meeting with patti smith
By Peter Lucas Erixon, 2006. Page
- Thank's for giving me of your time. I'm grateful
- I'm not giving it away. We are both working. And the book that
you gave me is really nice, I've looked it through about a hundred times.
Today at the Spoken Word performance you said that you were a tomboy as a kid.
As a kid, yeah
- Tell me about that experience.
- I loved Peter Pan
when I was a kid and I just didn't really want to grow up. I wasn't really gender
conscious, you know, I wasn't really concerned with my appearance or what I was
wearing. I just liked to live and to experience and walk with my dogs and make
games with my siblings. I loved this time of life where I didn't have to be concerned
with so much social rules and gender roles and things like that. It's the kind
of kid that people call tomboy. It's not that you're of any different sexual persuasion,
it's more like
you're more like a kid, a being, instead of a young lady or
- It's obvious that you have had a great influence because on this
too; your freedom, so to speak, within this gender thing.
- For me it wasn't
anything special. It's just the way that I am. It's nothing I had to develop or
anything. Sometimes it's gotten me into trouble but it's how I am. I think it's
important that we all respect each other, but for myself I never wanted to be
a slave to
social ideas of behaviour and manner and how we dress
important that we respect one another and give each other space but I'd never
been very good at adhering to what I felt was unnecessary rules and regulations.
So if people were effected by that or inspired by that I don't think it is anything
wrong with that. I'm not the kind of person who abuses my freedom, hopefully,
and I mean all freedom has its cost in responsibility. If you're gonna live 'outside
of society' you still are responsible for your decisions. I mean, I'm not an anarchist,
I'm not a nihilist. I just like to, just like you, have a certain freedom of movement,
and freedom in the way that I choose how to dress or to be.
- Well, when I
was thirteen or fourteen and heard Horses for the first time and saw the picture
of you on the cover
- that was certainly very inspiring in my life. Because
I was in a similar situation as yourself when I grew up
I think my experience
actually a lot like Michael Stipe's
- I have of course read
what he once wrote about you and how he discovered your music. It could almost
have been me, my own experience.
- When I recorded Horses I didn't do anything
wasn't normal to me. And even the cover of Horses
it was just a day in my
life, I got up, I put on the clothes I always wear, Robert (Mapplethorpe) went,
and I went to shoot the picture. We didn't have any
- Yes, I
understand that perfectly.
- But I did have a plan when I recorded the album.
My plan was that I wanted to communicate with people like myself, who felt lonesome
sometimes, a sort of mavericks in society, people made fun of them because the
way they looked or the way they were. I suffered a lot of ridicule when I was
young, 'cause I was skinny, sort of weird looking
the things I was interested
in seemed out of step where I was brought up, and my ideas were different than
other peoples. I wanted to make a record that spoke to people and just reminded
them that they weren't alone, that I was thinking about them, that I was trying
to do work that sort of spoke for a certain group of people.
- If I am correctly
informed Joan Baez was the first music act you ever saw in South Jersey back in
- I'm trying to think
She wasn't the first music act I ever saw.
The first music acts I saw was like Motown revues and things, like Smokey Robinson
When I was young they would come in town on a bus and you would go to an airport
and see like Smokey Robinson do two songs and little Stevie Wonder do two songs
was really great. I saw some r&b groups, I saw Nina Simone
Baez was the first person I saw within sort of this new wave or new genre of musicians
in the early Sixties who were concerned with human rights, were concerned with
the invironment, civil rights and I liked her very much. And she seemed more like
a person that I would like, 'cause she wasn't American looking, you know
blond pop singer or something. She was somebody that I more physically could relate
to. And seeing Joan Baez I was introduced to Bob Dylan through her, I saw her
and one day she brought up Bob Dylan. So she introduced me a whole genre of folk
music and protest music and, most important, Bob Dylan.
- Has Joan Baez influenced
you in any way? I've heard you saying that she was the one to teach you to sing
- Sometimes I joke about that. You know, sometimes
people would say 'you sing Gloria, it's a guy thing to a girl'. But Joan Baez
sang a lot of songs - like Farewell Angelina and a lot of other Bob Dylan songs
or certain folk songs - from that male point of view and she didn't seem to be
concerned with the gender role she was singing from. I was almost given permission
by listening to her records, because she set a precedent for that.
- You met
her in Italy earlier this year.
- And you attended a concert in Trento.
Yes I did, it was really great.
- And you sang together with her in her dressing
- Yes, it's true. We sang The Trees They Do Grow High together in her
dressing room, which was very moving for me.
- Did you enjoy the concert.
Yes. I cried through some of it because I listened to her when I was so young
and she did Fennario and I remember hearing that when I was like fifteen, so it
brought back a lot of memories. She's got a beautiful voice. She's still got a
very beautiful voice. Strong.
