Patti Smith has a talent for polarizing the populace, and while the "either you love her or you hate her" cliché is an old and noble rock tradition (consider the initial public reactions to the Stones and David Bowie), I have rarely seen it so clearly applied. If you've ever heard her in concert, you'll know that she has some of the most loyal fans in Christendom, but most of the people I know think she's the most obnoxious bitch on feet.
This extends to her pop-star peers as well. Mick Jagger savaged her recently (the unkindest cut of all, given Patti's worship of the Stones). Flo and Eddie do a joke about her in their act (it suggests she uses Industrial Strength Janitor in a Drum as a feminine-hygiene spray), and the usually amiable Southside Johnny was overheard to bellow "She tries TOO HARD!!!" at one of Stereo Review's record-awards parties the minute he caught sight of her. So what is a basically nice working-class chick (her own phrase) to make of such unwarranted abuse?
In an attempt to come to grips with that and other issues, I chatted with Patti recently. Just back from a successful European tour and only days away from the beginning of an American one, with a comeback album (she was laid up for over a year due to an injury) and a single doing surprisingly well, she was apparently disposed to confront Dat Ole Debbil Media again, though not to repay the insults listed above in kind. "For someone like me," she observed, "who's come out for solidarity, that would be suicidal." Still, though we talked at length about Art, Religion, her place in history, and the Meaning of Life (not to mention rock-and-roll), and despite the fact that I think I like her, as a fan, even more now that we've talked (that has not always been the case in my experience as an interviewer), I came away with the crucial question not quite answered: If you met her for the first time at a dinner party, would she be the kind of person you would want to strangle halfway through the fruit cup?
My answer is probably now, but then I think you've already
gathered that I'm prejudiced in Patti's favor. However, I ought
to tell you a few things up front that may give you a glimmer of
insight into my conversation with the Wild Mustang of American
Rock. First of all, she has an unswerving faith in the validity
of the work she is doing: only a supremely confident artist could
continue to maintain, as she does, that everybody's least
favorite Patti Smith song, Radio Ethiopia, represents her
finest achievement to date in any medium. Second, she takes
herself pretty seriously; on stage she can be hilariously self-
effacing, but in an interview situation, at least, she's about as
humorless as she is on her records. Third, in many ways she's a
throwback, a true child of the Sixties. She talked at such length
about "enlightened consciousness" and made so many references to
things like "joyous struggle" that I think if I hadn't known who
she was I might have mistaken her for a refugee from some
California religious cult whose members sit around wearing bed
sheets and changing their names to things like Baba Rum Raisin.
Finally (and, I think, most tellingly), for all the seemingly
anarchic quality of her act on stage and off, she is a
thoroughgoing pro in the most traditional show-biz sense: she
knows exactly how to present herself at all times. The
photographer who accompanied me on this journey into the Ozones
was not able to get a single spontaneous pose out of her; the
minute she saw his hands move anywhere near the camera, she
immediately "became" Patti Smith and stared the lens down.
To break the ice, I began our conversation by asking her about her experience on the Stanley Siegel Show, a few weeks earlier. (Siegel hosts a New York talk show, and once a week, on camera, he gets on the couch to unload on his psychiatrist. The morning Patti was his guest, he spent most of the time trying to figure out why she scared him.)
Patti grinned. "Well, I like a little subversive action on our television sets. I don't mean token, sick violence like Linda Blair getting a plunger stuck up her butt; I don't know if you saw that. I mean there's violence on TV but there's not much consciousness-raising stuff."
"Well, yeah. He let me read my poems, and if my amp hadn't blown up I could have played my guitar. I was given a lot of freedom on that show. Everybody said to me, 'Uh-oh, the guy's really nasty,' but I don't think so." She flashed me here little ain't-I-a-devil smile, which she continued to do throughout our chat at the most unlikely moments.
"Of course, I can out-nasty just about anybody. I think that what happened, though, was that he had met his match in one respect. I understand his game. Which is not a bad game. He's not an unidealistic guy, his idealism just comes out in a different way."
Then you didn't feel at all exploited, held up for freak value?
"Nah. If I felt exploited at all, it was on the Today show. I don't like people introducing me like they did, as outlandish and crazy. 'Cause it sets me up, y'know, like I'm a rat. They back me up against a wall, and I'm not really a hard person to get along with.
"By the same token, there's not much difference between being introduced as a crazy on the Today show and the rock press calling me 'the Queen of Punk.' I mean, people much younger than Siegel, people who are supposed to be much more in tune, have less understanding sometimes."
But couldn't that be your fault in some small way? You've been known to be a little...er...obscure.
She bristled. "No way. I've done nothing but try to communicate as directly and honestly and high as I could. Of course, no matter what you say, people always opt for their own idea of you. I mean, why does a sportswriter from Manchester, England, say to me after I talk to him "But you're not anything like I read about you'?
