Patti Smith: A Legend Speaks

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By: Martin Halo

Patti Smith
If you address Patti Smith as a musician she will quickly correct you. She came of age in New York City's fertile '70s as punk rock's poet laureate; music wasn't her sole passion or even her initial intention. It was about making art, which could be putting pen to paper, dropping melody over rhythm, posing for photographs with buddy Robert Mapplethorpe or dipping a brush in paint.

Manhattan Island is city of legend, bursting with human violence, ethnic diversity, organized crime and cultural upheaval. Born in Chicago in 1946, Smith's family moved to New Jersey when she was nine. Smith worked on an assembly line before earning enough money to move into New York City. Within Manhattan's urban commune of authors, poets, actors and musicians working behind ivy covered windowsills, Patti Smith has watched the last thirty years of American music shuffle past.

As the cocaine groove of Studio 54 blared in Midtown, people with superficial expectations lined up behind velvet ropes, there was something brewing in the Bowery. It didn't start as a movement. It was simply an alternative and a house of solace: CBGB. Smith was performing her brand of self-expression at the legendary club a few years before the iconic summer of 1977, which saw the birth of hip-hop, a citywide blackout, the Son of Sam and the eventual explosion of punk. Smith's artistic merit earned her a record company contract before even The Ramones.

Smith participated alongside Luther Dickinson and Rich Robinson's Circle Sound at the Bowery Ballroom this past Winter and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Van Halen, The Ronettes and R.E.M. in March. Most recently, Smith was a key figure backstage at this year's Lollapalooza Festival in her birth city of Chicago and released an all covers album, Twelve, this past Spring.

Finally back in her NYC apartment after an extended European tour that hit 47 cities in 75 days, the rock icon and uncompromising artist took a few minutes to discuss her career before being shuffled off by her press handlers.

JamBase: What it is about music that you think people find to be so inspiring?

Smith and Tibetan monks :: Carnegie Hall :: 2/26/07
Patti Smith: Whether it is classical music or rock music, music is the art that hits us physically, and the art that draws the most physical response. You could hear a certain aria or a certain r&b song that makes us cry or a certain Beethoven [movement] that might make you feel exalted, while Martha and the Vandellas make us want to leap up and down. I think it draws such an immediate physical and emotional response.

JamBase: Were there any musicians when you were younger that you found to be particularly influential?

Patti Smith: The people that I listened to when I was young I still listen to - John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix. But, I always also loved opera. A lot of different music inspired me. I also had a love for r&b music. I think in terms of rock & roll, consistently it has been about Hendrix. I also loved dancing to the Rolling Stones and rock & roll is part of my life. The way I have been influenced is that there is certain music that will make you happy or can fulfill you emotionally. I have always learned from John Coltrane and continue to learn from Bob Dylan.

I had a professor in college who worked on Their Satanic Majesties Request and he was heavily into classical music as well as rock & roll. I always found that to be very impressive.

Patti Smith by George Rose
I think right now all kinds of music are available so people can really choose from a plethora of musical styles. When I was younger and growing up in the early '50s, rock & roll was still being born. Basically what you heard was standards, jazz and classical music. Then rock & roll started permeating our lives. It was normal for me to know as much about opera and jazz as I do about rock & roll. Don't you think people are exploring more types of music now?

I would hope so. I have a lot of friends who just listen to the radio or don't listen to music at all, Patti. Do you know how painful a deafening silence is?

Well, music is such a great backdrop. That is what is so great about the diversity we have in music. I like to listen to music while I am working [and] it could be Chopin or it could be My Bloody Valentine. Not only does music get inside of you, it's almost normal to have it as a backdrop.

It regulates the heartbeat.

[Smith laughs]

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