- Let us radically change subject. What is your
opinion of the war in Iraq.
- Well, first of all that it's immoral, illegal,
idiotic, stupid. I don't believe in striking any country, occupying, invading
and destroying it. I mean, it's obvious - only an idiot would have done such a
thing. It doesn't say much for our country that such an idiot is the president
of it. I'm so disgusted with the whole thing that it's
difficult to even
talk about it. It was wrong to do it and now we look at the result: terrorism
is just escalating, there's chaos in their country, we destroyed their infrastructure,
their schools, their mosques, their libraries, it's like the Wild West that country
and the money we've been trying to pump into it has been ill used, there is huge
amounts of corruption. And, of course, to say nothing of the loss of human lives.
About three thousand Americans and who knows how many tens of thousands of iraqes.
Do you consider yourself a pacifist?
- No, I just consider myself a human being
that has a common sense. But to say I'm a pacifist
you know, if somebody
gave me trouble and a bunch of shit I would defend myself. If somebody tried to
hurt my kid I might shoot him in the balls, so
I can't say I'm a pacifist
but I certainly don't believe in war. I don't believe that there is any righteous
- Speaking about your kids. You have a daughter, Jesse, who is nineteen?
Yes, and a son, Jackson, who's twentyfour.
- What are they doing?
- My son's
a labourer and also a great musician so he's gonna play on my record. My daughter
is enrolling for college and she plays the piano and she's also going to play
on my record.
- They live in New York too?
- My son's lives in Michigan
where he was born and my daughter lives with me. That's nice.
- I know that
you aren't too fond of what you see when you look around you in the music business.
I find it embarassing
MTV Music Awards and all of that. When I was
young rock n' roll was more revolutionary, t'was different from the grammies and
all that. That was main stream culture. And I thought that rock n' roll should
never congratulate itself, we shouldn't be giving each others awards. So I find
it kind of embaressing that they do that.
- But I know you are an optimistic
- Rock n' roll is for me a very very important form of expression,
intensly American, one of the few really important contributions America has given
through art to culture. I think rock n' roll holds within it the infinite possibilities
of communication, global communication. Rock n' roll has within it the power to
communicate, merged with poetry, revolutionary ideas, spiritual ideas. I still
believe in it's possibilities. It depends on how people use it as a form. One
can use it as a way to make a lot of money or to become some kind of indulgent
star who just runs around in big limousines snorting cocain or one can, actually,
write a song like Ohio. Or Street Fightin' Man. There's millions of great songs.
Tell me about the new album you are working on.
- It's a covers album. We are
self-produced, we pretty much produced our last albums. Lenny co-produced Gone
Again and since then we've been producing our own records. Actually I don't know
when it will released because it depends when we get it done and what the schedule
of the company is. I'm not really worrying about that. We're gathering our forces,
we're gonna be doing certain cuts with some of our friends and that'll be fun.
And also, as I said, my son and daughter will be playing on the record. I'm looking
forward to the participation of our friends and family and other band members,
and we'll see when it comes out. We're just taking it song by song, and we're
doing it differently than usual. Usually we go in a studio and hold up for six
weeks 'til it's done. We're sort of moving around this time. Like Lenny and I
are going to London to do a cut. We just go to different places. I'm gonna go
to Detroit to do one of the songs with my son. Different songs will be in different
places. It's songs that I like. I'm not gonna tell the songs because it's a secret,
but there's a Nirvana song, a Bob Dylan song, Gene Clark, a Lou Reed song, a lot
of Jefferson Airplane, Tim Buckley. I like the Sixtees music, obviously. It's
songs that I always wanted to do. But we're trying to do them differently, to
interpret them our way. That's always an interesting challenge. The theme is
especially that I like the lyrics, it's very important
that they meant something to me in my life.
- So has your return to recording
and to the music scene been rewarding for you. You have been back now for
No, more like nine. I have never really returned to any 'scene',
I don't like hanging out on any big rock n' roll scene. I do my work and that's
been rewarding. I have met a lot of people. I have lost a lot of people, but I
have met, you know, Michael Stipe, Flea, and
I have worked again with Tom
Verlaine. Bob Dylan. I've been really lucky to participate in a lot of interesting
tours and concerts and recordings with my friends and musicians
And also doing a lot of rallys, anti-war rallys and all kinds
of things in context with my band and music. It's an important thing that I do
but it is only one thing, 'cause I'm always writing and taking photographs and
painting and of course, the most important, still raising my children, staying
in communication and contact with them. And it's also one of the primary ways
I make a living, so it's a good job.
- And you enjoy it?
