When I interviewed Patti Smith in the fall of 2007 I’d never met nor spoken with the woman before. We did,
however, share a few friends and/or acquaintances in New York who’d all known her fairly well at some point over the last 30 odd years, with the word often coming back to me about her being, quite simply, a bitch of the highest order.
With her rep for nastiness at the forefront of my mind I initially approached our conversation with some trepidation. Truth be told, I couldn’t have cared less if Ms. Smith did turn out to be a miserable bitch. I was only interviewing her, after all, it’s not like we were going away for a weekend camping trip together. So long as I got enough decent quotes out of her to file my story and collect my pay, she could be as shitty as she cared to be, made no difference to me. Still…
We did the interview by phone, me in my apartment in Montreal, Patti in her apartment in New York. Like most journalists, I think, when getting ready to conduct an interview I usually start the conversation off with a bit of small talk. My approach to interviews with somebody as potentially interesting as Patti has always been to try and frame them as an actual conversation between two people, to shoot for real dialogue as opposed to asking a bunch of predictable questions only to get the predictable talking points back in return.
Almost without exception the people I’ve interviewed over the years have been receptive to my attempts at humanizing our conversations. Let’s face it, it’s got to get pretty monotonous being stuck in a room in your publicists office all day having the same conversation, schilling the same shit with one idiot journalist after the other. From a selfish perspective, I usually find myself getting better answers out of my interview subjects this way, occasionally even scoring something you might even call “a scoop”.
So more than ever I felt a minute or two of casual small talk before getting down to business would be a particularly good idea with somebody like Ms. Patti Smith – especially since we had a few people in common who we might be able to catch up on. But no dice. I can’t recall exactly what I’d said to her, something trivial no doubt, but whatever the case, it didn’t matter. I don’t think we’d been connected for more than 20 seconds before she interrupted my introductory small talk with a notably abrupt, “look, you’ve got a job to do and so do I, so let’s just get down to the business of doing this interview, all right? I’ve got to the get to the airport right after this and I’m already late.” Like that was my problem, but anyway…
The following is the largely unedited transcript of our conversation from that point on. In Patti’s defense, she was politely accommodating the entire time, with the only tension, if you could call it that, being when I started asking about her late husband, MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, and the legalities surrounding the late 90s documentary film on the band, True Testimonial, which in 2007 still hadn’t seen a proper release. My understanding, having spoken to others involved with the MC5 and/or this excellent film over the years, is that certain wives of certain deceased band members had an injunction on the doc over a series of song publishing issues. Given Patti was the wife of a deceased MC5 band member, I thought her response a little odd. But outside of that minor episode I found her to be a thoroughly pleasant, erudite as all get out, interview subject. Ultimately she even gave me her landline number, encouraging me to call her back a few days later should I have any more questions for her once I started writing my article.
We covered a lot of ground though, from her take on the mythologizing of the mid/late ’70s CBGB’s scene she helped spawn, to George W Bush, Detroit, the MC5, Ralph Nader, Kurt Cobain and the power of rock and roll to affect social and political change, Patti Smith was pretty well everything you’d expect Patti Smith to be, you know, outside of that miserable bitch handle some like to throw her way. So enough of my yackin’, here’s the text of our conversation, published in its entirety for the first – and likely last- time.
Chris Barry: Does it surprise you looking back to see that whole ’70s CBGBs era is so celebrated now? The period has become as mythologized as The Beatles Hamburg era, or California in the late 1960’s, considered a milestone in the history of American popular music.
Patti Smith: Well, I don’t know if it’s that mythologized. I just think of CBGBs as being symbolic of something that was happening globally. I mean, I look at it different, when I think of CBGBs I don’t just think of CBGB’s, I think of when I was touring during that period and all the new young bands and kids I met all over Europe and America that wanted to do something different. So I think of it as a time, more a sort of consciousness to me than a place. But when I think of what came out of CBGB’s then, Television, the Dead Boys, the Ramones, the list goes on and on, all these people were doing new things when, in New York, at least, it was overall a very confining period of time. I think any period which seems to breath new life and freedom into the arts is often cherished by people. And it was one of those periods so I suppose that’s why it’s cherished now. At the time we never thought about anything like that, we were just grateful to play. We were still just figuring out new places to play, and new ideas and how to pay our rent and have enough money to eat. Even when we were recording we weren’t making so much money that we didn’t have to think about those things. In some ways, that period had an innocence, and even after people were doing well, it didn’t lose it’s innocence.