"I'm constantly being portrayed in one skin, in one guise, whereas I'm impossible to pin down. I'm not a defensive chameleon. I'm just one who changes from moment to moment. But critics have this great Aristotelian point of view, they want to classify everything. Fans don't do that kind of stuff. Kids -- and I call them kids because it's the most affectionate term I can imagine -- seem to grab the concept of what I do on a much more universal level than most critics."
This lack of appreciation for the almost obsessive support Patti has received from the critics surprised me. Come on, you're the critics darling, I chided.
She stared at me fixedly. "I don't know what press you've been reading. Really, most rock criticism is frustrated gossip and bullshit. Very few critics understand what we're doing, whether they praise us or put us down. They don't ever really explore the content of our work, or what our motivations are as a rock-and-roll band.
"I think that the high level of introspection and loyalty and belief that rock critics had in the Sixties really doesn't exist right now. People's motivations for writing have shifted. I mean, when I do criticism, when I write, whether it's about the Stones, or David Bowie, or Television, or Bob Marley, whoever I believe in, I try to translate all their most positive strong energies into whatever language I'm dealing with, and offer this to the people. I mean, I'm not overly sensitive, but the things that critics dwell on now have nothing to do with the core of my work."
Well, some people have difficulty reconciling your highly self-conscious notions of Art with the idea of rock-and-roll.
"Look, I do everything with the same fervor, with the same intensity, whether it's writing a poem, doing a drawing, or playing electric guitar. Personally, I feel that playing electric guitar is the heaviest thing I can do; it's the most exploratory, it's the most daring, the most risky. And I don't feel that's opposed to Art. My definition of Art is much more advanced, I think, more futuristic than most critics'.
"I mean, I said in Babel [her recently published book of verse] that in another decade rock-and-roll would be Art. But when I say a decade, I mean for other people. For me, since 1954 or something, it has been Art. Since Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix. I mean these guys are masters. And I'm an illuminated apprentice who seeks to go beyond my masters."
But still, Little Richard or Hendrix didn't theorize about what they were doing. They just sort of did it, like folk musicians.
Patti wouldn't buy it. "Being great is no accident. Little Richard wasn't an accidental phenomenon; he knew what he was after. He might not define it with intellectual terminology, but he was defined by what he did. I don't think Jackson Pollack wrote a manifesto first and then did all his painting according to it.
"Now, as for what I'm trying to do as an artist... well, the highest thing an artist goes for is communication with God. Which is universal communication. I've always spewed out my subconscious through improvising poetry, language. Now my language is being extended into sound, which I find much more universally communicative. People respond to it. I mean, what makes opera communicative? When I was a child, I loved opera, loved Puccini. I'd sit there and cry. I didn't understand what it was about, I didn't understand Italian, obviously, but the sound, the concentration and perfection of that sound, would just take me soaring."
She seemed to enjoy the memory. "Y'know, I actually did opera when I was young. I played young tenor gypsy boys in Verdi. As a matter of fact, had I lived at a different time and in a different place, had I lived in Italy, I'd probably be in opera right now. Being an American in the Fifties, though, trying to pursue opera in South Jersey...whew. Nobody was gonna buy that."
Strange mental pictures of Patti as Gilda in Rigoletto danced before my eyes, but I decided to get back to rock-and- roll. How long had she been playing the guitar, pursuing her apprentice explorations? Somehow I couldn't see her as a Joan Baez-style folkie.
"It was subsequent to getting the band together, really, although Sam Shepard [the playwright] gave me an old black Gibson in 1970. See, I have no desire to be Eric Clapton and play like that. That's really great, but there's this streak in me-- I have no discipline. I never learned grammar either, I'm a very intuitive creator. What I'm doing now with the guitar is...I have the footage of Hendrix from Monterey Pop. I watch that a lot. And I practice the guitar to [the music of Alan] Hovhaness. He's about my favorite guy; he inspired a lot of Radio Ethiopia.
"I have my own way of pursuing things, of focusing my anarchistic spirit into form. It's the long way around, I guess, but I do it. Of course, I must say that I don't opt for beauty."
True enough. Patti will never get played on MOR stations, although I have heard a story about her having done a night of Cole Porter songs at Reno Sweeney, one of New York's cabarets.
"Yeah, sure, I can do that stuff. My mother raised me on all those white jazz singers like June Christie and Chris Connor. In fact, I'd go on Mike Douglas and sing My Funny Valentine, which is one of my favorite songs. I'll attempt anything. But that's what I meant before. People just don't understand. If I went on Douglas and did that, there would be people thinking I'd sold out. Without ever realizing that maybe I just want to sing My Funny Valentine, just want that chance. I ain't any one particular way."
She was warming up for the bombshell now. "Y'know, the same girl that takes Jimi Hendrix as a master has learned a lot from Debby Boone this year."
