Patti Smith: A Legend Speaks

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.

-Patti Smith

Photo of Patti Smith by Jay Blakesberg

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?

Patti Smith at CBGB :: 10.15.06 by B. Bedder
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.

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.

Patti Smith
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.

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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[Published on: 8/30/07]

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johnnygoff starstarstar Thu 8/30/2007 09:01PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Patti said Martin above: "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 think any of us here on jambase explore lots of what we think is 'different' music. However, the masses, including the 'jam-masses', I believe, are still pigeonholed to a point of neglecting/ignoring classical music, perhaps bluegrass or contemporary jazz or country, or even rhthym and blues...

does our generation dictate our ability to listen to other, more technical genres?

cheers. nice piece. patti is an interesting person.

KatieJill127 starstarstarstarstar Fri 8/31/2007 12:10AM
-2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

im sorry that you are so narrow minded, johnny. there is a lot of beautiful music out there - so many different instruments and expression of them. Perhaps you should do some soul searching, and pick up something new to listen to? Right on Patti, music is so personal and incites so many different emotions, even within the realm of a single artist.

guitardave starstarstarstarstar Fri 8/31/2007 05:59AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


I like when she said you could only use the phone "when it was important".

That shit blew me away. I totally remember having to "ask permission" to use the phone. I was only 7 in 1977 but I remember how freaked out people were by punks and how rockers hated disco, and how the 5 TV channels we had were so enamored by Studio 54.

All Loving Liberal White Guy Fri 8/31/2007 02:43PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

All Loving Liberal White Guy

It's kind of interesting to see how long Studio 54 would have been open if that Steve dude who ran the place wouldn't have gone on national television and said "What the IRS doesn't know won't hurt them."

Props on the article, Martin.

RothburyWithCheese starstarstarstarstar Fri 8/31/2007 04:02PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Patti Smith rules!!! Read Lester Bangs reviews on her. Very interesting!! Horses is one of the most underrated albums of the 70's.

johnnygoff Mon 9/3/2007 03:23PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Hey poster KatieJill127, ugh, re-read my post please. I think you've either skimmed or illiterate. re-read than I think you'll see we are on the same page sister. patti has the respect/love for her musical roots and I was using her quote as a question to all of us: "Do we have enough apprecition for other genres"---type of thing. thanx. Again. interesting piece.

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstarstarstarstar Tue 9/4/2007 05:33AM
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‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^›      {¬¿¬}

I think its an age issue at times Mr Goff.

Sometimes it takes maturing for us to start liking styles of music we may not have in the past. When I was age 25, I was much more narrow minded than I am now at age 37. I now find myself in the middle of liking what the kids like, disco biscuits or raq, and then liking music that older people like, such as Nick Drake, Patti Smith, or Bill Kirchen. I got older, and I now explore more types of music than I ever have before!!

Remember Fraggle Rock? "just listen for the Inner-ping" and sometimes music we may have previously shunned will be shown in a new light =)

petemora starstarstar Thu 9/6/2007 01:54PM
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I want to date a chick like Patti and bring her home to meet my mom. That would be awesome. On second thought, I want to bring home Patti, there's only like a 40 year age difference. "Hey ma, this is Patti, we're getting a place together".