"the positive sides of your power"

[from interview with Lisa Robinson in Interview, May 1988]

In the 1970s, Patti Smith made a highly touted transition from poet to rock singer. Her songs -- with lyrics like "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine -- woke up a sleepy rock scene and established her as the single most striking star of the mid-'70s punk explosion. Her fantasies were ignited by Arthur Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, and the Rolling Stones. Claiming that she was "beyond gender," she projected a sexy, androgynous swagger, stormed onstage in ripped T-shirts and leather jeans, and often chanted, or shouted, her songs.

After four innovative albums and a worldwide cult following, Smith got into the Top Ten in 1978 with her single "Because the Night," cowritten with Bruce Springsteen. And it was then, at the height of her fame, that she chose to turn her back on the music business and move to Detroit to be with her boyfriend, guitarist Fred Smith (formerly of the legendary high-energy rock band MC5 and the now-defunct Sonic Rendezvous Band), whom she married in 1980.

Today, eight years, later, Smith is back with a new album (Dream of Life) and single ("People Have the Power"), recorded with her former band members Jay Dee Daugherty and Richard Sohl, and with the songwriting and guitar playing of her husband, who, besides coproducing the album (along with Jimmy Iovine), is the father of Smith's two children, Jackson, age five, and daughter Jesse Paris, eleven months.. I caught up with Smith at New York City's Hit Factory recording studio, where Smith was putting the finishing touches on her long-awaited album.

LISA ROBINSON: You left the music scene right after you had your biggest hit, "Because the Night." Most people don't walk away from success; why did you?

PATTI SMITH: It's not the easiest thing to do, but I never thought of it as walking away from success. To me, the most difficult thing was leaving New York City. I always loved New York, and I did miss the light of the city and how good it had been to me and my friends. But I never for a moment had any regrets, or thought that "I could have been a contender," or any of that stuff. That doesn't mean that certain aspects of adjusting weren't difficult, but for me the most important things are the people that I care about and my work.

We'd be somewhere performing, in Europe, where there might be 30,000 or 40,000 people there to see me, and really, all I felt was that I wanted to be where Fred was, sharing my life with him.

Where and when did you meet him?

We met in 1976 at the Lafayette Coney Island, a famous little hot-dog and chili place in downtown Detroit. My record company had a party for me there. 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.

Besides meeting Fred, what really happened with your career that caused you to stop?

There was a time in my life when I was completely involved in what I was doing. I would imagine myself disintegrating in the light, playing electric guitar, things like that. Once I'd known that feeling I couldn't really settle for anything less. I had no desire to plug away not feeling that. I couldn't go onstage and be phony, and I couldn't go onstage and think, well, I'm entertaining, or think I could make a lot of money, or that I could do it part-time. I had already tasted and experienced doing it with my whole being; so it wasn't difficult at all to stop. I did feel for my fellow workers, but it was the best decision I ever made. It gave me a chance to develop as a person and also, to get healthy.

Were you not healthy?

We were on the road so much, I had bronchitis continually. It's a very unhealthy, self-involved life. I became extremely temperamental. You have so many people working for you and catering to you that you come to expect that constantly. It's exciting, and it's quite a life, but to develop as a person, I think you have to see that the whole world doesn't revolve around you. And there's nothing that teaches you that more than having a family.

Actually, when I think about it, my happiest memories of that time weren't about performing. I think about sitting on the edge of the stage at the end of the night, talking to the kids who don't leave and answering their questions, or listening to their philosophies. But unfortunately, you become overtired and more temperamental. The perpetuation of your own situation becomes the most important thing, instead of the philosophies that started the situation. We were a band that began with very definite philosophies. Lenny [Kaye, guitarist and original member of The Patti Smith Group] and I had strong ideas about things, but the bigger you get and the more you keep going, the more the philosophies drift. You spend all your time talking about bigger sound systems and tours, and it just wasn't enough to fulfill me as a person.

How did having children change you?

First of all, they immediately take you out of yourself. Overnight, you cease to be self-involved. All the million little things you were concerned with in terms of life or work -- you know, I had to work a special way, I needed silence, I needed this kind of music -- all that's gone immediately. You have to relearn everything you do. If I wanted to write, I had to learn to write in the morning, whereas I used to write all night and sleep all day. Now I come downstairs at eight o'clock in the morning when Jesse is having her bottle, sit there in the morning light, and have a cup of coffee, and I have to teach myself to write at that time. Everything shifts. The most I think about myself is to stay relatively healthy so that I'm in the best possible shape to take care of the kids. I don't know if it's the result of getting older, or maturing , but basically Fred and I love the kids -- we really wanted them -- and don't feel any frustration. Perhaps the hardest thing to give up was the mobility, but we travel with the kids as much as we can.

