concentrating on the god within

[from "Patti Smith Peaking: The Infinite Possibilities of a Woman," by Marc Stevens and Diana Clapton, Club Quest, January 1977]

She hurtles into the room, a breathless tousled angel with a face out of Edvard Munch. She carries with her the karmic electricity of the genuine superstar, the true heroine. Her energy is so untrammeled, it fills the room; it pushes us against the wall in its intensity. Those wondrous salamander eyes move slowly, almost supernaturally. They embrace the whole of the activity around her. Her Mary Janes, her 4th grade red sox, the fine, strange jewelry lashed to her writs. The arching, artist's fingers, almost too much purity and reality and talent. Things become improbable. She is gracious, considerate, the essence of feminine charm, all the mannerisms of the sexually self-confident woman, the emotional largesse of the truly arrivée. There must be something bad about Patti Smith. Well, she doesn't play the guitar that well -- yet. She has the eerie beauty she treasures in those old Italian or French films, the mantle of mystery of the steadily evolving female unafraid to declare herself a fully sexual individual. She speaks of her own erotic feelings with candor and honesty. Whoever said that rock was really sex with all the rhythms down -- certainly had Patti in the wildest corner of his mind.

Patti:  It's either not hectic at all or it's totally hectic. It's like the ocean, y'know, a big, big wave comes in.. I just tune it in. It starts out, there's a lot of static, like the radio, and you go like this [twists imaginary knobs] and it comes in. That's like the ocean -- not so bad. I don't care if there's a lot of action going on as long as I can tune it in.

CQ:  You were supposed to be out at the ocean this weekend -- on Fire Island.

Patti:  Oh, yeah, but I had too much work to do. Cutting the new album took about 3 weeks, but the cover and the liner notes...

CQ:  The record [Radio Ethiopia] seems a lot more lyrical than Horses.

Patti:  It's got a lot more presence. We've been on the road for a year. The first record really reflected exactly what we knew then. Being alone by ourselves, fantasizing, playing in small clubs, the fragile adoration of the people who believe in ya. But then you go on the road for a year and it's real maniac. There aren't 40 people who love you but 4,000. You have to really project. You can't be as fragile. It's the power of projection that you learn on the road. So the new record reflects what we learned from the kids. Before I was a fan, an artist, or whatever. If I'm a fan of anybody these days, I'm a fan of my audiences.

CQ:  But 4,000 people means performing in large halls. Can you handle it?

Patti:  I like performing anywhere there's a lot of energy. Like Jesus says, when two people are gathered together in my name. Well, I feel the same way. I like performing in an interview situation or for 4,000 people or in a club. As long as all the energy is directed toward the same place. When I perform some place and the people have their heads into what they want to see, like something artistic, it's a drag. But when they're loose...

CQ:  How loose do they get at your concerts?

Patti:  Real loose. Jumpin' up on stage and grabbin' me -- everything.

CQ:  Do you get bothered?

Patti:  I like it. It's rock 'n' roll. If nobody leapt on the stage and cried 'Fuck me' ... I mean, I've seen Privilege; I'd do it. In the old days, especially when I'd go to a concert -- Johnny Winter, the Stones or Hendrix, I'd scream and get beat up and try to get on the stage. I got stomped by Grateful Dead guys for try'na get on the stage when they were on. And my foot got broken with the Stones.

CQ:  How about violence directed toward you personally?

Patti:  Oh sure, I've been attacked. After the show the kids come back, but I understand it, y'know? It's not that I want it to happen, but when it does, I get into it. I can dig it. It's a nightmare, but a nightmare I can relate to. I know what it's about. I've seen those Elvis Presley movies where the girls were try'na pull his clothes off. Hey, I know what rock 'n' roll is all about. I came into this thing with my eyes open. I didn't come in thinking that people should treat me like some precious jewel because I write poetry. I came in fully open to anything rock 'n' roll has to offer.

CQ:  Do you get stage fright?

Patti:  Nah, real excited. I only get nervous if it's real quiet out there. That makes me suspicious. But if the kids are screamin' and carryin' on, I get real excited. I was so thrilled when I did the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park, I thought my heart was gonna burst.

CQ:  Do your fans give you expensive gifts -- say, a half ounce of cocaine?

Patti:  I've had ounces. And grass. But one time a guy sent me a letter. His name was Timothy -- no number or last name or nothin' -- and two $50 bills in it. Brand new, and I couldn't give 'em back. Free money.

CQ:  Have you changed since you began making it?

Patti:  I feel stronger. I feel like I've been doin' it all my life. It's still art, and I been doin' art since I was 4 years old. Rock 'n' roll has now entered the art spectrum. And because of that, I put the same energies into working within the context of rock 'n' roll as I did when I wanted to be a sculptor.

CQ:  You mentioned that you've been on the road here and abroad. Does travel inspire you to create art?

Patti:  O yeah, I been to Paris about 10 times. To get inspiration I got to a bunch of places -- to Jim Morrison's grave in Pere Lachaise, that's the first place I go. In fact, our first European tour was really cool because they had this white Aston- Martin or somethin' waitin' for me. You know, I don't get treated that way in America. In America I'm lucky if I get a station wagon. I'm just sayin' that I happened to be treated like a princess in Paris. So anyway, I had this white car and they said, where do you wanna go? And I said, to see Jim Morrison. So they took me to the graveyard in the big white car. I remember the first time I went, I was all by myself in the pouring rain. Really fucked up and the mud was splattering all over me. I was in this white car smoking a cigarette.

CQ:  Just you and the chauffeur.

Patti:  Yeah, me and him and a pair of dark glasses and a pack of cigarettes.

CQ:  Do you smoke a lot?

Patti:  I don't inhale so it doesn't hurt my lungs. I just like the look. really on top of it, I like that Jeanne Moreau woman-with-her-cigarette look. It's all for show. My own show.

CQ:  White cars, chauffeurs -- is power important to you?

Patti:  Power? Not like dictatorial power. Power to initiate change, to affect people in a really spiraling way. To be a catalyst. Just like when I worked at Scribner's book store for 5 years. A kid would come in and want Rod McKuen stuff. To me power was bein' able to talk to that kid, and he'd leave with Malderer, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas. Now I feel I'm doin' the same kinda thing.

CQ:  It was about this time that Robert Mapplethorpe gave you your start -- paid for that first book of poetry.

Patti:  No, he didn't give me the start that way. He did lend me the money for my single. But he did much more than that. I was 19 years old, really shattered. I'd been through a lot of hard times. I had all this powerful energy, and I didn't know how to direct it. Robert really disciplined me to direct all my mania -- all my telepathic energy -- into art. Concentrating on the God within, or at least a creative demon. I was really emotionally fucked up.

CQ:  Are you evened out now?

Patti:  Oh yeah, I mean, I go through pain, but I try to translate everything into work. I'm almost 30 and I've been through so much stuff. Every time I go through something new, I have so much scar tissue that I suffer pain, but it doesn't take me so long to get back on my feet. I can get back on top real fast. I'm in the ring! Y'know when you're an artist an' you're like, strugglin', nobody cares. You get beat down; you stay down for a while. But when you're in the middle of the ring, you gotta get up fast because there's all these people watchin'. You don't have time. You know technology is 50% of rock 'n' roll -- the magic, the art, the performance. If you don't have good technicians and a strong road crew who are devoted and believe in you and protect you, you're totally naked.

CQ:  But the spotlight's really on you. You're the one who has to deliver.

Patti:  But it's what helps a performer stay on top, like a boxer with his trainer there. You have to know that these people are behind you. Then, when you really start to break and it's happening, a whole new kind of energy is created around you. And if you're smart, it'll make you a stronger person.

CQ:  But other rock stars had the technology going for them but couldn't channel the break into a new kind of energy.

Patti:  I was lucky. I've never been real fucked up on drugs. I knew Janis real well. She was so fragile, so emotional, a lot like, say, my mother. I mean we're all emotional. But you can't let your emotions consume you. If you can't transcend that emotion, into work, then you can't do anything. I'm real emotional. I mean if I'm really fucked up and cryin' sittin' in a room . . .

CQ:  And drugs and booze only make it worse.

Patti:  I use drugs to work. I never use them to escape or for pleasure. I use people. If I'm real depressed, I have some real wonderful friends. When you turn to drugs, all you're doing is turning inside, anyway. When I'm in trouble or emotionally fucked up, I don't wanna come to me. I wanna go to somebody else. I don't wanna look in a mirror. I only use drugs for construction. It's like one of my architectural tools now. I don't go to a party and get all fucked up. Or sit in a hotel room all sad and messed up and take drugs.

CQ:  But enough rock stars did use drugs as an escape. Now they're dead.

Patti:  I'm not makin' a platform about it. I'm just sayin' for me, personally, I think drugs are sacred and should be used for work. That's what I believe in. Drugs have a real shamanistic value. I can handle drugs. I've never had a problem.

CQ:  Some New York discos are getting pretty loose in terms of drug tolerance. Have you noticed?