What!? Debby Boone, the Baroness of Bland? Say it ain't so, Patti.
"I really mean it. I've watched Debby Boone sing You Light Up My Life maybe fifteen, twenty times. Each time...perfect. Each time with total, focused, concentrated commitment to delivering that song. Which I think is real good.
"Now I ain't a Debby Boone fan, specifically, and I ain't gonna start wearing chiffon tent dresses tomorrow. But I did learn something by watching that. Especially considering the fact that I'm about to have a hit single. I've got to be able to deliver that song [Because the Night] with all the strength and integrity and clarity that I was able to deliver it with in the studio. And if Debby Boone can do it, I certainly can do it."
Of course, Debby Boone doesn't take the chances you take on stage. You'd hardly describe her performance as "on the edge."
Patti paused thoughtfully for a second. "See, I feel I have a double responsibility on stage. For me, what I attempt is limitless. And I'm not afraid of failure. But I also understand that I have a certain obligation not to spend a night just communicating with myself. But that's the risk you take when you improvise. That's the risk you take when you take a risk.
"That's what I've been doing with my guitar. Some nights when I play -- do you know that line of Hendrix's? 'Move over, rover, and let Jimi take over'? Well, some nights I feel like...'Okay, Jimi, step aside.' And other nights I'm frozen 'cause I don't have the chops to fall back on, and if I lose my muse I'm naked.
"I have changed, though. I've learned to relax. When I first started performing, if it wasn't real every second, if it wasn't magic, I would get desperate. I didn't want to cheat anybody, that's my morality. I'm not moral in many ways, but I'm a very responsible person, y'know."
She eyed me warily, and then out of the blue: "Well, aren't you gonna ask me about Springsteen now?"
Ulp. Well, actually, Patti, you've been so ambivalent about him in the other interviews I've read, I thought it might be in bad taste. But, since you've mentioned it, how much of the success of your new album "Easter" do you think is attributable to your having written a song with Bruce?
"I think the reason we got such heavy airplay this time was mostly on our own steam. There was a lot of curiosity about us, now that I'm out of traction and back in action. But the song is really good, y'know; Bruce gave me a structure that really fits the kind of singing I used to do when I was younger.
"Of course, I think that FM radio playing the single more than the album is pretty gutless. I think that it's taken a lot of guts and foresight for AM stations to play our single, because when you play something by my group, you're not just playing a piece of music that's abstract, but a whole political outlook. But FM...it's like they'll play the single so they don't have to deal with my saying "fuck" or "nigger." I was banned for a year and a half on WNEW [New York's big "progressive" FM station] because one night I came on and criticized them for being pseudo- liberal. Which is weird; it's like the biggest enemies of progression are our own people.
"I fought for FM radio as a kid in the Sixties; alternative radio was built by us. And now it's no longer alternative. And unless we keep fighting, everything we fought for in the Sixties is gonna go down the drain."
Well, one hopes not, but it is hard to understand the near total refusal of the FM stations to program anything remotely New Wave. Speaking of which, I ask in an attempt to interject some fan-mag-style frivolity, which of the newer bands are you listening to?
"Well, I love the Clash, and I really love the Sex Pistols. I think Johnny Rotten's great, I have a real crush on him. See, all those kids were my friends before they had bands, so it's real gratifying to me to see them up there."
But what about Graham Parker or Elvis Costello?
"Well, I don't know too much about Graham Parker, but I don't like Elvis Costello. I don't hate him, but...I mean, as a politician I'm into solidarity, but as a fan I'm relentless, a real Nazi. You ask the fan in me and you're gonna get a pretty narrow view.
"Basically, if there isn't somebody I want to bleep in a band, I couldn't care less. Unless it's such great abstract music it carries me away. Otherwise, if it's a rock-and-roll band, there better be somebody bleepable or forget it."
Although it may not satisfy Wilfrid Mellers, that struck me as the most honest assessment I'd ever heard of why people get involved with rock in the first place. And certainly she wasn't about to top it. So, since it was reminiscent of stuff she has written about the Stones, I asked her to wind things up with some thoughts about the lately much abused Mod Princes. It's significant, I think, that this produced what were probably her most sincere and heartfelt responses of the whole conversation.
"Well," she answered after a pause, "I think we can be a big inspiration to them. Y'know, when I was playing in England for the first time, they were playing at Earls Court at the same time. I almost went broke, spending a fortune buying scalper's tickets for me and the band to go see them every night. I mean, I'd be late for my own show.
"But I don't expect anything from them except the work they've
already done. I'd have to say, if there's any one thing that made
me start a rock-and-roll band, it was the Rolling Stones. In
certain ways, I'm where I am today because of how they inspired
me. And since I'll be Patti Smith all my life, but a rock band is
a one-time thing, what more could I ask from them than that?"
Copyright © Steve Simels 1978