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
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?
Oh, I find that Rock N Roll Nigger works a lot better now than it did then, she asserts. I think a very small hardcore faction of mostly white youth comprehended artistically the concept of that song in the 70s, but I ve performed it lately and so have other people and I find that a lot of people of all races, more than any other period I ve performed it in, are very sympathetic to the song.
I think because even though it is a somewhat politically charged issue, certain things have opened up, at least here in America because there s so many black artists, poets and rappers, and I m very comfortable with performing or discussing the song with people of all races. And when they get the idea there s almost always a positive reaction. And I think as far as political correctness, it s like, I don t really move in that climate, I don t have to deal with it or worry about it.
It was a lot clearer when I was a child in the 50s, you had the very square people or the white middle-class, it was pretty much rich, poor and middle class. Now the aesthetic lines are not so clear. Everything s redesigning itself very quickly for the good and also for the disruptive in the United States. I would imagine that all over the world everybody s working to try to redesign the guidelines of their culture because everything is moving very quickly. I m 50 and my nine-year-old daughter is probably more aware of the world than I am.
Patti was one of the few artists in the 70s who expressed the lust and the rage inherent in the female condition as well as the sorrow and vulnerability. Strangely enough, though, her heroes were males like Arthur Rimbaud and Keith Richards. Does she find the whole gender thing a bit overplayed?
Certainly. I think it s important for men and women to respect certain aspects of each other s gender. Women bear children. I m not really physically strong, I rely on men for a lot of things. I m very happy to have a gentleman open a door for me, to comfort me. I think that we as a culture should not lose our respect for each other and the things that make us special gender-wise.
But I think the whole idea of heralding oneself through their gender is an obsolete idea. I never worked to liberate women, I did my work to make all people aware of things, to make all people feel less alone, just generally wake up any type of person regardless of gender, colour, race or religious affiliation. I really have never targeted a gender. If women have derived a certain amount of comfort or inspiration from the work we did, I m proud of that, but I have never addressed a particular gender and have always refused to be categorised that way.
I really don t have any desire to be a great female artist, I aspire to being a great artist. I don t think of Picasso or Jackson Pollock or Bob Dylan as great male artists. They re artists. I would like to see the idea of gay pride and black pride and women s liberation obsolete because we should relate to each other from essence to essence. If someone s a decent human being I don t think that we should band together in little camps according to persuasion; I think that we should relate to each other in terms of respect and just treating each other decently.
If Gone Again was born out of grief, did the deaths of Jeff Buckley and Allen Ginsberg cast a similar shadow over the new record?
Well, there is one piece we did in memory of Allen Ginsberg. Both Oliver Ray, one of my guitar players, and I were present when Allen died and we saw him die, and he was a friend and an important cultural figure, so we did one tribute piece to him. Oliver set some of his words to music and I performed them. And we also wrote a song on our contemplation on Heavens Gate ( Last Call ) and also songs addressing the Tibetan situation ( 1959 ) and the situation with AIDS.
The songs aren t so deeply personal and I think that we ve dealt with these issues in a way that hopefully doesn t exclude anyone. Almost every song addresses some issue that we all think about, whether it be a spiritual issue or pollution or the danger of attaching oneself to false leaders and cult figures or whatever. I m hoping that it ll be of interest to people of all ages looking for articulations of their own thoughts because these things are on everybody s mind.
Patti Smith was in her own way responsible for pushing back the boundaries of live performance in the 70s, through sexually charged shows that saw her railing at God one minute and simulating masturbation the next. Live, she often literally teetered on the brink of oblivion. One night she fell from the stage in 1977 in Tampa, Florida, breaking her neck and ending up in traction for months. I wondered was she still proud of those shows or did she feel a temptation to dismiss them as the excesses of youth?
Well, even if I privately felt some of that, I know that when I was working, my motivations were positive and they were not all self-serving. I never did my work merely to achieve fortune and fame, I was trying to inspire people to think about things, even hopefully to disagree with me. It was a format of addressing things and thinking about them in a real way, not just blasphemy or doing things to shock people. I don t think that was ever the motivation.
My only regret when I look back on my life is if as a human being I didn t treat another human being with respect. And those regrets are private, but in terms of my work, I don t recant my work, I just hope that as an artist and a human being I ve evolved. I think that man goes through various ages and as we evolve as human beings different work affects us and inspires us at different times of our lives, and the work that I did as a young person will perhaps help other young people. I don t expect for it to inform everyone, but I took work very seriously and I took the right to examine things very seriously, and just because a person spills obscenities, that doesn t make it art.
