“Songs are for People”

Patti Smith talks about the people and the poetry in her new collection, 'Patti Smith Complete: Lyrics, Reflections & Notes for the Future'

Topics: Patti Smith, Robert mapplethorpe, Music,

Patti Smith’s album “Horses” came out the year I moved into a one-room,
bathtub-in-the-kitchen, sixth-floor walk-up on the Bowery in New York City, a few blocks from CBGB. Manhattan was Patti Smith’s town in 1975. The next year, “Radio Ethiopia” came out, and I moved. I still lived in the same apartment, but
to me Manhattan was no longer Patti Smith’s town. Her second album seemed an abysmal mess, highlighted by that CBGB’s diva singing, “My bowels are empty excreting your soul … Oh I’m pissing in a river.” Other Patti Smith records
came and went — some good, some excellent — but none matching the rant/trance perfection of “Horses.”

But for the past two weeks, I’ve been paging through “Patti
Smith Complete,” and have reevaluated Smith and her work. Since the
mid-’70s, what woman has matched Smith in both poetic madness and
foolishness? As for men, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits have matched Smith, but she stands behind no one. I still believe “Radio Ethiopia” was a terrible
mistake, but its lyrics are an extraordinary read. “Deep in the heart of your
brain is a lever/Deep in the heart of your brain is a switch/Deep in the heart
of your flesh you are clever/Oh you met your match in a bitch …”

“I worked incredibly hard on the book,” Smith told me during a recent telephone conversation. ” Whenever I see a book, I always imagine how many trees had to give their lives for it, so I wanted the book to be worthy of existing. I actually was pretty happy with most of the lyrics. Most of them seemed to stand on their own.”

Comprising all the lyrics from Smith’s seven albums plus her written annotations, the lavishly illustrated “Complete” is the first great rock ‘n’ roll collection to be published since Dylan’s “Lyrics: 1962-1985.”

I love that the book not only presents your work, but honors those artists
who’ve influenced you.

It’s important to acknowledge our influences. The real beauty of coming out of the culture of the 1960s is the drawing together of all the different arts,
sciences and religions. These things were incorporated in the book. I really
wanted to share the different sensibilities that influenced me.



I thought I was the only Johnny Carson fan left in the world. It was great coming upon that photo of him as a grinning young pup.

If one has seen me throughout my performing career, my love of Johnny Carson wouldn’t be such a surprise. When I was an opening act and trying to read poetry in bars, I often spent most of my 20 minutes, or however much time
I was allotted, sparring with the people — having to throw one-liners back at
their one-liners, or match their insult with a better insult. I learned a lot
about how to conduct myself by studying Johnny Carson’s monologues. When I was a teenager I watched “The Tonight Show” when it was two hours. Johnny Carson would do long monologues and he was really, really excellent, matching insult for insult in a very intelligent, humorous way. I really modeled myself to that kind of situation.

Were you ever on “The Tonight Show”?

No, though I lobbied heavily to be on it. I promised everything. I even
promised I’d wear a dress. I fantasized about it a lot. I wanted to be on Johnny Carson so badly, and it is one of my great regrets that I didn’t make it.

It’s also a pleasant surprise to find that you’re influenced by Maria Callas.

I always admired Maria Callas for her voice first. I’ve also seen her on film, and admire the way she carried herself. She had a great image for the time.

I’ve always loved opera. I had to do an afternoon talk show in Chicago in late ’75 or ’76 where they’d get four or five people who all sit around this table and talk. One of the guests was Pavarotti. He was the new young opera star. No one seemed that interested in talking to him. But I was really excited to meet someone from the opera world. And I talked with him and he gave me a ticket to see him at the Chicago Opera. But all I had was my motorcycle jacket and my old leather pants because I was on the road. [Smith mimics his Italian accent] “You can wear that,” he said. So I show up with this box seat ticket from Pavarotti to see him. Everyone was in evening gowns. It was really beautiful.

Who is the woman in the picture who’s wearing the thick black glasses and standing at a music stand under a microphone?

Lotte Lenya. On the other page is a really old Polaroid that Robert Mapplethorpe took of me on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel. There’s a Lotte Lenya album in that Polaroid.