CB: Was it difficult for you to leave rock and roll after Wave and live a domesticated life? Were you secure financially? Was it weird to be in that role all of a sudden?
PS: The thing is that I didn’t think of it as a domesticated life. I went to Detroit to be with the person that I loved, you know? Fred Smith. And we were not, either one of us, traditional people. I didn’t have a whole lot of money. We just saved what we could and lived very simply. It was more a, you know, bohemian life than domesticated. We lived simply, we did all of our own work, scrubbed our own floors, took care of our children. But we were always committing art. We were always studying, or writing, or playing music together, it was an intensely creative period, and though I had all of the traditional, and sometimes difficult domestic duties, it was never devoid of creative expression. Really, I think the main thing that I missed was NYC. I missed the mobility cuz I’m not a driver, I don’t drive, and you know, in Detroit and the Detroit area, people depend on cars, and I like to walk. I missed the café’s, I missed my friends, but I didn’t really miss the, uh… For me it was a new adventure and a new way of being, I didn’t feel a sense of loss or sacrifice. I was a leader so I missed the camaraderie of my people, you know, my band, but I never regretted my choice. I didn’t feel like all of a sudden I was plunged into a domestic vortex. I come from a working class family, I’m no stranger to hard work and we were just, you know, living our life.
CB: I thought at the time that it was an admirable move on your part. Kissing all that music business stuff away.
PS: Well, I loved my husband. For me, to be with him was a beautiful thing. And to be apart from him, touring, and be far away from him, was painful. There’s always sacrifice in choice. Whenever one makes a choice there’s a certain amount of sacrifice. But I know that I made the right choice.
CB: Hey, I loved your husband too, at least his musical legacy. Is there any Fred Smith or MC5 stuff still hiding in your basement that the public might someday hear?
PS: Well, I think the things that were there have been well-documented. Fred and I left public life in 1979 and back then, we didn’t have the tools or technology, or even the foresight to document things the way people do now. Fred didn’t have the income to heavily document the band so I think, you know, people find things and release them. But I have my son and daughter as a legacy of Fred’s work as well as all the work we did together on Dream of Life. Fred produced that album and wrote all of the music, played all of the guitar, and so, he can be found on that record.
CB: Will True Testimonial ever be released? What’s the story there?
PS: What is that?
CB: Um, the completed documentary on the MC5 that’s been in limbo for years now because of legal disagreements between various members of the band and/or their surviving spouses and families.
PS: I have no idea. I’m not connected with that. I think it would be nice for people to see it but I’m not connected with it at all. That’s not in my jurisdiction.
CB: Do you think rock and roll is still culturally relevant? Still a powerful medium to communicate ideas, revolutionary or otherwise?
PS: Certainly, I think rock and roll is a powerful cultural voice. It has it’s periods of exploration, some more political than others. I think that right now people are regrouping and I think that a lot of new things are in store for us and I look forward to what new generations are doing. I think rock and roll, I’ve always believed it’s the peoples art. It’s a way that all people at any age can voice their opinions, their sexuality, their spirit, their political ideals and I think that it’s there as a format, it’s there, we just have use it. It’s there as a uniting principle. So it’s really up to the people how they use it.
CB: I’d argue that it’s not nearly as uniting as it might have been 30, 40 years ago. You know, when you consider…
PS: I think it’s potentially uniting. There’s a lot of different ways that people unite now. Whether it’s through the internet, there’s technology that we didn’t have in the ’60s and ’70s. We didn’t have cell phones, computers or internet. And most of the people I knew, we didn’t have TV, or you know, anything. We had to unite through the radio, through more active protest marches, we had a handful of ways in which we united. People have a lot more possibilities of unification now, and I think that music is one of these strong possibilities.
CB:Would you vote for Ralph Nader again? What do you say to people who believe Nader is indirectly responsible for the mess the US has gotten into with the current administration?
