I'm guessing I won't be alone in being able to say this. Because of Patti Smith, I wrote poetry. Because of Patti Smith, I played the electric guitar. Because of Patti Smith, I sang. Sorta.
Yet it was kinda shocking to hear one of my oldest friends say, last night, that his recollection of me, at 16, was of someone obsessed... with Patti Smith.
My recollection is that she was just one of the pantheon. That Horses
and Radio Ethiopia
were no more important to me than, say, Springsteen's The Wild, The Innocent
or Born to Run
, or Desire
by Bob Dylan, or even Nightbirds
It's that thing about emotional and musical puberty. The intensity of the connection -- the potential of it -- is dialled up to ten. We find the artists nearest in phase to us.
But, and maybe this is the point, you also fall out of phase with artists. After Desire
, Dylan came over all Christian. (I never bought another Dylan album.) Labelle, divided, were never the same. And Springsteen came over all bossy. (Bought one, regretted it. Don't mind the very latest stuff tho, especially 'Radio Nowhere'.) Suddenly "the future of Rock & Roll" became its past. Became its old testament. And I was moving on to the Au Pairs and the post punk thing.
But I stayed in phase with Smith. Not just for those first four releases: Horses
, Radio Ethiopia
. But even after she became Mrs Fred 'Sonic' Smith. When Dream of Life
appeared -- out of nowhere -- after seven or eight years or silence, there she was again. All grown up. Having the first mature relationship of her life... at exactly the same time as me. Imagine that.
Then another long break. Another seven or eight years of dead air. Apart from Beethoven, she's the longest musical affair of my life! LOL. I think I have every single album. Some out of courtesy (Trampin'
) some belatedly (Twelve
) to complete the catalog. But just when I think our phase is irretrievably outa whack, she does something extraordinary... like the new Coral Sea
set with Kevin "My Bloody Valentine" Shields. Her words, her booming voice, teamed with his improvised musical raves. Two separate live recordings based on the same poetry, about her friend Robert Mapplethorpe.
Thanks to the persistence of Claire Vince at the Opera House, and latterly the Melbourne Festival team, the tedious jockeying to have a chat with Smith paid off, in August.
After months of niggling, suddenly the opportunity materialised: "Can you do it tonight? After midnight?" And then, suddenly, The Boss (that's my boss, not Bruce!) decides to hold the proverbial presses. We have first crack at her, and he's determined to press home the advantage.
Interview in the wee hours, file copy by start of trade, it's in the newsagents barely 24 hours after we ring off. People have the power an' all that jazz.
Patti & I spoke a few days after Steven Sebring's film, Dream of Life
, had its U.S. premiere. It's a late summer morning in New York, and cold, dark late-winter night in Melbourne.
It feels like I've been pacing around 30 years wondering what to ask. Or, more to the point, how to ask it.
I really want to wonder aloud with her. Chat about what Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix might have been doing, if they hadn't died the year before Patti's stage debut in New York City.
But she's known too much of death. Her dear friend Robert, her husband Fred, her brother Todd, collaborators, musicians, you name it. One woe doth tread upon another's heels... And I'm far too respectful of privacy to be a good journalist.
An hour or two before the call is made, I rummage through some boxes to find my copy of Witt and other slim volumes of her poetry. I find Babel, an early anthology I guess you'd call it. I open it. And there it is. The dedication. The book is dedicated to the future. That's my hook.
[CHRIS BOYD:] I FOUND MY COPY OF BABEL: "THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO THE FUTURE." IT LIT UP MY MIND. I'VE BEEN WANTING TO ASK YOU ABOUT THE BALANCE BETWEEN LOOKING FORWARD AND LOOKING BACKWARD IN YOUR LIFE. HAS THAT CHANGED? I'M REALLY INTERESTED IN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN REMEMBRANCE AND NOSTALGIA.
[Patti Smith:] I'm not a nostalgic person. I just honour our past. I love history and I don't think having a love of history waxes nostalgic.
I just am fascinated with history. With the work that people do. I'm fascinated with what Giotto did. What the Renaissance painters did. With what Picasso did. I'm interested in art... As some people are interested in their roots, their own blood ancestry, I'm interested in our cultural ancestry.
And I'm also interested in, as an artist, the next thing. For my own self, I'm not a kind of person that sits around listening to my old records and looking at my old books. I'm always thinking of a new song or new poem or taking another photograph. People say to me, well what's your favourite poem or what's your favourite photograph? And I always say: the next one! The one I haven't done yet. It reaffirms that I'm still working, that I still am motivated that I still have an imagination.
[It looked, here, that Smith has pinched the bait from my hook and plunged into the cold dark waters beneath us... that the most I'd get from her would be rote answers. Then, suddenly, she surfaces again. Nibbles. Or, rather, offers some bait of her own.]
"self imposed and happy exile"
ARE YOU SLOWING DOWN? I DON'T MEAN THIS AS AN AGE THING. I MEAN THIS MORE AS A TIME-OUT THING, OF LINGERING AND ENJOYING THAT LYRICISM OF SOLITUDE. OR IS THIS SOMETHING YOU'VE HAD --
For 16 years I was out of the public eye and I lived very reclusively with my husband raising our children and studying, so I have a long period of self-imposed and happy exile. I had.
You know, I spend a lot of time, even now, by myself. I certainly have enough opportunity for solitude. But I like to work. Even if I went on a vacation I would take at least a notebook and a camera and a couple of books to read. I love to be engaged in new ideas and creating things and in a way it's the artist's curse. I love the sea. But it's very hard for me to just go by the sea. I go by the sea and then I wanna write by the sea. It's just -- it's what I do.
YOUR WORK IS PLAY, REALLY, ISN'T IT?
