about radio ethiopia, part 1

[from "Patti Smith: Decoding Ethiopia," by Lisa Robinson, Hit Parader, June 1977]

LR: Did the road tighten the music?

PS: I think it was about seventy percent the road and rehearsal ... But a lot of the songs on the record weren't really worked out when we started playin' again. "Ask the Angels" we wrote in like three days and "Poppies" we did about four days before the Central Park concert, and at that show we just jammed it, so it was real new. But I think that Central Park show did a lot for us, because we had just gotten Jack [Douglas] to work with us, and we were all excited. Because here was a guy who had his shit together, I felt artistically strong, and I was happy to have someone who would leave my art alone and just work with the guys.

John [Cale] used to say to me, 'I can't work with you, it's like looking in a mirror,' and now I understand that. Jack more mirrored the best of the boys than he did me. He came in and he got everybody like soldiers. He would say 'you don't have an ending to this song? you're hung up? well, let's write an ending.' You know what I mean. He just got things done very fast and inspired a new confidence. Plus that gig in the Park was like a celebration, it's like "Ask the Angels" is a celebration song, but sort of specifically dedicated to the kids in California.

LR: California??

PS: Well, it specifically mentions LA, but it's really San Francisco, because that's where we first got our most maniac fans. Kids are more maniac in Berkeley than anywhere else in America. Even more than CBGB's. It's just so incredible. Like see all those gifts, those little presents in that box? All from California kids. And it's not just the presents ... they'll scream and do interpretive dancing. They don't give a shit about being cool. The East Coast is much more hip, no question about it, but the West Coast -- well, it's artificial ground. It's not real -- California itself isn't real. LA is fantasyland. And the people, it's all fantasy there.

So the people have more abandon. But "Ask the Angels" is a celebration ... See, I think this time around rock and roll is going to get a shot in the arm from New York the way it did from San Francisco in the 1960s. I think all the New York groups will be signed whether they're good or not. I think it will be a big phenomena.

LR: Still? It seems to me that whatever it was, it's over...

PS: To us, yes...

LR: Plus, the best of "it" is maybe three groups...

PS: Right, just like San Francisco.

LR: Also, none of you sound alike. Television and you and the Talking Heads and the Ramones aren't anything at all alike ...

PS: Well, we all mixed and melded ... but also, those will be the ones that are around the longest. I want it all to happen all over again, but the thing is, that song, which is about what's happening in New York, is really dedicated to the kids in California. Because they gave me the courage to push myself in rock and roll. It was the California kids who really did it. California kids really screamed ... I mean really screamed and were maniacs, and -- I hate to say it -- but it made us feel like rock and roll stars.

So this song is about new things happening, new energy rising and rock and roll happening again. I feel real strong inside me. It's centered on the emotion and movement coming out of New York but it really comes out of that confidence the kids in California gave me. You don't know what it was like for me to have those kids just coming into the club on their motorcycles and screaming and bein' real cool for me but never cooler than me. That's the difference in New York. The audience always tries to be cooler than the performer, where in California they give up that right to the performer.

Also, I wanted always to write a dance song ... so we did "Pumpin'" ... See, in France me and Lenny went to this discotheque in Pigalle, I can't even remember the name. And that Vicki Sue Robinson song -- "Turn the Beat Around" -- was playing and I loved it. I think it's wonderful ... I love disco music, the band hates it. It's just like a hook that gets you ... Anyway, Lenny and me really got into this whole thing of dancing like boxers, like Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, but real subtle. And I started thinkin' that everybody likes to dance but some people don't feel cool dancin', or they just don't move cool you know?

I'm not a great steps artists but I know I move cool because in Philly or Jersey in the sixties that was the main thing. It didn't matter how many steps you knew if you didn't move cool ... so I figured I'd make up a dance where you just can't blow it. All you have to do is move like a boxer and boxers are cool because most boxers are black and they always move cool, just watch Muhammad Ali. So that was "Pumpin'". I'm getting it down, and it's like got all the qualities ... fists in the air and real subtle movements, just like a dancer ... like a boxer ... like James Brown. James Brown and Muhammad Ali are the same guy only James Brown is humbler.

LR: Didn't you originally tell me that you wrote that song, or that dance, for Dylan?

PS: Well, when I went to his rehearsals for the Rolling Thunder tour ... I really felt that he had enough people trying to ... either drain him or be behind him, but you know, so many people he had to give a piece of himself to. And I don't want just a little piece of him, I want a big piece. I don't want to sing backup vocal, is what I mean. I mean there's nothing wrong with that, but I'd want to make him improvise.

LR: Did you tell him that?

PS: Yeah, I told him there was no space for me on that tour. And he knew it but at that point it was so early in my career -- quote unquote Dylan, my career -- and he felt I should be exposed to the public. I thought it was real sweet of him, but you know, I can do that...

LR: Had you met him before he came down to the Other End to see you?

PS: Well, I had shook hands with him...

LR: But he must have been aware of you, between all the stuff you wrote ... and Neuwirth...

PS: Oh yeah, he knew my poems and stuff ... also I waited on him in Scribners when I was very young. I tried to sell him the biography of Alexander the Great. As soon as I saw him walk in the bookstore I ran downstairs and changed.

LR: What??

PS: See, my rock and roll clothes were in the basement vault at Scribners ... I used to have to dress like Anna Karenina in there, in these knee socks and skirt, and my hair in pigtails because it was a respectable store and I had to look respectable. But when my job was over each day I'd go and change into these boots like Keith had ... So I thought, 'I can't let Bob Dylan see me like this, I can't wait on Bob Dylan in knee socks and pigtails.' So I went down and changed and I almost lost my job. Anyway, at those rehearsals ... I just told him what I always tell him ... that I think we could do something great together because hew as such a great improviser. I suppose that creation is improvisation, but I'd like to see him do it onstage. I mean, not challenge him like in a duel, like I have a lot of things I want to do...

LR: Who do you want to challenge like that?

PS: Ted Nugent. I'm gonna have a guitar battle with Ted Nugent. Lenny's gonna be my second. In fact, I hereby through Hit Parader challenge Ted Nugent.

LR: When?

PS: Anytime.

But to get back to Dylan, he really hammered it into me that my improvisation was a gift that I had to nourish and hold sacred, and that's how he inspired me and how he pushed me. And I would like to push him too. And when I was leaving I said, 'Look, you're doin' a song about a boxer, without a guitar, with your hand hanging by your sides.' I said 'look at those fists' ... he's got great little fists, his hands are exactly like Allen's, double-jointed thumb and the whole thing, and I said 'look, you're helpin' to save a boxer, you have some boxer in you, be a boxer.' I said, 'you know, move those fists, don't let them hang at your sides, you want to punctuate the air.' And he laughed and said, 'People'll say I'm imitatin' you.' And I said, 'well, I imitated you for twelve years, you can spare a little imitation.' To be continued.

Copyright © Lisa Robinson 1977

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