I first saw her in “Threepenny Opera” — she played Pirate Jenny. I liked her singing. When I was a teenager, there weren’t a whole lot of women to model oneself after, but I really liked her. And Tina Turner — she was great. Kind of inaccessible, but she was really strong. And Joan Baez was very influential in the early ’60s when I grew up. But there weren’t a whole lot of female images that I could grab on to. So a lot of my influences were male, Bob Dylan being the major one, also Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison.

What was it like meeting and playing with Bob Dylan?

I met him some years ago.

Just as he was assembling the “Rolling Thunder” tour in the mid-’70s — he asked you to join, right?

Yes. It didn’t work out. I had just recorded “Horses,” and it would have
meant making a commitment away from my band. And Dylan really didn’t need me, he already had such a stellar cast of characters. So I moved on into my own
world. But I got to talk to him and meet him and hear his ideas about things.

I just recently toured Australia and New Zealand with him, and that was really great. It’s always a beautiful thing in your life — it’s one of the things that
makes life worth living — that you never know how things are going to unfold. I
never suspected when I was a teenager seeing him with Joan Baez, and then
following him record by record, and always admiring and [being] influenced by his
work, that I would be singing with him sometime. Working with him. This is one
of the beautiful things in life.

You must be in a similar position now, having iconic status among so many other performers.

You’d have to ask them about that. I’ve met people who’ve said those things
about me, and I’ve become friends with some of them and worked with them. But somebody like Michael Stipe — it’s not for me to talk about their feelings. You’d have to talk to them.

When you wake up in the morning, you don’t say, “Ah, I’m an icon”?

When I wake up in the morning, I wake up because one of my kids knocks on the door. And it’s time to make cereal because they’re going to school. So I
stumble down the stairs and make cereal. And make sure that the clothes I put
in the dryer the night before are out for them to wear. And then I take my
daughter to school. I don’t think there’s any part of my consciousness that
considers that I have any kind of historic place on earth except in their
life.

I know your son has played guitar for you on stage. Have your other kids seen you perform?

They’ve seen things. My kids are just like any other kids. They think of me as their mother. That’s my essential identity with them. They’ll see me sometimes and they think I do pretty good. Other times they’re totally disinterested. And I’m happy with that. They basically look to me as their mother — that’s the only identity I need with them.

I wanted to ask you about one of the illustrations — on Page 23, there’s a beautiful photograph of a blurry rider on a horse —

That’s a Polaroid of my brother [Todd Smith, 1949-1994]. It was taken when he was in the Navy in the ’60s. He sent it to me because it was kind of hazy and said, “I thought you would like the picture.” He knew I’d dig the
sensibility of it. I’ve saved the photo all these years — Scotch taped it to one
of my notebooks. So we just photographed it exactly as it remained.

The book is also filled with copies of your first drafts.

Those are the original drafts. That “Piss Factory” was the originally draft of
what became my first single. “The Year of Gemini” is my original draft of the
song Blue Vyster Cult recorded. There’s one other thing with a picture of
Allen Ginsberg and I — that’s just a fragment of a poem I was writing that I
just put there. All of the ephemera, as we call it, in the book is vintage of
a time. For instance, there’s the set list of my first poetry reading in 1971. I found it in an old trunk.

Do you know that a piece is going to be a lyric or a poem before you start it?

Yes, because it’s a different process. A poem completely stands on its own
and it’s from a whole really heightened level of me that I can tap. And in poetry, often whom I’m communicating in the poem is myself or my god. I’m really much more cerebral and much more, in some ways, selfish. It’s a self-oriented process. Because I’m not so interested in, or I’m not even thinking about, who is going to read the poem. I’m just trying to define pieces with a certain poetic language. I know that this isn’t as articulate as it could be — I’m no expert in explaining poetry.

With the lyric process, lyrics are for songs, and songs are for people. Without compromising, I’m always aware that I’m writing something that people are going to hear, and hopefully be influenced and moved and struck by. I really
write songs for people; I don’t write songs for myself. I might write a song
to comfort myself or because I’m really sad, but almost 90 percent of the
lyrics that I write, I write for people.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Patti Smith will be visiting bookstores in San Francisco, Los Angeles,
New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Minneapolis and Boston throughout November. Just before the tour (Oct. 27), Smith will appear at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, where she will be interviewed onstage for Rolling Stone.

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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