- Yeah. I mean
it's sometimes hard work, but if I didn't feel good about what I was doing I wouldn't
- How did you manage to keep your integrity so incredibly well all these
Well, first because I never entered rock n' roll with any expectations
of huge material gain. I entered into rock n' roll as a political statement. I
never really expected to record or to be involved in it so long, but that's how
it evolved. I try too give back, hopefully, as much as I get from it. It's a job,
we're being paid for it, our services are being paid for, we are not doing it
for free. But I try, on the other hand, to participate and to give what I can,
not only to earn the money but to add something positive. It's an exchange, you
know. Just about every job we ever had we try to give as much as we possibly can
in terms of our energy, our focus. As I said, we try to remember the possibilities
within rock n' roll. Every concert that we have is always an opportunity to communicate
with people about how they're feeling, about our environment, about the economic
corruption on our planet, our governments, and also health issues, aids
I always look at concerts as a way to
You're hanging out with people for
an hour and a half or two hours, within those two hours, hopefully, you can have
a good time, you're gonna have some struggle, som akward moments, some moments
of illumination and some discussion about the world view. That's what having a
concert means to me. And as much as we can do that, we do.
- It was obvious
- You know, I'm going to be sixty at the end of this year. I think
it is part of our responsibility to sort of present
a lot of different things
a good example, or an example of a survivor, of a positive worker and a person
who tried to do their job as good as they could, and also who cares.
- A responsible
- Yeah. Responsible. You know, really, in my whole life
I in my earlier years acted like an asshole or was aggressive or cocky or whatever
I was - I still was always, I think, or most of the time, a responsible person.
I've never been really irresponsible. I was the oldest of four kids, often I had
to help raise those kids, and I have been working most of my life, so
try to keep those things in mind, have some work ethic sense. I'm very conscious
if people come to see you they're paying their money, they're giving you
their time they could be spending somewhere else, one has a duty to acknowledge
their presence and communicate something, something meaningful. And also have
- And you really have fun?
- Sometimes. I mean, I always have some
fun. Sometimes it's just hard work, like last night, delivering an acoustic performance.
Sometimes we have just acoustic guitars in front of ten thousand people
since we're not folk singers
Lenny and I are part of a rock n' roll band,
it's sort of our prime directive to sort of go into music through rock n' roll,
and it's a challenge to do a concert that big with acoustic guitars. So some of
it was hard work yesterday and there were certain songs where I really had to
concentrate, other songs I were practically laughing 'cause there was so much
fun. Even doing Because The Night
even though it's a popular song, but it's
our song and I'm proud of it and the people sang along and I love when the people
sing. That always makes me so happy, it's just so liberating when all the people
start singing. So I had a lot of fun during that.
- I liked the new song you
had in your set last night.
- It's just a little song. I have several of these
little songs and probably next year I'll record them. Sometimes when I have a
new song I'm working on I just make myself do it live because a song will grow
ten times quicker if you go through that, although it's stressful and a little
risky to perform a song you haven't even quite written yet. Lenny never even heard
it, I wrote it by myself, it's just simple chords, but we're practically writing
some of it on stage, I didn't have all the lyrics written. Like yesterday it was
struggling along and today, except for one or two lines, it was perfect. I feel
that the effort that I made in this little song here was enormous, it would have
taken us weeks and weeks and weeks with work instead of two concerts. Because
you're forced to focus much stronger when there is thousands of people in front
of you. Also I learned something about the song. I thought that the song was much
more delicate, today I learned that the song has more
it's a little stronger than I first imagined.
- It was a strong song.
Yeah, but I thought it was gonna be sort of like
I was surprised,
but that was because I have been working on it by myself with just a light touch
on the acoustic guitar and then with the adrenalin of performing live I discovered
a whole new level of the song.
- I happen to adore the six pieces in your book
Woolgathering. I really like that book. It's a beautiful book too, a small book
that you can have in your pocket.
- I was proud of that book. My father was
always very critical of my writing and when he read that it was the first time
he ever told me that I was a good writer. So I was very proud of that.
what period did you write those pieces?
- I wrote it in
before Fred died.
- All six of them?
- Yes. I wrote them in
1994, I think.
- It came out in 1992.
- Oh, it did?... Oh, I was thinking
of The Coral Sea, sorry. I know that I finished it on my fortyfifth birthday.
So it was finished on December 30th
- 1991, I think. So you're right. I
remember they needed it before the first of the year and I had to Federal Express
it on my birthday because the next day was New Years Eve and I just finished it
in the morning of my birthday.
- What can you say about the publishing company.
Hanuman. It was this guy Raymond Foye, and I think Francesco Clemente was part
of the company. Raymond Foye did live in the Chelsea Hotel and he put a whole
series of these books out. And one of the ways he got me to do the book was
I was living in Michigan
is he sent me the book he did by Jean Genet, and
when I saw that I fell in love with the book and I thought yeah, I want to do
one of these books
- You published a new book of poems last year, Auguries
of Innocence. And now you're writing a self biographical book, Just Kids.
