Patti Smith’s Eternal Flame

Alan Light
Feb 12, 2015 · 11 min read

“No matter what anybody thinks about any of them,” said Patti Smith, “every record I’ve done has been done with the same amount of care, anguish, pain, suffering, and joy. We never threw a record together. Each record was done really seriously, as if our life depended on it.”

In 1975, when Smith released her astonishing first album, Horses, she became the first member of the nascent CBGB crew to make it to vinyl, helping set a global revolution in motion. Her sinuous, searing poetry—first unleashed on the influential. independent single “Hey Joe” / “Piss Factory,” which actually predates the album—didn’t fit any simple definition of “punk,” but its defiant outsider attitude sure did.

In 2007, I spoke at length to Smith on the occasion of her tenth record, Twelve, on which she covered some of her favorite songs by a wide range of artists, from Stevie Wonder to Nirvana to the Allman Brothers. She sat calm and still on a sofa in a Sony Music conference room; listening back to the tapes, we were both fighting colds. Our discussion of the album ran as a news story, but we also got into an examination of her full body of recorded work, none of which has ever been published.

She talked about her ambitions for Horses, and of her pain when Dream of Life—her 1988 return to the public eye after spending most of a decade living quietly in Michigan with her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, a former member of the MC5—was met with bad reviews. Since this interview, Smith has released only one new studio album, 2012’s Banga, but she also wrote the magnificent Just Kids, a loving reminiscence of her early days in New York City, which won the National Book Award in 2010.

This year marks Patti Smith’s fortieth anniversary as a recording artist. Though she’s never had a huge-selling album and her only hit single was 1978’s “Because the Night,” co-written by Bruce Springsteen, she has become an international icon, an influence on artists from U2 to Madonna, an activist and author and, at age 68, a living, breathing, working connection to the fading spirit of a transformative era of music and poetry and commitment.

“My mission is to stay healthy and productive, and serve as a good example,” she said. “That’s what I can contribute. I haven’t had the most thrilling lifestyle. I was a pretty good dresser, but I would have a pretty boring Behind the Music. So it’s got to be the work, and I’m still working.”

Smith had recently been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so that’s where our conversation began.

Alan Light: What thoughts did the Hall of Fame ceremony bring up for you?

Patti Smith: I’m so entrenched in the present, in the present-future, that if I didn’t feel that I continued to contribute, I would have never accepted it. It’s an institutional honor and I have thoughts about institutions—not all negative—and I have a strong regard for history, so it has its meaning for me. I’m proud to have the recognition. But it didn’t really make me reflect on my life like I was dying, drowning and seeing my life go by. It actually made me think more of the future than of the past, because it made me feel like I’ve done this work and it’s been recognized. Now what can I do in present-future to magnify that or to show that this faith was justified? Because it’s not like I wrote the song in 1975 that changed the world; I didn’t do that. I didn’t have a record that sold 30 million copies and everyone was dancing to. So whatever contribution I’ve given is, to me, as valuable as the contribution I keep making.

Patti Smith’s induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 2007

Do you spend any time thinking about your catalogue, or is everything focused on looking forward?

Well, that’s not the only body or work I have. I have poetry books and photography and drawings, being a mom, I have a lot of different aspects to look at. In terms of the records, I was an amateur. I wasn’t a singer, I didn’t know anything about what I was doing or how to make a record. I did the best that I knew how to do.

To you, does Horses sit in a different place from the rest of the albums?

Only because Horses was not so much a band project. Horses really stemmed from a lot of things that I had written as poetry. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” came from a poem I wrote when I was 20 in 1970. “Redondo Beach” from a poem I wrote at the same period. “Land,” “Johnny” and all that came from my experiences hanging out with William Burroughs and reading The Wild Boys, so a lot of Horses came from my relationships with other poets, and my relationship with poetry and performing.

It’s also different in that my mission on that record was really to speak to my own kind. I really didn’t have a sense of the world at that time; I was concerned about the disenfranchised, maverick people who were looked down on because of the way they dressed or because they were homosexual or because they were artists or deadbeats, intelligent people but just people outside society. It was my way of saying “We’re not alone, we are a community, we can find each other and get strong,” reaching out to the people we found—Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell and Jim Carroll—and then people all over the world, like the Clash, the Dead Boys, whoever we found. But it was very specific.

I had only been on an airplane once in my life, and then I started touring and I realized that there’s a whole world out there. So on subsequent records, in my mind I was speaking to a much broader audience. By the time of Trampin’ I felt like the idea of the disenfranchised is no longer the artist or the poet, but people who are under the heel of corporations, of corrupt governments, of the imperialistic goals of our own government—we’re all disenfranchised.

So Horses reflects my experience in life, which was not broad. I was still learning, I was not sophisticated, and I was looking for my people as I perceived them. That’s why I think to this day, young people come up and tell me how much they like that record or that it’s important to them, because it’s for them. It’s not really for me anymore. It was written by a young person for other young people, for people who felt they didn’t have a place, that nobody cared about them.

So once your perspective opened up, where did the next records go?