Patti:  I can't go. I'm a great dancer, I love to dance, but when I go to discotheques, people talk to me so much that I can't. It's like Edith Piaf. She was very religious but she didn't go to church, because everybody looked at her.

CQ:  Judy Garland couldn't eat in a restaurant for the same reason. But are you that bothered?

Patti:  Oh, I eat like an animal. I come from a big family. I'm used to bein' watched. Here's what I don't like: If I'm in a certain mood and I feel pissed off or crazy and I exude that, I want people to understand it. The only times I get pissed off are when I'm walkin' down the street and someone wants to talk. I say, "Look, just trust me. I'm fucked up now; I can't talk to you. I need you. Thank you believing in me but..." And when they keep right on botherin' me, I say finally, "Look -- I don't need ya. Go away. You don't understand. Don't buy my records!"

CQ:  Do you think about equality for yourself?

Patti:  No, I don't wanna be equal with anybody. I wanna be above equal. I don't think most people are equal to me. I'd like to communicate with everybody; I'd like to do something universal, I'd like to have the hit record of the world. But that's not the same as being equal. Women compete with women; it's not all men. When I was sellin' books at Scribner's there were stupid women that were older than me, and they got paid more just 'cause they were older. You can go on forever with that shit. So you fight. I don't think fighting is bad. People get too much of what they want and they loose the fight in them.

CQ:  Should you always keep battling to be the best?

Patti:  Being on top is not the precedent. It's that I am capable of making it to the top of the tower. Why should I settle for the 26th Floor? I don't set limitations.

CQ:  You seem very free as if limitations are beside the point. You seem unencumbered by race, color, creed, gender. The 100% natural Patti Smith, no additives, no preservative, no makeup.

Patti:  Oh listen, I buy Vogue. The other night I was really depressed and got into a taxi and went to a newsstand and bought, like, this $10 magazine of Paris fashions. Fantastic photography. I love silk raincoats, but I don't wear makeup. I can't stand nothin' on my face. It's a phobia. It's not a platform.

CQ:  Do you like leather?

Patti:  Oh yeah, sometimes. It depends on the rhythm of the night. I'm like a changeling. Fickle. I might wear all leather, and then I might wear a fucked up little black dress. Plus I got a lot of cool T-shirts.

CQ:  How do you feel about your body?

Patti:  I'm an artist. I'm not ashamed of my body. I've been an artist's model for years, and people have been photographing my body nude since I was 16. I have no shame. Doing rock 'n' roll, I'm so naked now.

CQ:  Do you ornament yourself as a sex object, the way other women might spend hours before a mirror?

Patti:  Well, I'm a very sexual person. Pornography, eroticism -- that's what I work on in private. None of that has been published yet. I'm still workin' on it. Rock 'n' roll is the most important thing right now. Pornography has yet to see its day -- really high class pornography. But it's something I think about all the time. Pornography linked with elegance and grace and intelligence.

CQ:  But pornography as art is entirely a personal choice, completely individual. What form of expression would you take in creating erotic art?

Patti:  I feel I'm involved in it right now, at least as much as I know how, on stage. I've been accused of everything including masturbation. And I do come on stage. Almost every night, I come on stage. Sex -- coming -- is about concentration. I can come while I'm writing, if I'm really there. Orgasm is peaking your concentration.

CQ:  Is that an end for you? Do you work consciously for that?

Patti:  Well, any woman is capable of multiple orgasms. What I mean is, a woman can come all day. Women don't realize how heavy this is. When I first realized what coming meant -- that I could come 20 times if I could come once, over and over again like the ocean...even self-induced...I'm not necessarily talkin' about sex now.

CQ:  But even now, there are objections to your lyrics.

Patti:  My single My Generation / Gloria says "My Generation contains language which might be objectionable." To who? 'Fuck' and 'shit' are American slang.

CQ:  But you can get away with it on stage.

Patti:  Yeah, but remember Jim Morrison was locked up for using 'fuck' and so was Country Joe. And Jim pulled his pants down -- so what? Now we have Broadway shows where the cast is naked all the time. He did it once and was thrown in the slammer. And he was a genius. His death made me sadder than anyone's. He wasn't done. He was just on the threshold of being a really great poet. Now, Hendrix, he was so out there with such furious physical energy, he just died. Morrison was much sadder. He was also desperate. Rock 'n' roll was so new then. It was so heavy. There was no precedent for Jim Morrison. it's a lot different for me. I've profited from the fact that he came first.

*      *      *      *      *

Can time cycles be divorced from reincarnation theories? Is Patti Smith Jim Morrison?

Copyright © Marc Stevens & Diana Clapton 1977

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