Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Patti Smith Rock's First Lady

Written by Jaan Uhelszki
Tuesday, 08 May 2007

pattismith1Rock's First Lady

Patti Smith is more prophet than poet, more citizen than rock star, an iconic artist who insists that she doesn’t even have a career, despite her recent induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame last March.

“Well, I mean, I just think I work,” she says in her surprisingly soft voice, which still retains the hard scratch of a South Jersey accent. “I’ve always worked. It’s a question of motivation, why you do stuff,” she sniffs. “To me, to be an artist has nothing to do with career because you might have whole years where you’re not publicly visible, or that you’re not doing work, you’re only contemplating.”

Smith has been contemplating since she was a toddler. “I’ve known I was going to be a big shot since I was four,” she said back in 1976. “I just didn’t know it had anything to do with my throat.”

She might have had a hint during her brief but brutal stint working at a toy factory—the experience that inspired “Piss Factory”—followed by two years at New Jersey’s Glassboro Teachers College, saving up enough money for her escape from the Garden State into what she saw as the true paradise: New York. When she moved to Manhattan in 1967, Smith hedged her bets, explaining to intimates that she intended to become an artist’s mistress—a respectable endeavor for a girl in those less enlightened times, despite her own prodigious talents.

The artist who captured her fancy was young art student and burgeoning photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. To his great credit, instead of accepting this haunting girl/woman—all angles and monochromatic colors—who looked like she toppled out of a Picasso painting as a muse (although he probably took over 10,000 photos of her during the course of his life), Mapplethorpe encouraged her to pursue her own gifts, counseling her to do her drawings on a larger scale and then to write text on them, like a modern-day Frieda Kahlo, allowing Smith to return to her first love: the word.

Smith had been reading and writing poetry since she was a teenager. “Really bad jazz poetry, long poems on the death of Charlie Parker, things like that.” But the process of merging the two art forms—a reoccurring theme in her life—unleashed something in the young artist.

Moving into the infamous Chelsea Hotel with Mapplethorpe in 1969 allowed her access to some of the greats of earlier generations. Shy, but with enough spunk to walk up to her heroes, she met poets and writers like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William Burroughs on a daily basis in the ratty Chelsea lobby.

Gradually, Smith put down her own paints and sculpting tools to spend more time writing poetry, as well as collaborating on and appearing in the play “Cowboy Mouth” with Sam Shepard. She started penning swashbuckling rock criticism for the pages of Creem and Rolling Stone. While her writing was revelatory, strangely erotic, and decidedly exotic, she wasn’t destined to be constrained to the page. She began acting in underground theater, all the while becoming more and more distinguished on the poetry circuit.

In 1971 when Smith decided to take her first tentative steps onto the miniscule stage at the Poetry Series at St. Mark’s Church, she convinced rock critic and record store clerk Lenny Kaye to provide a sparse musical backdrop to her feverish poetry. More a “happening” than a true concert, that night left an indelible mark on Smith’s psyche. Between 1971 and 1974, with increasingly impassioned readings, she refined the process and expanded her accompaniment, recruiting keyboardist Richard Sohl and a second guitarist, Ivan Krall—creating the proto version of The Patti Smith Group. Eventually, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty would be added to the mix and the band would be complete. She released her John Cale-produced debut album, Horses, in 1975, only a year before the official birthday of punk rock.

pattismith2Following Horses, Smith released a new album nearly every year—the experimental Radio Ethiopia (1976), the bittersweet Easter (1978), and the spiritually imbued Wave (1979)—despite a near-fatal accident when she plummeted from a Florida stage and injured her neck in 1977. Her first four albums have influenced musicians-cum-spiritual descendents like Michael Stipe, Courtney Love, Bono, PJ Harvey and Jeff Buckley. And while she always claimed she was “beyond gender and outside of society,” she did more for the women’s movement by showing that she could rock as hard as any man, spitting out her vituperous lyrical missives that rivaled anything that Dylan ever scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin.

“Wait, I write on cocktail napkins, too,” laughs Smith. “If I don’t have notebooks around, I wind up writing on paper napkins or whatever. It just seems I’ve got paper napkins all over my house. But one thing, I never write on my skin.”

