Interview: Patti Smith
Punk’s Poet Laureate Brings Her Band to the Granada
Creator. Visionary. Heroine. These are just some of the words used to describe Patti Smith’s boundary-pushing career. Growing up outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Smith spent her childhood in awe of art and the people who made it. She read, wrote, and listened to music voraciously. As a struggling artist in New York City, she clung to a dream of writing poetry, surrounding herself with now-iconic names like Allen Ginsberg, Lou Reed, and then-boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe, all of who make an appearance in Smith’s outstanding 2010 memoir, Just Kids. Onstage with her band, Smith is a strong, explosive presence, the kind of frontwoman who wouldn’t think twice before spitting lyrics like, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” while playing in a church — which she did (at least once) in 1975. She’s a fearless and passionate revolutionary, and she takes shit from no one.
Today Smith’s spitfire persona has softened a bit from those early days in New York, but her insoluble creative spirit is still going strong. Earlier this month, she turned in the manuscript for a new book. She also just wrapped up a European tour with her longtime band, often with her son, Jackson, and daughter Jesse rounding out the lineup.
This week, Smith will head to the West Coast for a series of shows to celebrate the 40th anniversary of her 1975 debut Horses. Widely held as a formative piece of New York’s then-burgeoning punk scene, Horses has been named one of the 100 Best Debut Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone. It’s also been recognized as shaping the styles, songs, and musical careers of everyone from The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and R.E.M. to, well, almost every female rock musician of the past four decades. This Tuesday, January 27, Patti Smith and Her Band play the Granada Theatre. In anticipation, I caught up with the punk rock poet laureate from her home in New York City to discuss creativity, coffee, and what comes next.
I imagine you have young people asking your advice all the time. What do you tell aspiring artists looking for guidance? I always say the same thing: You have to work hard. Being an artist, first of all — it’s usually something you can’t not do. Artists, musicians, scientists — if you have any kind of visionary aptitude, it’s often something that you don’t have a choice in. You have to do it. But I tell them that being an artist — any type of artist — implies a lot of hard work and sacrifice. You have to be willing to do that, but also to maintain your vision, you can’t let other people try to redefine or design or compromise your vision. I try not to give too much advice, really, because people have to do their things their way. I got lots of advice when I was young, and I ignored most of it — the good and the bad. [Laughs.]
Was there anything in particular? Oh yeah. As I go through life, I can see why my mother directed me that way, or why my father counseled me in that way. But some things you’re open to when you’re young and some things you need to find out for yourself. I think that that’s pretty universal.
What are your thoughts on the idea that people need to suffer for their art? Does better work come out of harder times? I don’t think so. I think we have a creative impulse where suffering can magnify our work, but so can joy. You can be in love and write the greatest love song ever. Sometimes I think too much suffering makes it difficult to do one’s work. I don’t think that there are any rules in terms of what makes a great artist. Art, whether it’s writing or music or sculpture, is labor-intensive. That is one of the greatest challenges — to be able to commit to the amount of time and sacrifice, and the amount of stamina that you need. I think there’s a lot of romance attached to suffering, and I think that suffering has its beauty, but so does compassion and so does willingness to help others and so does being upright. There are many many qualities that can translate into good work.
This years marks the 40th anniversary of Horses. Does a milestone like that come with an amplified sense of looking back? I’m happy to have a 40th anniversary of anything. It means you’ve survived. I’m very grateful that I’m still here. A lot of my friends aren’t. One of my most important collaborators on Horses, Richard Sohl, only lived until he was 37, so I look at it and think how fortunate I am to be here, and to still be working, and to still be able to perform these songs, to still be able to access the energy that produced these songs. I guess that’s the best thing I can say. I’m also so happy and so proud that people still find the record relevant, that new generations find it relevant, that they find it something to be inspired by, or something to trample. I’m pretty happy about that.
At 68, what are the things you still want to cross off your to-do list? Oh a million things! I want to write many books. There are still places I haven’t been. I haven’t been to Tibet. I haven’t been to India. Every day, there’s something. I want to see my children grow. And now I have a grandson, and I want to see him grow. I’m a worker, so there’s always something. I’m finishing a book as we speak — my deadline is tomorrow — so I’ll finish that and take a little breather and then start another. I’m going to be recording, and then touring. But I like to work, and there’s a lot to look forward to, and not just presenting old material or bringing out something that has been recently completed, but to begin something new. There’s lots of things to do.
Can you tell me anything about the book? I can say that it’s coffee-driven. There’s a lot of coffee in it. [Laughs.] Coffee is the vice of choice for this book. I’m not quite sure what kind of book it is. I got on a train and stayed there. I started writing one day and kept writing ’til it was finished. But I will say that it’s coffee-friendly.
UCSB Arts & Lectures and KCRW 88.7 present Patti Smith and Her Band at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Tuesday, January 27, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.