Chicago, but the family moved to Pitman, N.J., while Smith was young. A sickly child, she says she had every possible childhood disease and can be seen in family photo albums always “with a puss” on her face. As a child, she wanted to be a missionary. Her father talked her out of that, not wanting her to rob people of their culture. “Plus,” says Smith, “with my luck I’d instantly get malaria.” She then wanted to be an opera singer or ballet dancer; later a writer and artist. She got hooked on rock ‘n’ roll and became a fan of the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.

Smith grew up a Jehovah’s Witness, which is her mother’s faith; her father, Smith says, is a “self-professed, spiritual atheist.” She valued the scripturally oriented discipline of the former; the questing nature of the latter.

At 16, she worked in a Jersey factory and that experience led to her first recorded song, “Piss Factory,” an enveloping tale of degradation, anger, and hopeful, eventual, fame in New York. The fame, in a manner of speaking, came to her — after side trips to college (Glassboro State Teachers College) and Paris. She moved to New York in 1968, and took a room at the Chelsea Hotel. She met and collaborated with playwright Sam Shepard (Mad Dog Blues, Cowboy Mouth). She became a poet and, later, singer Kaye began adding three-chord electric guitar to her readings.

“It was a stoned period, an exploratory period,” she says. “There was a lot of self-indulgence. Just the intoxication — not even drugs — of just being on the stage and getting all this energy from the audience, the adrenaline, and then you go off on a stream of consciousness.” That led to Horses in 1976 and Radio Ethiopia in 1977.

She began to shape her sound more cautiously by her third album, Easter, and its follow-up, Wave. With “Because the Night” reaching No. 13 on Billboard’s chart, she got a kick out of walking the streets of Manhattan and hearing the song blaring from the radios at Crazy Eddie’s.

Now, as a writer, Smith says editing is most important to the process. “I finally got to the point where I can pretty much sit and concentrate and focus and say exactly what I want to say,” she says. “I’ve somehow convinced clarity to come my way and stay there.” Her husband’s music conforms more carefully to the range of her voice, causing some to ask her if she’d taken lessons. “Is that a compliment?” Smith wonders rhetorically.

“The only thing I’ve ever wrestled with, through the years, in terms of art,” she says, “was, ‘Am I good enough? Do I deserve to call myself an artist?’ Or when, I’ve had brief periods of the muse taking an extra-long vacation and you wonder, ‘Did it go to Zanzibar and is it in some weird hotel, never coming back?’ “

For Patti Smith, the muse was back. “I have so many things that I am extremely proud of,” she says. 

“Patti is a very optimistic person,” Kaye told me in 2019. “We believe in human good. Maybe it’s misplaced or maybe people aren’t as elevated as we like to think, but we believe in a communal sense of what’s good for the planet, good for our common humanity beyond this division into niches.”

“We do believe people do have the power. Don’t sit home and complain and say, ‘I can’t believe what’s happening in Washington.’ Get out and congregate and make your voice heard. The album it’s on is Dream of Life and that’s what Patti believes truly – the dream of life as it could be, a world where we honor each other, our differences and our similarities. We are making a call for human empathy and co-operation and understanding.”                                                  

I’ve seen and written a lot about Smith in concert over the years. This thought came during a Boston club show around 1996 in the middle of “Dancing Barefoot”: You can take your Mariahs, your Whitneys, and your Celines. Smith, whose vocal range is far more limited, is the real deal, what rock ‘n’ roll should be about. There is just so much emotion, passion, and poetry in her act, it’s breathtaking. It was, yes, Dylan-esque.

Smith put the poetry into punk. Now, making little forays into the world of performance to support her Peace and Noise album, the Patti Smith Group created a magical world onstage. There’s blues, country, folk, punk rock, garage rock, all of it melded together. Smith’s music tends to come at you in waves, some gentle, some tidal.

One of the things that make Smith’s music so special is that she’s an A-level lyricist who understands that getting lost in, or transported by, the music is what matters. When she and her guys sang the redemptive refrain “We shall live again” in “Ghost Dance” it was thoroughly convincing. At the close, she launched into “People Have the Power,” a power-of-positive-thinking song that once made me wince. Not anymore. Smith’s a believer. She can make you believe.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

One thought on “She Is The Root Connection: Patti Smith at 75

  • April 23, 2022 at 1:51 pm
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    The tragedy of Dream if Life was that this purposely commercial release did not succeed in that regard. Whether there was a more rocking version that didn’t survive production decisions I cannot say. Certainly it was different than what many fans were expecting. Easily Patti Smith’s most musically successful release.Thank our cruel God for the many posthumous Sonic’s Rendezvous Band live material that has been made a available. Frederico Smithelini rest in peace.

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