Patti Smith is famous for fusing rock’n’roll with awesome poetry, most notably on her seminal LP released in 1975, Horses.
She’s a dab hand at penning narrative, too, with her 2010 memoir Just Kids – which documents her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe – this year earning itself a reissue, albeit in illustrated format.
Also being published this month is Smith’s freshest memoir, Year of the Monkey – an autobiographical work where dreams and reality are woven into a tapestry of one very transformative year for the artist.
Cream delves into its interview archives to retrieve a special one-on-one with Patti, where she talks about surviving the heady days of the ’60s and ’70s; drug-taking and war; the records that reported on them both; and her relationships with Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and, of course, Robert Mapplethorpe.
Interview by Antonino Tati
Hi Patti, you have a bit of a hoarse voice there. Is it a cold?
Yes, it’s been going around New York and it’s a bit nasty. It makes you have coughing fits. But I feel better now.
And what’s the Patti Smith remedy for a cold?
Just to take steam showers, drink a lot of hot water mixed with lemon and honey, and rest.
Thanks for the advice, Doctor. I’m glad you’re ready to talk. Now, I believe your CV prior to singer/songwriter also revealed a stint in music journalism?
Well, I wasn’t very prolific. I did review some records… some blues artists – The Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix. I just did reviews of records that I liked, to help make a living. Really, I was a poet and a writer but I do love rock’n’roll, and writing about rock’n’roll in 1970 was rather new. Anyway, I wrote for Creem [the US-based title] and Rolling Stone.
A few years ago you released ‘Twelve’, an album of covers by artists who were your peers in the ’70s. Did it seem surreal to be, decades down the track, covering songs by artists with whom you’ve shared the stage? And some artists whom you reviewed?
Well, I wrote about Jimi [Hendrix again], and I wrote about Bob Dylan, and I wrote about the Stones, and the Doors. In a way it’s not surprising that the people I was covering were the people I ended up having long relationships with, in that I’d been listening to them for years and had been inspired and influenced by them.
“There’s a very small percentage of people that do want to rule the world, about 1% – the rich, the corporate, and the powerful – but I did that song really as a political statement.” – Patti Smith on covering ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’
Do you record in the studio as though you are performing live?
When we recorded Horses [Smith’s album that constantly makes it into “top 100 albums of all-time” lists] it wasn’t much different to playing live. I didn’t know anything about recording, we just performed in the studio the same way we would perform in a show – with only a little technology. And I still do the same.
On ‘Twelve’, you even managed to cover Tears For Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, sounding decidedly girly.
Well… I am a girl [laughs], and I was raised on girl groups: the Ronettes, the Crystals, Martha & the Vandellas, and maybe some of that shone through. I think that’s a good thing, and I actually think the ‘girlishness’ is inherent in that song. They were brilliant pop lyrics; very simple, yet they reflect the state and woes of our planet. There’s a very small percentage of people that do want to rule the world, about 1% – the rich, the corporate, and the powerful – but I did that song really as a political statement. It’s as much about corporate greed and my own country’s imperialist acts. But it’s also got a really nice groove.
And on The Beatles’ ‘Within You Without You’, you seem to come across even more down-tempo than George Harrison did. There appears to be a military bent to your take.
I wanted people to hear the lyrics, and I suppose it sounds militant because of the lyrics – which are very stoic. Sure, they have a Hindu philosophy that ‘love can change the world’, but it’s a strong point of view. It does ask us to examine our consciousness – are our goals in life materialistic or spiritual?
Or indeed, both? In today’s global state of affairs, the first thing that came to my mind hearing you recite the lyric ‘Are you one of them?’ was that the war does go on within you and without you, but there is something that you can do about it now if you want to…
Well a lot of good songs are like that. Even Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter. It’s a brilliant anti-war song and it’s almost like Mick Jagger asks us to examine our conscience: ‘War, children, it’s a shot away, and love is a kiss away’.
There is this myth about the musicians of your original era, that the new generation assume you were all taking drugs, being decadent, having orgies and so on. Can you clarify that conception?