What was most difficult about moving from New York City to Detroit?

Well, for one thing, they don't have subways in Detroit. I think I'm the only person there who doesn't drive. I've had a multifaceted education in the past eight years because I've been privileged to learn so much of what Fred knows -- which is a million things -- and have also spend a lot of time studying. I've gone through different phases, such as a "Kung Fu Theater" phase -- it aired every Sunday on the USA Cable Network. Everybody had to be quiet so I could have my cup of sake and sit there and watch it. And I used to watch the original Route 66 at night. Then they took both shows off the air and I was brokenhearted.

When did you and Fred start working together?

Fred and I always worked together. He started me playing clarinet, and we always wrote little songs together. Certain nights he'd play piano and I'd play clarinet, and we spent many nights improvising. All through the years, he kept me very much involved with music. Basically, I was studying and writing, and Fred was helping me develop a sense of myself as a singer. I still have trouble thinking of myself as a singer, but he encouraged me to sing again, and wrote songs especially for my voice. He talked awhile about doing a record and writing the songs together, then we had Jackson. Eventually we decided to really do it. It started when we had Richard [Sohl] come out to Detroit and work on something with us. When we were slated to go into the studio I found out I was pregnant with Jesse, so it had to be put off for almost a year.

What was it like when you did eventually go back into the studio?

Well, we practiced a lot and it wasn't real foreign because we had Jay [Daugherty] and Richard. Plus Fred and I are together continually, so it felt very comfortable. I like being in the studio, I was very happy to be in the studio. Certain aspects of recording have changed and I had to learn a few new things, but I really enjoyed it.

You grew up loving rock and roll. During these past eight years, was there any music that inspired you?

Fred and I listened to a lot of Beethoven. And [John] Coltrane. And there was one Bob Dylan song I really liked, called "I And I."

But you didn't watch MTV or get the new Prince or U2 albums and sit down and listen to them?

Periodically we'd check things out. In Detroit, you're driving a lot, so you put the radio on scan. But I figured that music would take care of itself. I haven't really been involved. I've derived a lot of inspiration from films. Kurosawa's Ran really inspired me; we went in a blizzard to see that. Of course, because of the kids, we can't go to the movies too much, but we have a VCR, so we see a lot of films that way. Godard is always inspiring, so is Bertolucci, and I've been heavily into Woody Allen movies lately. I saw The Purple Rose of Cairo ten times. Also, Paul Shrader's Mishima I thought was wonderful. But as far as having a favorite group, or anything like that, I already had that in my life. I had Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison, and Bob Dylan. For the amount of feeling and passion and commitment I had, those were my people. All these new groups and new people belong to a younger generation. They didn't have The Rolling Stones when I had them. They have new people, and whether or not I like them doesn't make any difference.

Do you sing to your children?

Oh, sure. "Eensy Weensy Spider."

Has Jackson heard your records?

He heard our tape as we were working. He really loves "People Have the Power," but often he'll want the music turned down so he can watch his shows. We're just Mom and Dad. Basically, when we go anywhere, Jackson is so well-liked, he's got such a great quality about him, that we're known as Jackson's parents. My self-image is really based around the work that I do, and being a wife and mother; and for me it's an extremely strong self-image. When I was younger, I really did enjoy my brief period of being a rock-and-roll star, or whatever version of it I was. But if I ever depended on that, or if that was ever important to me, it doesn't exist anymore.

What is most important to you about your work today?

The most valuable thing about having any type of fame, or power, is how you use it to help your fellow man or help the planet or make people aware of certain things. That's why I really liked seeing Michael Jackson's video for "Man in the Mirror." I was happy to see that he could do a video without himself in it, just celebrating other people's efforts. One thing that I was well aware of when I stopped in 1979 was that I wasn't using my position in a worthwhile way. When you spend all of your time worrying about sound systems, you cease being involved in the positive sides of your power.

I've been reading about Mother Teresa. There's a woman who assumes here responsibilities every minute of the day. She doesn't do a benefit once a year; every minute of every day she's doing a benefit for someone. Her whole being is to benefit others. That's what inspires me most, seeing people take things in their own hands and not wait for the government to take care of things. Look at Elizabeth Taylor and all she's done to help raise money for AIDS research. There are so million responsibilities that we have to assume. And that's what our song "People Have the Power" is about. The greatest thing about having done the record, besides having had the opportunity to work with Fred, is having created something that can be inspiring or useful to people in some way. Even if it just helps them have good dreams.

Copyright © Lisa Robinson 1988

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