It's almost done. It's like eighty percent done. I'm just struggling along with
it. It's hard to write. It's also hard to let go of, because once I finish it
I really have finished that writing and that period of my life.
- Is it a large
- It's substantial. A couple of hundred pages. It's a memoir. It's about
Robert (Mapplethorpe). A lot of it has to do with when I first met Robert
A little bit about our childhood but mostly about the period from 1967 to 1972
when we lived together in Brooklyn and the Chelsea Hotel, and then it skips to
the end of his life. It's about art and friendship. Or art and love, one could
- Do you consider yourself a writer as much as a musician?
- I don't
consider myself a musician at all. I hope to consider myself a writer, I could
say that. But I would never call myself a musician. I do sing and I think I understand
about singing, but I'm not really a trained singer and
I'm a pretty flawed
singer and I don't really play any musical instrument except a little you know,
enough to get by. I play a little guitar, a little piano, a little clarinette,
by ear. In the Seventies I really focused on electric guitar, the sonic aspects
of electric guitar, and I was really good
you know, with feedback and things
But I think I made all my essential statements in terms of the
electric guitar already, I don't think I will be developing that anymore. But
my self identity is, you know
A worker. A writer. A mother. And then everything
else, I do a lot of different things but I don't like to call myself a photographer,
I don't like to call myself a painter - I do these things. So I guess the one
consistent thing in my life
I've been writing since I was eight years old,
so over fifty years I've been writing, so I guess that's where I feel the most
comfortable identifying myself. I'm always writing. I have so many projects unpublished
and I am always amusing myself one way or the other, writing new poems or
Right now I'm writing some kind of
I don't know what to call it
(André) Bretons Nadja was a detective book, that's what I'm writing (laugh).
I can't explain it really. I'm always writing something. I always have a notebook
with me, I'm always taking photographs, always imagining scenarios, I'm always
Lately I spent a few months reading Henning Manckell's Kurt Wallander
books. I love them.
- You do?
- Yes. I'm really sad 'cause I just finished
the last one.
- I'll send you some really good Swedish books.
- But you
know I like detective books
- Well, then I'll send you a very very good
novel with a criminal plot.
I like W.G. Sebald too, do you know
- Yes, sure I do, I've read him.
- I just reread The Thief's Journal
(Jean Genet). I have a few books that I read
I just reread Hunger (Knut
Hamsun). I just reread The Journey To The East (Herman Hesse). I'm always reading.
My favourite book is probably Glasbeedgame (Herman Hesse). If you'd put Glasbeedgame
and Peter Pan together you'd have the perfect book.
- So how do you feel about
turning sixty in December. Does it feel good?
- I'll make it good. For the
first time in my life chronology is really profound, 'cause as a human being and
a mother I can get a sense of my own mortality. 'Cause ones life is probably two
thirds over, if you have a long life. For a part of me doesn't have any comprehension
of what that is, I still have that Peter Pan sensibility where my chronology makes
no sense to me. But on the other hand I know it's true so I try to be responsible
and respectfull to that landmark. I try to take pretty good care of myself. But
also it makes me contemplate about how I want to spend my next decade. These last
year I wandered around quite a bit, travelling
not even working. Traveling.
Sort of exploring.
- For your own pleasure?
- Well, yeah, and I've been
studying. Without the band. Or without anyone. Just on my own.
- All over the
world? To certain places?
- Yeah, like
the minister of Culture in Paris
gave me an office in the palais so I could write, so I stayed in Paris for a while.
I was working on a installation in a museum in Milan, so I stayed there for a
where I sort of have work. Instead of going in a rock n' roll band,
one night here and one night here and one night here, I pick some cities and just
stay. I stayed in Rome for five days, stayed in Vienna for a week and got to know
- You didn't have any friends with you.
- No. All alone.
You like it?
- Yeah, I mean it's lonely sometimes but on the whole I like it.
I like to be able to stand in front of a building for ten minutes or twenty minutes
until I get the shot that I want. If I'm taking photographs I definitely like
to be alone, because I don't wanna feel like I'm wasting peoples time and stuff
like that. Sometimes I'll get fixated on something, you know. I find a statue
of Joan of Arc and I'll spend half the day looking at it and then take pictures
of it, sitting and contemplating it. I like the freedom to be able to do that.
You have a six or seven record contract with Columbia?
- No. I only had two.
This one is my last, the cover album. So after that we'll see. I know what I wanna
do after that. I wanna do an album of these little songs, as the one you heard.
It's just my little songs I write on my own. They are simpler, and I want them
to be musically simpler. So that'll probably be my next project. I don't know
who I'll do that with. Whoever wants it I guess.
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