Well the main aspect of my experimentation was in art. I wrote about things within art, but in terms of myself I’ve always had a very different view of drugs that my generation did. I did not believe that drugs were for recreational use. I believed drugs were sacred. And I didn’t relate to the drug culture. I knew so many people that took them, and they looked like babbling idiots. To me, you took a drug to expand your mind and learn something. Most people did so many drugs but weren’t learning anything. And a lot of people died from them, or they destroyed their brain or their teeth. Me, I smoked pot, I hung around with a lot of Rastafarians, and I took acid a couple of times, but I took it seriously. Every time I’ve taken a drug, I’ve done something with it. Like with pot, I’d write poetry. I’d use it for something creative.
It sounds as though it brought you together with some very creative people. You went out with photographer and artist Robert Mapplethorpe for a few years, of course.
I met Robert when I was 20, and he was my boyfriend until we were about 24. Then Robert was evolving, and he found he was more homosexually bent. But we stayed close friends for the rest of his life. We spent hours and hours making art together, but drugs were not the source of our friendship. I had a good time, and I went through some different things in life, but I’ve never been self-destructive. While being self-destructive has its romantic aspects, I’ll tell you it’s also a pain in ass. I think one of the reasons I’m [70-plus] years old and still healthy is that I’ve always been grateful for my gifts – my voice is strong, I’m a mum, I like to work, I travel, I write poetry, I’m still making records.
“I’ve always had a very different view of drugs that my generation did. I didn’t believe drugs were for recreational use. I believed drugs were sacred. And I didn’t relate to the drug culture. I knew so many people that took them, and they looked like babbling idiots.”
It’s a pity so many artists of your time were cut in their prime because of that self-destruction.
I try to talk to young people, of any generation, and if I can tell them anything, it’s to romanticise people’s work but not their lifestyle. Because I met Jim Morrison, Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and they all died at 27-years-old. And it’s really a tragedy.
Ah, all the Js…
Yes, and I don’t romanticise them being dead at 27. I wish Jimi Hendrix was still alive so I could talk to him, and collaborate with him or just be inspired by him. I mean, in the end, Jimi didn’t want to die. He had a million ideas. But he fucked up, you know. He took a bunch of pills and he drank that night, and he took another pill and he bought tracks. He didn’t commit suicide but he made a mistake. You know, you look at somebody like Jim Morrison; he just drank bottles and bottles and bottles of alcohol and it just totally messed up his body at such a young age. It’s not cool, and it’s not pretty.
It might leave a legacy, but an unfinished one?
Yeah, but it only left any legacy because he did good work. If he were to have just been some good-looking guy that drank himself to death he wouldn’t be much remembered. He’s remembered because he wrote great songs, was a great performer, a poet. And if he would have lived longer, he would have written even greater things. I don’t want anyone to feel I’m judgemental, or like, ‘So she’s old now and she’s going to turn against everything’. It’s not like that. I thought about this stuff when I was 20 years old and it’s why I’m still here, alive and healthy.
“Me, I smoked pot, I hung around with a lot of Rastafarians, and I took acid a couple of times, but I took it seriously. Every time I’ve taken a drug, I’ve done something with it. Like with pot, I’d write poetry. I’d use it for something creative.”
I must say, kudos to you for continuing to record to this day. Some people think Patti Smith is ‘one of those heavy singers from the 70s’, but at the end of the day you’re quite a shining example of persistence and survival. And the quality of your new musical and published work are testament to that.
Well thank you. I have seen a lot of stuff, you know. I know all about loss and death. A lot of my people died. Like Robert, my husband, and my brother, my piano player, and my parents. And still – no matter what – I love life. Bad things are going to happen, but there’s always going to be something great to think about and to write about. Your imagination will bring you things. The planets, or the full moon, or a really great book, or somebody has a cool movie out. You fall in love, or meet a really neat person. There’s a million reasons to live.
Patti Smith’s new memoir ‘Year of the Monkey’ is out through Bloomsbury on September 24, RRP $29.99.
‘Just Kids’ will be reissued in illustrated format in early November, also through Bloomsbury.