photo by patrick hamilton
Her Intensity Undimmed by Recent Tragedies, Punk Goddess
Patti Smith's First Visit to Australia Sees Her Aiming for the Stars
After her best friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, died of an AIDS-related illness in 1989 Patti Smith was inspired to write a mystical narrative called The Coral Sea. The book's protagonist embarks on a long sea voyage in a bid to see the Southern Cross.
Today Smith is anxious to view the constellation for herself. "I've written about it but I've never seen it," she says, kicking off her shoes and gazing at the ocean from the window of her high-rise hotel on Queensland's Gold Coast. "Will I be able to see it from here? It's my dream."
Her first visit to Australia _- for a series of concerts, including the Big Day Out festival -_ and the chance to realise a long-held dream are not things she takes lightly. At 50, the woman often dubbed the high priestess of New York punk has a heightened appreciation of life. It's a response, she says, to the tragic loss of Mapplethorpe -- the one-time boyfriend who funded her first record -- her husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, her brother and long-time musical collaborator Richard Sohl.
When she describes Mapplethorpe's slow, painful death, her hooded eyes turn back to the sea. The rough-edged east coast accent falters and almost breaks. "He did everything to hold on to life despite the terrible pain," she says, pushing a tangle of greying hair from her face. "He did not go gentle into that good night. He fought. He fought until his last breath and he refused to die... "
Today Mapplethorpe's bid to cling to life is never far from her mind. "If I feel even a moment's desolation, I think of him. I think of him when I see other people throw their lives away," she says, referring to Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, whose work she fervently admired.
Raised in suburban New Jersey as a Jehovah's Witness, Smith's life constitutes an extraordinary journey. She burst on to the New York art scene in the early 70s as a performance poet, vowing to "kick poetry in the ass."
The decision to form a band was just as combative. Seeing rock's rebellious promise being bled dry by corporations and tepid stadium acts -- "We felt the form was being pulled out of our hands" -- she vowed to reclaim it for herself, her "people" and the future.
Backed by a former rock journalist, Lenny Kaye, on guitar, pianist Sohl, drummer Jay Daugherty and bass player Ivan Kral, Patti Smith fused acerbic garage rock with poetry. Smith found her true self on stage. An intense, gawky presence apparently possessed by forces beyond her control, she stole moves from '60s icons such as Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison, and ideas from poets such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Caressing and assaulting her audience, she effectively subverted the masculine traditions of rock. Many credit her with paving the way for female rockers as diverse as Courtney Love and Alanis Morissette.
Smith professes to be honoured yet uneasy with the legendary status that has eased her recent return to the stage. She also denies she was a prototype for the feminist alternative rocker. "I didn't have feminist intentions," she says. "That doesn't mean I'm anti or pro-feminism, but the people I was targeting were misfits across the board. The weird kids, the artists, homosexuals, lepers -- people who had no voice."
Smith nailed her anti-establishment colours to the wall in the '70s when she screamed: "Outside of society / that's where I want to be." Unlike many art-school punks, she meant it. From the unshaven armpits she displayed on the cover of the album Easter to the f-word in the searing track "Rock `n' Roll Nigger", Smith shared Mapplethorpe's effortless ability to scandalise conservatives.
Little has changed. "Even today I have the same struggles," she says. "In America they still won't give me airplay. They won't show our videos or play our music on the radio."
It angers her. Not because she seeks mainstream approval, but because her one avowed goal is communication. "I don't intentionally cut myself off. It's just that I've caused too much trouble in my life and they still don't trust me," she says, permitting herself a rare, dry chuckle.
Her strident declaration on the opening track of the seminal 1975 debut album Horses -- "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine" -- did little to ease her relationship with the religious Right. The declaration was the first shot in what would prove to be a continuing exploration of guilt, redemption and the nature of spirituality.
While the Patti Smith Group's final album of the '70s Wave (1979), was her most overtly religious, she denies ever accepting orthodox faith. "That line [Jesus died...] was widely misinterpreted by people who thought I was atheist," she says. "All I was saying was that I was young and wanted to be free. I've always found Jesus an interesting person, but I didn't want him dogging me when I was young."
The idea that Smith found God in 1979 -- or saw the broken neck she suffered after falling from a stage in 1977 as a divine warning -- still rankles. She describes Jesus as a revolutionary and philosopher; a kindred spirit, perhaps.
"He was anti-materialism, anti-caste systems," she says, warming to her subject with something resembling evangelical zeal. "He took prayer out of the hands of kings and priests and gave it to man. He was probably the most benevolent and interesting man in human history with the best piece of advice: just love one another."
Smith falls back into the armchair and sips at one of two cappuccinos ordered earlier. The caffeine craving is the trade-off for a tobacco and alcohol-free existence, she explains.
The PSG played their last concert in June 1980. Smith had fallen in love with Fred Smith, the former guitarist with legendary proto-punks MC5. She moved to Detroit with him and raised two children.
Yet marriage wasn't the only reason she walked away. Smith says: "We were on the edge of success, particularly in Europe. I could smell it. We were getting into the area where people accept anything you do and it was time to reassess myself as a human being and an artist."
During her 16-year lay-off she studied art, read voraciously, wrote and learned how to be a mother. "I'd always lived like an artist and vagabond, sleeping in subways and graveyards and wondering where my next meal was coming from. Having a family, I had to learn what a lot of women know about daily life -- cooking, washing and changing diapers. It was an endless, difficult, but honourable task."
Smith recorded Dream of Life with her husband in 1988, but it made little impact. She was working on another when he died from heart failure in November 1994. Abandoning the rock-edge and overtly political lyrics of the proposed recording -- it was to have addressed issues like AIDS, the Middle East and the environment -- Smith turned Gone Again into a gentle homage to her late husband.
Encouraged by friends like REM's Michael Stipe and offered a string of American support slots with Bob Dylan, Smith found herself back on stage with Kaye, Daugherty and some sympathetic newcomers. It was an emotional return. "Some times I couldn't sing the third song because I was ready to weep," she says. "But people were aware I was dealing with a lot of things. They stayed with me."
Now, with her confidence rebuilt, Smith is beginning to enjoy her return. "I'm 50, but I have a lot of energy," she declares. "I've never compromised and I'm still not compromising." She's moved back to New York, too, the "warm" pedestrian-friendly city where she made her reputation at clubs like CBGBs.
"I don't have any deep expectations," she says, draining her second
coffee. "But I have a certain energy and focus. I'll be here for a
little while yet.""
Copyright © Richard Jinman 1997