PS: Well, it’s idiotic to think that. I think one of the people most responsible is Al Gore – who ran a very weak campaign, He chose a very poor running mate that no one liked, and who turned out to be very pro-war and very self-serving, and he didn’t reach out to people who seemed, uh, controversial. I think if Al Gore had run a better campaign he would have won. Certainly Ralph though he’d win. And certainly the things that Ralph laid out were… let me cut to the quick. Ralph is a great man. He’s the most honest, the most sacrificial person I have ever met. A person who really devotes every second of his life to the good of the people and, you know, the fact that he was marginalized by all of these people, that he was not at least approached as a teacher, and a friend, the fact that they tried to keep him out of the election process. Ralph believes in organic law. Part of being an American is having the right to develop new parties. We’re not supposed to be a two party system. Abraham Lincoln came into the presidency on a new party, and that’s a very important part of our system. And because, you know, trying to push people like Ralph and that type of organic ideology out, we’re stuck in this two party system which is very close to becoming a one-party system. I mean, I could go on and on about Ralph, not only defending him, just speaking about Ralph, but in the United States 40 per cent of the population didn’t even vote. I think we might say that the people who believed in Al Gore, or believed in the Democratic party, these several million people should claim responsibility for not getting their candidate in office.
CB: Do you see a new day dawning for the US in 2008, when a new administration comes into power, or do you think it will just be more of the same, but with a new, yet always familiar, face?
PS: I see a lot of struggle. Things are so difficult economically, we’ve made such a terrible…terrible and moral mess of Iraq. The environment has been greatly compromised. I don’t see it as a golden time but I do hope that there’s change and we can start rebuilding and repairing damage, reassess ourselves, but I think we’ve got a very difficult set of years to come, just economically. And I think the people really won’t understand how bad it is until they reassess things and see exactly what this present administration has done. Just by draining all of our resources entering this unnecessary and really immoral occupation of Iraq. So I think that the rude awakening we are about to experience is going to be difficult for the American people, but the American people are resilient. We’ll just need to reassess ourselves and rebuild. I’m not a politician, I’m a citizen so…
CB: Yeah, but your politically astute and have a…..
PS: Well, you know, my opinions are very common sense oriented. I’m not politically astute, I can’t say that I’m not politically articulate, but I come from humanist roots, my parents were humanists, things that seem just so simple and obvious, like how wrong it was to go into Iraq. I mean, it was just such an obvious thing. It wasn’t just because I’m anti-war. One could project, easily, and see that this would be disastrous, not only for the Iraqi people but for us, and have some negative global impact, and it has. It was just common sense. I’m still just broken-hearted that we’re responsible for the present state of things in Iraq and the instability it’s caused, but that’s what we have to live with right now. Also, the actions of the Bush administration impact the world. He’s not living in a little bubble and just doing things that have to do with our own country. The choices he’s made have really caused global unrest and instability. There’s no escaping the terrible decisions of the Bush administration, that’s for certain.
CB: The only song I’ve heard so far from the new album is Smells Like Teen Spirit, which I think is great by the way, reminds me a bit of Ghost Dance from Easter. Anyway, what inspired you to cover that particular song here?
PS: Well, it’s obviously a strong song, I relate very strongly with the lyrics, I think I understand what drove Kurt Cobain to… The song really articulates the schism of being an artist and a performer, you feel a certain calling to do something strong, but on one hand you feel this special power but on the other you don’t want to be separated from other people. You don’t want to be isolated and I think that the schism of both being dogged as an artist and wanting to just be a human being was very difficult for him. But I just wanted to do it, and to do it in the way that I did because I envisioned the song in a genre that he embraced. He loved bluegrass music and I thought it would be a fitting tribute to him to do the song with the type of music that he loved.
CB: What are you listening to these days?
PS: Glenn Gould, um. Bach. Wait, I’m going over to my CD player, uh, My Bloody Valentine, and…. The soundtrack to Naked Lunch, which is Ornette Coleman. So there you have it.
CB: What are you reading right now?
PS: Right now I’m reading, or re-reading, I’ve always got two or three books going at once, I love to read. I mean, I like to read Swedish mystery novels, I’m always reading many things. It’s a big part of my life. I’m reading Cain’s Book by Alexander Trocchi, and I’m also reading Lichtensteins Nephew by Thomas Bernhard. Listen, Chris, I’m happy to talk to you for as long as you want but I have to go to the airport any minute now, I’m going to Europe and…. I’m really not brushing you off here. I’d be happy to talk with you for another hour if you want, but I just can’t right now. I’m already really late. I’ll be back home Monday, you have my number, just call me if you….
CB: No worries, Patti. Thanks for your time.