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By: Martin Halo
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.
| Patti Smith|
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?
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.
| Smith and Tibetan monks :: Carnegie Hall :: 2/26/07|
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.
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?
| Patti Smith by George Rose|
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.
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Photo of Patti Smith by Jay Blakesberg
We wanted to remind people that rock & roll was our cultural voice. It belonged to us. It wasn't just a thing for entertainment or stadiums or for the music business to make a bunch of money or for rich rock stars to take drugs and pick up young girls. There was more to it. It was a voice. It was a way to make some kind of global noise and initiate change.
Being part of the scene in New York in '77, how do you feel that scene stood up to what was going on around the county? Did you feel that something special was taking place?
When I was a kid, I remember the first time I heard Little Richard. I was six. It felt like something was happening then, it was so high energy and you also felt parents were afraid of it. I remember my dad just flipping out hearing the Rolling Stones. He was a very intelligent man but he didn't understand it at all. The sound of experimental jazz with Coltrane and Roland Kirk was a sound that stirred the imagination. But that is something that is continually happening. If you think about Stravinsky doing his first symphony, people rioted because the sound to them was so outrageous. They couldn't understand it. I guess it was like hearing forms of jazz. People were either thrilled about it or angry and frightened by it. I think that's what happened in the '70s, and this is something that continuously happens, and I know this because some of my friends were part of this energy of the '70s and CBGB.
| Patti Smith at CBGB :: 10.15.06 by B. Bedder|
It was 1974 when Tom Verlaine and Television were playing alongside my band at CBGB. That was a couple years before The Ramones and everyone erupted. There was no place to play for people like us, for maverick people who were blending rock & roll and poetry and political ideas. There was just no climate for that. CBGB gave us a house and a home. It was a place where we could experiment and declare our existence. I don't think that we felt we were doing anything particularly new. We were just claiming space and just wanted to be able to do our work.
We wanted to remind people that rock & roll was our cultural voice. It belonged to us. It wasn't just a thing for entertainment or stadiums or for the music business to make a bunch of money or for rich rock stars to take drugs and pick up young girls. There was more to it. It was a voice. It was a way to make some kind of global noise and initiate change. It was the same thing that the kids were trying to do in the '60s with the MC5 and The Who. They were trying to wake people up and remind people of things like "The War is wrong we should get out" or "The civil rights movement was important." It was about claiming the right to be free. We were exercising a freedom of expression without causing harm to another individual. I think that is always happening. Right now it might not seem that it is happening but people are doing it on the Internet.
Bands don't need to be signed to record labels anymore.
I think it is great. I never expected to get signed to a record label, it just happened. I wasn't a good singer nor was I much as a musician. All I was trying to do was to create space for other people and to just express myself. Some people say, "Oh, there is no more CBGB" and I can only say, "Yes there is!" Look on the Internet. That is the new CBGB, with all of these thousands and thousands of people producing their own music and listening to each other's music. They are not buying as much music. They are fucking with the music business, and I think that is great. I think that is important. They might be going through an experimentation phase, which might be a little bit more self-involved, but in time it is going to lead to a stronger cultural voice. They are going to be exchanging ideas about the environment or the anti-war movement, and it is all starting with music.
| Patti Smith|
How does that affect you as a musician?
I have never been a musician, so it would be wrong to say that. I always wanted to be an artist since I was a kid. I wanted to be a writer and an artist and I never wanted to be a musician. I never wanted to be singer. It was more about what inspired me to write poetry. The Times They Are A-Changin' by Bob Dylan was really important to me as a writer and as a person who was developing poetic ideas. It made me feel not alone. For a lot of us, Bob Dylan made us feel like there was somebody out there who was sort of like us.
The other side of it was if you saved up your money and had 99-cents you could buy a single. You'd buy a great dance song that you could put it on over and over and dance. When I was a teenager in the early '60s we didn't have MTV. We didn't have computers or cell phones. You didn't even watch TV, really. Those things were almost for grown-ups. You were not really allowed to use the telephone unless it was important. The technological things that people use all day long and they think are an important part of their lives didn't even exist when I was growing up. We had the radio, records and books. Records were a real important part of our life, and I guess that is why I love rock & roll so much. I was evolving as rock & roll was evolving, which caused me to learn so much about human rights and poetry and sexuality and revolution all through rock & roll.
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