So if on Horses I wanted to merge poetry and rock and roll, and to speak to the disenfranchised, on Radio Ethiopia I was developing poetry and improvisation and playing some electric guitar. On Easter I was expanding in another way and on Wave, I was sort of saying goodbye and writing love songs for my future husband. But in that period, the mission was to reclaim rock and roll from big rock stars and glamorous people—we had a mission, and we accomplished our mission. We wanted to create space for the new guard. And the new guard took over, and that was great, and I went my way.

Why was it time to re-enter the music world when you made Dream of Life?

Fred and I always continued to write songs at home. And then in the middle of the 80s, Fred wanted to make a record I think an election was coming, so we wanted to make a statement about certain things. “People Have the Power” was originally written with the idea that if Jesse Jackson ran for president, we were writing him a song. He never used it, but Ralph Nader did, and I was very proud of that. MoveOn used it as well.

It was a strange time, because I became pregnant with my second child right when we decided to do it, and at the same time found out that my best friend had AIDS, so it was a time of real transition and we wanted to express that, too. “Paths that Cross” we wrote because another of my friends died of AIDS and I knew another friend was dying, and that really spoke of that. The record was really Fred’s baby, and it was heartbreaking because it received terrible reviews, they just crucified the record. I don’t mean like bloggers, these were major newspapers—the New York Times, the Village Voice—that were dismissive and cruel. I’ve never cared about those type of things, but Fred was so proud of the record and wanted people to hear it. But the cruelty—they called it a cranky, menopausal record. I was pregnant while I was doing it! Everybody has the right not to like something, but the personal vehemence against it was beyond not just liking a record.

Still, after that experience, you started releasing music more steadily.

In Dream of Life, the mission was to do a record with Fred and have the honor of working with him. And then on Gone Again, the mission was to remember Fred after he died. On Peace and Noise, to explore my thoughts and see where I was at, where things were at. Gung Ho reflects my studies at the time, I was studying about Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh and various things.

For me, Trampin’ was my first real record as myself. I felt confident to speak out against the Bush administration’s strike on Iraq, but to do it in a way that couldn’t be dissected politically. “Radio Baghdad” is an improvisation, taking the point of view of a mother who was dealing with bombs falling on the night of Shock and Awe and comforting her children, telling them about their country, and if anything happened to her, investing her personal history and her people’s history into her children. I was very proud of Trampin’, because for me it was like Horses in that I wasn’t filled with self-doubt—Am I good enough? Should I be here? Should I quit? Am I trying to make money? I didn’t do this to be famous—all the things Kurt Cobain spoke about, I know those conflicts and that schism. But Trampin’, I had things to say and ideas that I wanted to impart and I wasn’t worried about all of that.

Doing [Twelve] was almost like a little commercial break—it was fun, it was sometimes torture, really interesting. I learned a lot of stuff, because when I’m doing records, writing lyrics is just so painful for me. Not having that responsibility, I could spend a lot more time getting to know my voice and giving more direction. I learned more things about my voice, new things I can do.

You’ve never done a box set or a big retrospective.

Well, I’m still working. Also, I never over-recorded—back then, you had a certain amount of money and you did your eight songs. We didn’t have the kind of budget that allowed us to record 22 songs, so there’s not a lot of hidden things. Probably the most interesting thing is when I‘ve done improvisations, we might have done a few and each are different. On Peace and Noise, one improvisation of “Memento Mori” was just about the death of Blind Lemon Jefferson.

I feel like I’m still learning. I still keep thinking I’m going to do the great record, write the great book, but if some people think I already did it, and it was the first one I ever did, then how lucky am I that I was allowed to keep going? So whether they tapped into the consciousness of people or not, they were all done to do so. I keep thinking that if they’re not universally appreciated, or if a lot of the songs are obscure, people will find them. They’re there.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about you?

The thing that bothered me the most was when I had to return to the public eye in ’95 or ’96 when my husband died. We lived a very simple lifestyle in a more reclusive way in which he was king of our domain. I don’t drive, I didn’t have much of an income, and without him, I had to find a way of making a living. Besides working in a bookstore, the only thing I knew how to do was to make records—or to write poetry, which isn’t going to help put your kids through school. But when I started doing interviews, people kept saying “Well, you didn’t do anything in the 80s,” and I just want to get Elvis Presley’s gun out and shoot the television out of their soul. How could you say that? The conceit of people, to think that if they’re not reading about you in a newspaper or magazine, then you’re not doing anything.

I’m not a celebrity, I’m a worker. I’ve always worked. I was working before people read anything about me, and the day they stopped reading about me, I was doing even more work. And the idea that if you’re a mother, you’re not doing anything—it’s the hardest job there is, being a mother or father requires great sacrifice, discipline, selflessness, and to think that we weren’t doing anything while we were raising a son or daughter is appalling. It makes me understand why some human beings question their worth if they’re not making a huge amount of money or aren’t famous, and that’s not right.

My mother worked at a soda fountain. She made the food and was a waitress and she was a really hard worker and a devoted worker. And her potato salad became famous! She wouldn’t get potato salad from the deli, she would get up at five o’clock in the morning and make it herself, and people would come from Camden or Philly to this little soda fountain in South Jersey because she had famous potato salad. She was proud of that, and when she would come home at night, completely wiped out and throwing her tip money on the table and counting it, one of her great prides was that people would come from far and wide for her potato salad. People would say, “Well, what did your mother do? She was a waitress?” She served the people, and she served in the way that she knew best.

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Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics