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Nigger with attitude

When Patti Smith came up with Rock N Roll Nigger in the 70s, she marked herself out as one of the most articulate and confrontational performers of her generation. On the eve of her visit to Ireland, the High Priestess of American Punk Poetry talks to Peter Murphy about art, music, the people she s lost and why she ll never give in to political correctness

Peter Murphy, 20 Aug 1997

Patti Smith s life has been rocked by a series of bereavements in the last few years. The list of casualties is long: her husband and collaborator Fred Sonic Smith, her brother Todd, Patti Smith Group founder member and keyboardist Richard Sohl, artist, friend and confidante Robert Mapplethorpe and more recently Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jeff Buckley.

Recovering from mixing her as yet untitled new album, ( I m sort of frazzled cos the last stages of recording and mixing are really tiring and we put a lot of ourselves into it ) she is an accommodating and gracious interviewee, nonetheless, albeit one who seems more comfortable discussing political and social issues this time around, rather than the magic and loss of her private life.

To begin, I asked Patti about her upcoming visit to Ireland, when she s scheduled to act as host artist at the Liss Ard happening in Skibbereen.

I decided to work with the Liss Ard people because first of all they re old friends of mine, she explains. In the 70s Mr Turske was very supportive to the work I did. When I was virtually unknown he arranged to have my drawings shown in Europe, he tried to get me poetry readings and he really did believe in the work that I was doing and he was very, very supportive when other people hadn t heard of me and weren t ready to do that. And now he s trying to do something which is fairly obscure and heightened, so I m wishing to return the favour of support. Also I find it a very beautiful endeavour. And selfishly it s an area of the world that I ve always dreamed of going to.

It s funny how we become so civilised in the United States, an area that s real wild is thought of as being very American Indian it s funny how we associate real wildness with sort of like almost an ungodliness. What could be more godly than the wild earth? But I m just excited about coming and interested in what kind of events are going to be involved. My band is a very impromptu, improvisational band, and as well as doing two small rock concerts we re very interested in improvising and perhaps playing with local musicians.

A lot of the keening qualities of the vocals on Gone Again could be associated with sean nss as well as Arabic styles of singing. Does she feel a connection there?

Certainly. That s the kind of thing I hoped someone would feel or hear. I think there s a certain type of music where we all merge, y know, it s maybe the part of us that mourns or has great joy. I really like say, Appalachian music, porch-style music, and a lot of that indigenous music came from immigrants. A lot of the music that I like that s thought of as so American is really people from Scotland and Ireland. It s really high energy fiddle music with mournful singing and people telling tales of their life or their loves and sorrows, and a lot of it can be traced to peoples heritage.

You go down to South Carolina and you re listening to music in an old wooden church and suddenly you ll think This sounds very highland . Again the Arabian connection, I think its just there s some common thing within people, that many of us tribally merge. If people could leave their politics and even their religion aside and try to communicate through music, or common sorrow, common laughter, common spirituality, we d find a way where we re all connected, maybe that s something that you re sensing in the record.

Patti Smith also used language in a very confrontational way in the 70s, particularly on songs like Rock N Roll Nigger , where she adopted the Lenny Bruce method of subverting and even disarming taboo words by taking them out of context. In this instance a racial slur was recast as a term for any kind of outcast. But is it a different story singing Rock N Roll Nigger in the 90s when racial tensions are even more heightened and the PC police are on the prowl?

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