Patti Smith finds 'Peace' outside rock

[Interview with the Boston Globe, December 2,1997]

By Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff

Here's a classic verse in a Lou Reed song called "Rock and Roll," dating to his days with the New York proto-punk/art band the Velvet Underground: "Ginny said when she was just 5 years old, there was nothing going on at all/Two TV sets and two Cadillac cars/They ain't helping us at all... " Materialism, suburbia, the so-called American dream? Didn't do much for Ginny. Her life was saved by rock 'n' roll.

Can you substitute a young Patti Smith, growing up in Woodbury, N.J., for Ginny?

"It's a dramatic statement," Smith says of applying Reed's lyric to her life. "What's usually saved my life was something I could be really interested in. When I was 11 it was Tibet and the Dalai Lama; when I was 8 it was Davy Crockett; when I was 6 it was Albert Schweitzer.

"I wouldn't say my life was saved by rock 'n' roll, but I would say I'm certainly glad this was born and developed in my lifetime. It did a lot for me, helped me in a lot of difficult periods, particularly puberty and adolescence, which was sort of a drag, and got me through high school and college. Watching it grow, I was growing myself. I lucked out, sorta. I was just the right age to grow with all these people as rock 'n' roll was developing through Bob Dylan and John Lennon, from Bo Diddley on, and Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix."

Smith, 51, just completed four consecutive nights at CBGB, her old stomping ground and the birthplace of New York punk. It's where she used to, as she says, "spar" with audiences, via her volatile, spasmodic performances, merging poetry and garage-rock, creating erotic, evocative music that pulsed and throbbed and tantalized. Her 1975 album, Horses, remains one of the finest debuts in rock 'n' roll.

She has played several benefit dates around Boston, and played a brilliant opening set on a Bob Dylan tour last year at the Orpheum, but she's not a road warrior. Her current nine-date tour, which begins at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel in Providence tonight and comes to Avalon in Boston tomorrow (doors open at 7 p.m.), is her first as a headliner in 18 years, according to her longtime record company, Arista.

Except it isn't, according to Smith. "I'm not actually touring," she says, from her New York City home. "I can't really tour; I have two kids [Jackson, 15, and Jesse Paris, 10]. I'm visiting certain places, being very choosy about where I go and basically playing places that have been supportive or I like for a particular reason. Boston has always been supportive and I'm going to Rhode Island because it's kind of obscure. It's one of the original 13 colonies, isn't it? I like supporting the original 13 colonies." Smith is visiting behind peace and noise, her third album since her celebrated withdrawal from public life in 1979, which lasted through most of the 1980s. She moved to a suburb outside Detroit, married ex-MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, and had children. But she hadn't simply chosen the mommy track. She continued to write and paint; she had just exited the rock 'n' roll world.

Smith says she didn't miss performing, although she missed the communion with an audience and the "sparring - the Johnny Carson feeling that I always liked." Her take on rock 'n' roll now, she says, is "I'm not as militant about it. I have different responsibilities now. But I still think as a form, it's a worthy form, and it is one of the things, with the Internet, that's moving us toward more global communication."

In 1988, Smith returned to the fray with her fifth album, Dream of Life, a collaboration with her husband, an album brimming with hope and spirituality. Then she dropped out again. Her husband died from heart failure. She also suffered the losses of her brother, Todd, and her former roommate and best friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith resurfaced last year with Gone Again, much of it a poignant elegy, and is back a year later with peace and noise, an album more about external issues, such as AIDS, Dust Bowl migration, death in wartime, and the Heaven's Gate mass suicide.

An issue-oriented album, says Smith, "is not popular right now, but I don't really care about that stuff." It's also not as immediately accessible a disc as Gone Again. Smith feels that Rolling Stone critic David Fricke's assessment that "it rewards the patient" is apt.

In some ways, the essence of peace and noise is what Patti and her husband were planning on doing: writing a politically charged rock 'n' roll album. But when he died, Patti shifted course for Gone Again. peace and noise, she says, is not the album they would have made - his music would have rocked harder, probably - but it was inspired by that idea. "After I got stronger," she says, of the period following his death, "I really did want to do the type of record we had talked about. I really wanted peace and noise to, one, completely reflect the band I was playing with and, two, address some of the things I'm thinking about. The landscape was really exciting to work on."

Her prime collaborators here are guitarists Lenny Kaye, her longtime right-hand man, and Oliver Ray, with whom she's been working for two years. "I'm not a musician," she says, though Fred Smith began teaching her guitar chords and Ray has continued to help her develop. "I'm a very limited guitar player. ... But I have natural instincts and the songs that I write come from my relationship to music and my own instincts." (Her band comprises Kaye, drummer J.D. Daugherty, Ray, and bassist Tony Shanahan.)

When she writes, she says, rarely is the concept apparent at the start. "Death Singing," on the new album, is an exception. It was inspired by seeing the Atlanta band Smoke's farewell show in New York. Smith came away impressed with how its lead singer was handling his battle with AIDS. The song, she says, dropped in her lap, a "gift from God."

Mostly, Smith says, "I start [writing] to see what will be revealed. In a way, I've been dealing with the same theme since I was a kid, and that's communication with whatever's out there, be it God or whatever energy force or heightened body of knowledge is out there. "On peace and noise, there is an 11-minute improvisational piece called "Memento Mori," where she says the "only prerequisite was just moving over the landscape of a Bo Diddley beat." It evolved into the story of a Vietnam helicopter pilot who is incinerated in a crash. Smith's Boston fans may recall an early version of the song unveiled last year when she opened for Dylan. "We were doing a different story," she says. "I was into [the lyric] `the handiwork of man' and it began with `Not Fade Away' and we disintegrated, blew off `Not Fade Away' and kept the beat." From that to the Vietnam War ... not the usual path.

Aside from peace and noise, Smith can be heard on Neil Young's The Bridge School Album - vol. 1 with "People Have the Power"; she sings "About a Boy," her elegy for Kurt Cobain, on the Tibetan Freedom Concert album. She's writing a book in which she compiles her lyrics and annotates them. "It's a book that shares information and has some historical perspective and is also aesthetically strong," she says. "I'm hoping it'll come out in about a year. They're rallying me to approach this like an art book, not a precious book, but one aesthetically evolved."

Smith has had limited commercial success with peace and noise. Radio, she says, is in some ways even more restrictive than it was in the pre-punk 1970s. Arista has been with her since the get-go, but she says, "I feel this way: They still don't understand the work that I do and don't know what to do with it. But they've never tampered with anything. They've allowed me to do my work and I'm grateful for that."

Copyright © Globe Newspaper Company 1997

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