At the very apex of her fame, with a Top 20 album (Easter) yielding the Number 13 hit “Because the Night”—co-written with Bruce Springsteen—Smith decided to pursue another sort of dream. Following Wave, she married MC5 guitar avatar Fred “Sonic” Smith, whom she had met in Detroit on March 9, 1976 at a party her record company threw for her.

“Fred and I met in front of a white radiator and the communication was instantaneous. It was more than that: It was mystical, really, something I never forgot. But I didn’t see him again for almost a year.”

Instead of ascending to the throne of some rock hierarchy, these two titans lived a quiet life. He called her Tricia, and with him she learned the simple rigors of housework, the zen of ironing clothes and the true joys of motherhood, giving birth to a son, Jackson, and daughter Jesse.

“Marrying Fred made me a better person,” she admits. “All I wanted to be was an artist when I was a kid. I didn’t really plan to be a mother. That wasn’t my goal in life, but because I am a mother I can honestly say that I just feel very privileged to have Jackson and Jesse. They give me great joy.”

The couple watched golf, Fred taught her electric guitar—buying her a Fender duo-sonic—and they wrote songs together for 1998’s Dream of Life, a different kind of musical document than what she unleashed during her first decade. This album of love songs, gentle lullabies, and political missives— especially the anthemic “People Have the Power,” which the two wrote while she was doing the dinner dishes—combined his White Panther polemics with her own revolutionary spirit, giving a clear-eyed vision of the future.

But the dream turned dark in 1994, when Fred Smith succumbed to a heart attack, followed by the death of her beloved brother Todd six months later of a similar coronary ailment. After a period of desolation, at the urging of friends Smith returned to what she knew best: being creative. She penned tentative poems, returned to painting and taking pictures, and at the behest of Stipe, began planning to record, collaborating with him on “E-Bow the Letter,” a song on R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. She performed live with the band, did a short tour with Bob Dylan in 1995, and then it was time to get back to her own work.

In 1996 she reunited The Patti Smith Group and recorded the elegiac Gone Again. Another close friend, Richard Sohl, had also died; rather than replace the PSG keyboardist, Smith added bassist Tony Shanahan and Oliver Ray on guitar; Krall had returned to his native Czechoslovakia. Not unexpectedly, grief and loss and eventual redemption hang over Gone Again, as she honors her lost friends and family— including Kurt Cobain in “About a Boy.” But it is not a document of self-indulgent pain and melancholy. Instead, it’s a stately yet optimistic work, signaling an artistic rebirth, and a rededication to her Peace and Noise, as her 1997 album announced.

“As long as I can remember, service has been important to me,” Smith explains. “That’s my initials, ‘PS,’ Public Service. Our band is always conscious of being in the moment, I try to engage people in the moment and I think of performance as a mutual responsibility, and we’re all deeply concentrating, there is some of that Vulcan mind meld. I have a responsible streak in me from being the oldest of four children. I can’t say that I always exercised it. Nor did I want to exercise it. I wasn’t interested in my responsibilities when I wrote the lyrics to ‘Gloria.’ I was exercising my right to be free. The freedom of choice.”

In 2004 The Patti Smith Group released Trampin’, which included several songs about motherhood, some in tribute to her own mother, who died in 2002.

Turning 60 last December, this mythological sprite of a woman, with her tremendous veil of seaweed hair and dauntless spirit, has released her twelfth album, titled Twelve, both as a milestone and as an organizing principle for the 12 songs that she chose to cover— compositions like Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced” to The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider.” She chose songs that she felt some connection to, whether accidentally or purposefully.

“The whole record is filled with that. I had this dream that I should do ‘Soul Kitchen,’ and I woke up and thought, ‘I don’t really want to do “Soul Kitchen.”’ It’s not like one of my favorite Doors songs. And then I went out on the street, and this big sanitation truck almost ran me down and the guy was blaring the radio, and ‘Soul Kitchen’ was on. And I thought, all right, okay. I’ll do it, I’ll do it. I don’t know why. And that’s all. I mean that’s the strangest scenario on the record, but all of the songs had some element like that.”

So what’s next for Patti Smith? “I have a feeling my next record will be more acoustic, because I’ve written a lot of acoustic songs I haven’t recorded. So I think that’s the direction I’ll go in."

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 08 May 2007 )

No comments:

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo

I'm a Black Lab mix w/ a curly tail.