It's what I -- it's as familar to me as eating or sleeping, and it would be as strange and difficult for me as not eating for a day.
TELL ME THEN ABOUT THAT 16 YEARS. THAT TURNING INWARD. WHAT DID YOU DO IN THAT TIME?
My husband and I studied. We did a lot of studying. My husband was highly intelligent. He taught me a lot of things. I learned everying from politics to sports -- especially Detroit sports teams -- I learned about golf, I learned --
I learned to play clarinet. And my own private studies. I was studying Japanese literature. I was studying Russian film. I was studying -- there was no end of things. Reading... there was an excellent new Genet biography by Edmund White and I studied that. I restudied Genet. Hundreds of things.
I wrote my first novel, which I've never published, and my second novel, which I've never published. I raised two children. So I was certainly busy...
WAS THAT LIKE PREPARATION FOR THE NEXT WAVE OF CREATION?
No, it was creation. I don't think you have to put your work into the world to validate its existence. I finished a lot of work. I wrote songs with my husband. We recorded Dream of Life. And I learned about taking care of my roses. I learned about tree diseases! I learned about all kinds of things.
I consider that one of my most productive periods because not only that, I evolved as a human being. I was still -- even at 30 -- like a late blooming adolescent. And I learned that I wasn't the centre of the universe. I learned that -- to take care of children, to wash diapers, to cook.
I was well busy.
I LIKE TO TELL PEOPLE I LEARNED HOW TO SEE AT THE AGE OF 39. I LIVED IN THE BUSH FOR 18 MONTHS. ONCE YOU GET AWAY FROM THE CITY AND ALLOW YOUR SHIELDS TO COME DOWN, YOUR SENSES SHARPEN.
And also your sense of your place in the world because -- it was as simple as this -- I suddenly was living in a more remote area outside of Detroit. And I had trees in a yard. And one day I looked up and I realised I had a pear tree. And one of these pears fell on the ground and my child picked it up and handed it to me. And as she did that, I had just seen a National Geographic special, I believe, on Somalia and they had a terrible famine. And children my daughter's age were dying for want of a pear. And living like that, having children, and having time to consider our place in the world and what other people experience as their place in the world... it was enlightening.
IS JACKSON COMING TO AUSTRALIA WITH YOUR BAND?
Yes. Absolutely. He is. He's a great guitar player. I really look forward to people seeing him because he's just er... He magnifies his father.
[By now, you're probably hearing -- in your mind's ear -- the slow, dark, authoritative voice of Patti Smith the performer. Stop. Re-read the above and imagine the little girl voice at the end of the song Wave. When Smith speaks about her daughter Jesse, she sounds like a young 'mom' from Jersey... proud of her wise young daughter who "plays the piana". Yep, she says piana, not piano. It's endearing. Smith is relaxed. She's at home. Sitting at the desk where she writes. If she resents the intrusion into her private space, her private time, her creative time, she hides it well. She's gracious and generous with her time. She might be playing hard to get, but at least she's playing...]
"Music is the genre I choose when I want to communicate with the most people...TELL ME ABOUT THE ROLE OF MUSIC IN YOUR LIFE, AND WHEN YOU CHOOSE SPOKEN WORD OVER MUSIC?
I've always loved music. I've always loved opera. My father exposed me to Jazz. My mother really liked popular music like Bennie Goodman and Artie Shaw. I grew up in the era where rock'n'roll was born. So I loved rock'n'roll and R&B music but I always loved opera, since I was a child. So I have a diverse relationship with music.
But in terms of me as a worker, I'm not really a musician. I'm really more of a performer. I don't think of my role as an artist as really being a musician. I think that my role as a communicator is obviously within the realm of music. But I really consider myself more of a performer.
[Music] is the genre I choose when I want to communicate with the most people. If I want solitude, I might write a poem. If I want just a moment with myself to create, I'll take a photograph. But if I really want to communicate with a large number of people about any subject -- whether it's love or politics or a human rights issues -- writing and performing songs is one of the great vehicles to communicate with a lot of people.
I REMEMBER SEEING YOU PERFORM 'PEOPLE HAVE THE POWER', YOU CHANTED IT. AND IT JUST MADE SO MUCH MORE SENSE TO ME AS A SPOKEN PIECE RATHER THAN A SUNG PIECE.
Well, 'People Have The Power' was written as both a poem and a song. The line "people have the power" was my husband's. And my husband wanted me to write a song using that phrase. And I wrote the lyrics more as a poem. So it has -- I think it crosses over either way.
I wanted to write something that could be used in any situation from a stadium... or in the most intimate of circumstances. It's a prime example of when I'm trying to find the right words to communicate with as many people as possible.
I feel like I can write my whole life. And so if my writing takes a little longer to get out into the world, it's better to do the things that are more physical, or things it would serve better to be done now.
I can always write, I can always edit, I can always work on my poetry. So, right now, I'm doing the things that I think are... more a propos to our times and the needs of the people and what I'm physically strong to do. I am 61 years old, so I'm trying to use my time wisely.
I'm very very sturdy and I'm in very good health, but I still would like to do the things -- make the statements that I want to make in the rock 'n' roll arena at this time of my life, so that's what I'm concentrating on now.
Patti Smith (and her Polaroid Land camera) are in Melbourne this week. Her first concert is tonight. She and Philip Glass -- who performed at Allen Ginsberg's memorial in New York City (just to give you some idea of how long ago that was, it was the night that the final ep. of Seinfeld went to air in the US) -- get together for a celebration of Ginsberg's work on Monday night.
Steven Sebring's film Dream of Life -- which had it's Australian premiere on Thursday -- has a couple more screenings at ACMI this weekend. There are also a couple of exhibitions of Smith memorabilia and art work.
Labels: interview, Patti Smith