The wait is finally over. Patti Smith, seminal seventies avant-garde poet and proto-punk, has returned to rock and roll after a nine year hiatus. Her long-awaited fifth album, Dream of Life (Arista), was co-produced by Jimmy Iovine and Patti's husband and collaborator, Fred Smith, and reunites the Patti Smith Group: Ivan Kral on guitar, Richard Sohl on keyboards and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums.
When Patti Smith first started setting her poems to music in the early seventies, a battle cry for honest rock and roll was sounded. Her independent single, "Piss Factory," backed with a diverting rendition of the Hendrix classic "Hey Joe," may well have been the first punk-rock record ever released. By the time the Patti Smith Group was signed to Arista, they had already gained cult status and were filling now-legendary rock haunts in lower Manhattan like CBGB's and Max's Kansas City.
Horses, Smith's remarkable debut album, was hailed by critics the world over as one of the most original first albums ever recorded. Her second album, Radio Ethiopia, recorded under the guidance of producer Jack Douglas, was another explosion of raw energy and primal rock inspiration. Easter, her third album, was released in 1978. Producer Jimmy Iovine channeled Smith's original lyrical stylings and the band's assassinating rhythms into a disc identifiable enough to reach millions. The LP's single, "Because the Night," (co-written by Smith and Bruce Springsteen), even reached the Top Ten.
Smith once again switched producers for her fourth album, Wave, this time calling on an old friend Todd Rundgren. Its release marked the end of a long journey. The reluctant rock star felt she had achieved all of her poetic and musical goals and decided to take a sabbatical to reassess her life and work. In late 1979 she moved to Detroit to be with her husband-to-be, Fred Smith (formerly guitarist for the radical Detroit-based rock band MC5). The two were married in the early spring of 1980, with Patti joking to the press that she didn't even have to change her last name.
Patti Smith's nine-year absence from the music business has been a positive experience for her, a time of emotional healing and personal growth. She spent most of her time raising her two children, Jackson Frederick (now five) and Jesse Paris (now two), drawing much inspiration from them. Dream of Life is a celebration of family unity and of the love Patti and Fred share for each other, their children and the world. In this exclusive Music Paper interview, Patti Smith opens her heart in a rare discussion of her music and her life as artist, wife and mother.
PATTI SMITH: Actually, we started production a couple of years ago. I don't know exactly when we started or when we decided to do the album, but we're happy with it. I think what happened was we began to rehearse and things with friends in the middle of '86. I think that's why it took so long. We felt we had something worthwhile to share, so we went ahead and started working on the album. Right in the middle of recording I found out I was going to have another baby. That was a surprise. We did as much as we could. We recorded until it was too strenuous for me. We had to lay off for a while and then go back to it.
TMP: There's no doubt that Fred has certainly played an integral part in the creative process of making Dream of Life. When did you first start writing and working together?
SMITH: Fred and I have always worked together. We write songs together and pursue individual ideas. It's been that way since I met him in 1976. Over the past ten years we have been writing and working on songs together for ourselves. I never stopped writing.
Working with Fred is very important to me. Our album represents us working together. We have a lot of other ideas and songs we haven't done yet. Many songs. We're looking into the future with some other works. We have achieved what we wanted with this album. What we wanted to do was a piece of work together that addressed the things we cared about.
TMP: Did you record most of the album in New York?
SMITH: Yes, almost entirely the album was done in New York. We did the B-side in Detroit of "People Have the Power." It's called "Wild Leaves." We did the "Jackson Song" in Los Angeles. It was done with the vocal and piano live. We had some cello and harp added in. It was really quite an experience for me, recording that song. I'll never forget it.
TMP: What happened?
SMITH: Well, it was a very difficult song to get through. It's very moving. Well, at least it was moving to us. That particular one we chose was different. The other songs weren't live takes. We only did a few takes that were live. What happened was that I missed my cue at the end. I came in a little too late because I got real moved to enter the song again. After hearing the song we decided it was all right and left it that way.
TMP: It's obvious you and Fred are content with your family life. Has having children affected your writing?
SMITH: Having children is great. We love our children. There's a lot of sacrifice and very intense responsibility. It's really wonderful, though. In terms of being an artist, it has affected me in a positive way. I think I've grown and expanded on it. I've grown and expanded as a human being in that way. That's permeated into the work. A lot of the work I've done over the past nine years hasn't been shared yet. I think it's some of the best work I have ever done. It's the most articulate, and I'm pleased with it. Fred and I have done a lot of work together. A lot of writing and exploring in a lot of different areas.
TMP: A lot of your earlier work underlines rage and violence. Today your outlook on life is totally different, more positive. There seems to be a certain peaceful kind of aura about you now. That's inspiring. Would you care to elaborate?