We ve come into a time where people seem to think that they can say anything in the guise of art, and that s not what we fought for. What we fought for was the right to develop our ideas. It s a very subtle thing, but I just think that each person has to examine their conscience and their motivations. What are they trying to say? Who are they trying to affect? So, I mean I would not be happy to think I ve led anyone astray, but I think also people who go astray usually want to!
Y know, in Gloria where I said Jesus died for somebody s sins but not mine people would say to me Oh, you re an atheist, you don t believe in anything and I said Obviously I believe . It s not that I didn t believe in Him as a person and a strong force, but I wanted in that time in my life the opportunity to make my own choices about things and as I went through life I even reassessed those thoughts. I came to know Him as a powerful, revolutionary figure who I study to this day.
He was not a soft-peddler. He believed in the things that He did passionately, violently. One just has to look at when He overturned the tables when the people were changing money in the church and taking money from the poor, and the moneylender on the steps of the temple.
Have you ever seen that Pasolini movie, The Gospel According To St Matthew? Pasolini, if you don t know his work, was an Italian film director and in the 60s he made a movie based on the gospel of St Matthew with all unknown actors and he shot it so that when you watch it it s almost like a documentary of that period. He completely saw Jesus as a revolutionary and the energy that he had was like spiritual, intellectual and political.
What s so great about the whole Bible is you can go through your whole life and find some story, some scripture, some parable, some promise or some battleground for your own emotions that completely illustrates even the wrong things we do. There s always a place in the Bible that shows that the highest of men faltered.
On that subject, I wondered how Patti felt about the risk of Bill Clinton getting impeached over his private life?
I don t think that s right, she replies. I really think we elect a person in office hopefully who can comprehend all the vast, complicated aspects of the political condition of our world. If privately, especially as a young man, he did falter here and there in his life, our history is littered with such things and it didn t make lesser political figures.
Look at somebody like Picasso. A lot could be said of him as a private individual but it doesn t take away from the fact that this man was truly a genius, a great artist. His paintings shouldn t be taken out of a museum because he might ve been cruel to his women.
I really think that Clinton, whatever discrepancies there are in his life, has always shown his wife and child tremendous respect publicly, and he s trying to do the best job he knows how. Like Kennedy and Eisenhower who was found out to have had a mistress his whole life it s between him and his wife and his God. I mean it would be much better to be able to say that the man was completely clean, but we re human beings. I would think that about any political figure whether I liked him or not, cos I m not giving you a pro-Clinton statement. As a woman I would want my husband to be a faithful man that would be a terrible thing to find out about your husband but again that s between him and his wife and she has dealt with this subject with great dignity and I don t think that their communication should be tampered with by us.
I would imagine for your wife to find out the worst things about you would be punishment enough; I don t think the country should be punished for those things. I also think, what could be harder or more complex than being the head of any country? I would rather someone astute, intelligent and comprehending his role than someone who was the model husband but had no real comprehension of the complexities of being President of the United States.
One of Patti Smith s earlier poetry collections was entitled Babel. Given the technological advances of recent times, would she see any parallels between the Internet and the Tower Of Babel?
Well, I think that what happened in the Tower Of Babel was that man was so greedy to get more and more and more of God, or get closer to him, he started, as the story goes, to build this tower, and then God in his anger divided them up through all these languages. Now I feel like civilisation is trying to find a way back to that one universal language.
I used to think in the 70s that rock n roll would be the future universal language, I really felt that the youth of any culture could put aside their political and religious differences and find some kind of common ground cos everybody loves it and everybody can express themselves through it. I still think it s very important and I think it s part of it but I have a feeling that the new technology is probably that universal language. I think that music is going to be a very important way that people communicate within that technology.
I admit that I find the new technology frightening, I m horrified at the accessibility of every piece of information, that somebody can press a button on a computer and find out almost anything about me. Things that I don t even know, or don t remember or maybe aren t even true, but just mountains of information about anyone.
Life is like a spreadsheet now and there s something sort of horrifying about that but there s something also quite beautiful about the fact that people can globally communicate with each other, quickly and without prejudice or without presuming to know what that person might be like. Hopefully it ll be enough to the good that the negative aspects will be outweighed. n
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