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Happy Birthday, Patti Smith!

| December 31, 2011 | 2 Comments

Looking back over the past 35 years, it’s hard to imagine what the rock ’n’ roll landscape would look like were it not for the impact of Patti Smith. Her most obvious contribution has been to blaze a path for other powerful female voices, but in truth her influence cuts across gender, genre and generations. With the exception of Bob Dylan, no other artist has so successfully fused a poet’s sensibility to rock’s visceral energy. In fact, for those who believe rock ’n’ roll springs more from Little Richard than from Woody Guthrie, Smith’s version of that fusion is even more powerful than that of Mr. Zimmerman.

Had Smith released nothing except 1975’s Horses, a landmark album that framed Rimbaud- and Beat-inspired imagery in exhilarating garage rock settings, her place in rock history would be assured. Fact is, however, she has gone on to create a body of work that matches and often surpasses that seminal debut. In 2010 she received the National Book Award for Just Kids, her memoir of life with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

To celebrate Patti’s birthday today, here is an interview with her from the Performing Songwriter archives.

You’ve talked a great deal in the past about your early influences—Dylan and so forth—but have the primary influences on your songwriting changed much through the years?

Not so much on my songwriting, but perhaps in the way I approach singing. I’ve listened, in the past few years, to a lot of Marian Anderson and a lot of Maria Callas. I’ve really been focused on listening to singers who bring such an emotional quality to their work. Even somebody like Hank Williams. I’ve always listened to people sing, but I’ve been studying people … the way they interpret things, and the thought they put into their vocals.

As far as my lyric writing goes, I look at the example of others, and just try to do the best I can. It could be Bob Dylan or Hank Williams or Jimi Hendrix. I try to look at the great lyric writers, and always try to put as much commitment as I can to lyrics.

Do you always come up with the vocal melodies?

Yes. Sometimes, if I have a little trouble accessing a melody, I’ll ask a band member if he had a melody in mind, but a lot of times it’s right there—the chords just lead you to it. I’m good at coming up with melodies when the structure is there. But, for instance, in the case of “Trespasses” [from 2004’s Trampin’}, that song is different from the others. I had written a long poem, a Hank Williams-kind of ballad, and then a few days later our drummer [Jay Dee Daugherty] came in with the music. He’s very melody-oriented, and he had a melody in mind. I listened to it, and I realized that his music had the same cadence as my poem. So I said, “I have a poem that I think will work with this.” It was much too long, so I had to cut it down, but that’s one of those instances where the lyrics were written first. But in the case of almost all our songs, I sit and create them with the band.

Waylon Jennings once talked at length about how important it is for a solo artist to have his or her own band. That seems especially true, in your case.

It is important. That’s nice—Waylon was a good friend of [guitarist] Lenny Kaye, who I’ve been working with for more than 35 years. And of course Lenny wrote Waylon’s autobiography with him. Waylon was very complimentary about the way we structured our band, and about the communication within our band. It’s exactly true. We work sort of like a jazz band. We have to trust each other, and I improvise a lot, and everyone has to be listening, so they can follow. It’s important to me that I have people who I’m comfortable with, who I trust, and who are listening. We begin to anticipate what each of us will do. We all adjust for each other, in the course of a song.

You have a gift for writing lullabies. Do you have an idea of where that particular gift comes from?

I know exactly where it comes from. When I was a little girl, I loved Robert Louis Stevenson, and I loved William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” There are a lot of lullaby [qualities] in that material. And I love children’s poems; I always have, since I was a little kid. Another thing is, my mother was a really good singer, and she used to sing us to sleep. She sang lullabies to us and taught them to me, and I sang them to my own children. I find it to be a beautiful form, and in fact I just recently wrote the music to a lullaby written by William Blake, called “Cradle Song.” I haven’t recorded it yet, but I’ve been thinking about recording it.

What is it about rock ’n’ roll that drew you to it as an art form? As you know, many poets and novelists don’t take it seriously, or take an elitist view.