SMITH: Yes. Well, people need to go through periods of reassessment. We don't all have the luxury or the insight to do these things. I don't know what it takes. Sometimes you must simply take stock in yourself and re-evaluate your life and your work and learn how to build on it. I feel really, really happy now. It's communication. The tearing down and rebuilding, and a willingness to expand oneself.
TMP: What was it like going back in the studio again after so many years?
SMITH: I've always liked the whole recording process. When the time came, it was a real exciting experience. It got a little tedious at times -- when you are in the studio you have to really concentrate and know that you are potentially communicating with thousands. If you're lucky, then it's millions. You have all these thoughts in your mind when you are working. The recording process is really very wonderful if you know exactly what you want to do. The work process is what makes it better. The work is the most gratifying part to the artist. When you are at home in your work process, then it becomes private. But in the studio, you know you are going to reach many people.
TMP: What was it like working with Jimmy Iovine again? He's a wonderful producer. He really seemed to capture the essence of your music.
SMITH: Jimmy is wonderful to work with. Fred and him really collaborated well on this project. The important thing is that all the musicians were properly represented. It was a real collaboration on everyone's part. Everyone really did their part, from [keyboardist] Richard Sohl to the assistant engineer. Everyone put so much into this production.
TMP: What is the underlying message of Dream of Life?
SMITH: Well, we are addressing a lot of things that we care about. I would say that the underlying theme is communication. Songs like "When Duty Calls" and "Up There, Down There" shake a few fingers. The underlying principle is the communication between man and woman, between parent and child, between one and their creator. Planetary communication. It's positiveness behind hope, and also awareness of these kinds of difficult situations. "People Have the Power" is a network of communication.
TMP: Do you have a favorite out of all the tracks?
SMITH: I'm happy with the whole album. I love it all. All the work I've done in the past is important to me. Anything I've ever done, I've put a lot of care into. People will have to decide for themselves what they feel about the album. This is an album that cannot be defined.
TMP: You're obviously not concerned with your fans' reactions to the new music, though. It's quite a departure from your earlier work.
SMITH: No, I'm not concerned. You work to communicate. Once you record, mix it and whatever, it no longer belongs to you. It goes out to the world. The idea here is to do a good piece of work. I say, do something you think the people will like. Fred and I are not formulated people at all. Arista was very, very supportive and gave us the space we needed to complete this album. When you work, you can't really anticipate what people are going to think.
TMP: I think that some people were probably expecting to hear another Horses. But if they were, those people haven't grown spiritually enough.
SMITH: Exactly. I wrote the opening line to that album when I was 19 years old. Anyone who would expect me to repeat or have the same thoughts I did when I was 19 probably hasn't gone through much growth themselves.
TMP: It's like what Joni Mitchell once said about Van Gogh not painting another "Starry Night."
SMITH: Yes, look at Picasso. He's another prime example. I mean, everyone loved the "Blue" period. But if he would have stopped there, there wouldn't have been any other great epics of his work. As an artist, you hope the people stay in step -- or at least let you keep stepping. An artist must create space for themselves and for other people. It's almost like a code of artists. It's a code and a risk. You have to do that. I think if people are looking for Horses, they should go out and buy it. I'm proud of what that album is, and if that's what they're looking for, it's already been done.
TMP: Patti, what were some of the inspirations behind the songs on Dream of Life?
SMITH: I think really there are parallel inspirations running throughout the album. It's communication. This album reflects communication and certain concerns. "When Duty Calls" is a concern about border disputes and religious wars, which I find to be very, very painful. The inspiration comes from being concerned about what's happening on this planet. Some of it comes from personal feelings. A friend of mine died, and that inspired a song, a piece of work. The opposite of "Dream of Life" is "Dream of Death." It inspires thoughts of resurrection and hope. It's all about hopes and dreams we have during our journeys. There's many, many influences.
TMP: Do you ever look back at your old image and think, "That's not me, that's another Patti Smith?"
SMITH: No, not really, because you don't change overnight. We are so occupied with our families now, and with the work that we do, that there is no time to think about that. We would rather think about the 1990s rather than the 60s or 70s. Of course, I am certainly proud of the work I did with the band. I think it's great to be able to look back and feel you did a good piece of work. I have no regrets about it. Now I spend time thinking about the future. An artist is always thinking about their next piece of work. That's being part of the creative process.
TMP: What to you hope to accomplish with Dream of Life?
SMITH: A good piece of work, which I think we've captured. The creative process belongs to the artist. The finished product belongs to the people. Hopefully this album will inspire people with things to think about or remind them of a few things to think about. Maybe some will shed a tear or two in the process. I hope it gives them some pleasant moments, too.