It’s really funny. Often when people talk to me, they’re surprised that I’m well-read. I always wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be a writer, and I thought of being a painter. I spend most of my time writing. But I was really drawn into the arena of rock ’n’ roll organically. It feels almost as if I was recruited. In the early ’70s I was very concerned about the state of rock ’n’ roll and the state of our culture. I grew up in the ’50s, so I got to see the whole history of rock ’n’ roll. I was a little girl when Little Richard and Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly became [popular]. I lived through the evolution of rock ’n’ roll, from the Animals to Bob Dylan to Hendrix to the Rolling Stones to Jim Morrison. I saw it flourish and saw it develop poetically and politically. And I really believed in it as an important voice in our culture.

So it was really important to me, and in the early ’70s I felt that that voice was losing a lot of its power. Some important people died, and of course a lot of things happened in the late ’60s, with the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, and with the rise of the Nixon administration and Vietnam. Things turned around, and our cultural voice was starting to feel de-powered. I was concerned about that. The other thing is, I wanted to strengthen the energy of poetry. I would do poetry readings with Lenny Kaye, and he would play electric guitar, to give more energy to the performance. We just grew, organically.

You’ve said in the past that an artist should bring to his or her craft a work ethic that’s similar to someone who goes to a 9 to 5 job. Do you still feel that way?

Oh, certainly. I think an artist should work even harder than those who work 9 to 5 jobs. In these times, especially, the materialism and lifestyle attached to art and music, and just about everything, has become so rampant, and has produced a lot of soulless, contentless work. I think more than ever we have to work harder.

You don’t have any trouble reconciling that with the romantic notion of waiting for inspiration to strike?

Oh, no. (laughs) I think one can have that luxury for a short period of one’s life, and there’s nothing wrong with having a romantic view of art, but I think if you’re really serious, you’ll find that two-thirds of art is labor. Picasso would tell you that, as would Yeats or Bob Dylan. They would all tell you that creation is labor-intensive. It’s like having a baby. There’s a lot of pain and struggle and hard work. I think if you’re really serious, you have to be willing to do that. There’s truth in that cliché about art being 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. Illumination is a beautiful thing, but that’s instantaneous. We have to labor in order to produce the physical embodiment of that illumination, and that’s something I accept. But I also love that process. I’ve worked in 9 to 5 jobs—in a factory or in book stores for years and years—and I would much rather undertake the labor of an artist.

There’s a wonderful thing you said in an interview several years ago. You said something to the effect that your initial motivation to get into rock ’n’ roll, back in the mid ’70s, was to stick a finger in the dike until rock ’n’ roll could reassert itself.

(Laughing) Well, that’s hard for me to talk about now, because it sounds really conceited. But at that time in my life I was really serious about that. I was concerned about rock ’n’ roll and about the state of our culture. I didn’t feel any specific calling, or feel I had any gifts for doing this myself, but I was thinking that if I could just shake things up, then maybe the real people would come in and save rock ’n’ roll.

I think our band did a good job. That’s what we were trying to do; we were trying to reclaim rock ’n’ roll, from the people’s perspective, but also reclaim it as a cultural and political voice. And that has to be done again. These things have to be done over and over. New people have to come in now, and reclaim it as a cultural voice. What we call rock ’n’ roll has been appropriated by business, and so forth. So much of our culture is celebrity driven or sexually driven or lifestyle driven. Young people aren’t being groomed spiritually or politically. They’re being groomed to be future consumers. I think it’s very important that the older guard try to set better examples, and that the young guard not let themselves be exploited by music, television and by our present culture.

So, in other words, you’re of the mind that rock ’n’ roll needs another kick in the ass?

Yes. Absolutely it does. It needs more than a finger; it needs a foot (laughs).

—By Russell Hall

From Performing Songwriter Issue 79, July/August 2004

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

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  1. Bill Reay says:

    Happy HAPPY DAY Patti, you’re Truly Loved here in the UK, the USA and THE WHOLE WORLD TOO FOR SURE!! :-) Have a Wonderful Birthday and Thank You So Much for all the songs, poetry and words that you’ve ever given the world and all of us in it. We all love your DEARLY :-)
    Billyboy UK/England
    Your version of Gloria sends me somwhere new and exciting every time….it’s just amazing beyond words!!

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