Patti Smith: Still Looking Ahead
Even before she released her debut album “Horses” Patti Smith has been an artist and a creative force. She’s been recognized for her music, her writing, her poetry, painting, and photography. Although she has been inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame, recognized with the National Book Award, and received many official honors, the true mark of her greatness is the long list of artists she has influenced and been influenced by. She stopped by the SiriusXM studios this week to talk with Ron Bennington about her new album, “Banga.” Excerpts of the interview appear below.
Ron Bennington: How are you Patti, it’s great to have you in.
Patti Smith: Great, I’m great.
Ron Bennington: This is the first original album in what, eight years?
Patti Smith: Seven or eight yeah..
Ron Bennington: And yet you stay completely busy all of the time. There’s the artwork. There’s of course the book that won the National Book award which is till kind of mind blowing I guess, right?
Patti Smith: Yep.
Ron Bennington: But how do you know when it’s time for a new album? How do you know when it’s time for music?
Patti Smith: Well, I really do gravitate toward the work that needs to come out. It’s like I harbor my own horse race. Because I’m always working on a couple of book projects and poetry and photographs and…and songs. And plus being on the road with my band…so, the horse that gets to the finish line, is the one I put my money on.
Ron Bennington: But every day it’s kind of a surprise what’s going to interest you.
Patti Smith: Yes, but you know it was important to buckle down and finish the record because it’s a collaborative process and it involves all of my band and my people and it’s important for them also to get the opportunity to express their work.
Patti Smith: Well, Lenny, since 1971, my drummer since 1975, and Tony Shanahan since I came back into the public arena in 1995. So our core band is solid. I mean, we often have somebody join us like my son or daughter or Tom Verlaine, or Jack Petrocelli, but the core band, we’re a real unit.
Ron Bennington: And that is the difference– to have that shared experience where so many other arts you don’t get to have that, ‘hey do you remember the time.’
Patti Smith: No, no no no. My other disciplines are solitary.
Ron Bennington: And unlike a lot of artists– who art kind of begins and ends with them– you’re also an enthusiast of so many other people’s work. Which has always been a great thing to be a fan of yours. You constantly hear names or about other pieces that would be cool to be interested in.
Patti Smith: Well, yeah, I mean that’s how I learned about stuff. I learned about Lotte Lenya because Bob Dylan was holding a Lotte Lenya record on the cover of “Bringing it All Back Home.” I learned from the things that other people liked. I was given an education and I like to share whatever I find that’s really great. To me, that’s a reason for living– the work that other people do is so inspiring and fun and insightful so of course I want to share it.
Ron Bennington: One of the things that I loved about “Just Kids” was, here you were when you guys were so broke and yet, every night you were either creating something that was just for you, or going out and looking…
Patti Smith: Yes well we had a discipline. Robert [Mapplethorpe] was a very hard worker and… I vowed when I was very young– I was like twelve years old– I left my religion behind. I didn’t want to ever have to have a job that I didn’t like or respect. I wanted to be an artist or a writer, and if nothing else, even if nobody ever saw what I did, that I would work every day. And I really have most often kept that promise. And Robert certainly did. Robert was a very hard worker.
Ron Bennington: But that is such a different life than chasing success or fame. When you chase beauty– either making it or just finding it– it’s a completely different lifestyle.
Patti Smith: Well if you chase beauty…and transform it and translate you’re giving the people something. If you’re chasing fortune and fame, you might get it but it’s not really transformable– unless you’re a philanthropist– into much for other people. It’s sort of self rewarding. But you know, everyone has a choice of what they want to chase. I don’t mind having a little fame and fortune if it comes my way, but it’s never been my motivation.
Ron Bennington: And then also, and again this comes up in “Just Kids”– which I loved, the people that you were bumping in to in the early stages of your career were the exact right people.
Patti Smith: I was lucky. Also I was lucky to come up in a time where celebrity– except for like Hollywood, was not like the big beat. Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane and all these different people who stayed at the Chelsea Hotel, who were very big at the time– I mean they were building our cultural voice– but they were staying at the same place I lived. We all dressed the same, they just had more money to spend in the restaurant and had bigger hotel rooms. But there wasn’t tons of paparazzi and people going crazy taking their pictures. We all intermingled because we were all building our culture. We were all against the Vietnam War, we were all for civil rights, we were all creating what would be, as I just said, our cultural voice. Through Rock n Roll, through poetry. It was not a celebrity based time.
Ron Bennington: And then so many of the people that you met before they hit– whether it was Jim Carroll or Sam Shepherd, and all different parts of life. That is the extraordinary thing, I think, about some of your work was how much of it was already there before the rest of the world found out about it.
Patti Smith: And also the people who were my mentors– none of them were rich or famous. I mean, Gregory Corso and Herbert Huncke and William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg– they still had their struggles. None of them were rich people. None of them thought of themselves as celebrities. And they were all to happy to shepherd us and intermingle with us. They all used to come to CBGBs and all hang out in CBGBs and watch us evolve and spur us on. I was very fortunate.
Ron Bennington: One of the songs that you do on the new album is “This is the Girl” which is that reflection of that early kind of doo-wop music that you’re talking about.
Patti Smith: Yes it could be very easily be an a cappella song. I had written a little poem when Amy Winehouse passed away. Of course I didn’t know Amy but I greatly admired her voice and I wrote her a little poem. And I was literally just working on it in the lounge at Electric Lady while the band were doing overdubs. And my bass player Tony Shanahan came up to me and played me a piece of music he was working on. And truthfully I was only half listening to it. I was working on my poem and going, umm hmmm. And I noticed that his music and my poem were the same. The same cadence, the same rhythm, and I showed him. I said Tony, look, (sings) “this is the girl….for whom all tears fall. This is the girl who was…having a ball.” All the meter, everything was perfect. And he said let’s record it. So the band was there– my son was there and we just went in and went over it. But we wanted to keep it a clean humble little song. And we thought there was enough emotional, you know, emotional tragedy surrounding her, and controversy. And since we didn’t expect to write her a song, we wanted it to be delicate. And in the end, I think it’s a song she would have liked. ‘Cause I’ve heard her do those kind of songs on YouTube, she does a beautiful a cappella version of “To Know Him is To Love Him” by the Teddy Bears. (Sings) “To know know know him, is to love love love him.” Same style of song. Like a slow dance. So I thought, okay.
Ron Bennington: It’s interesting that these songs are all coming to you separately, to different members but almost at the same time. It’s another one of those mysteries about song writing. How does that even work?
Patti Smith: Exactly. I don’t know. I actually– a journalist actually said to me, “this is a record mostly of portraits.” And I said, “no it’s not.” And he said, “uh, yes it is.” He said, it’s for Vespucci and then you have a song for Gogol and then Maria and Amy and Johnny and my godson Seneca. And truthfully I had never even noticed it. It never…but also in listening to it I find certain words– which often happens on all my records– certain words are repeated in like three of four songs. Like the word seed– it’s even in Neil Young’s song that I covered. There’s the golden seed and the silver seed and the seed of flight– and I had no idea going from song to song that I had used the seed in a few different songs. I don’t know what this means, but like you said, it’s sort of mysterious.
Ron Bennington: You brought up ending this with After the Gold Rush. And this was for me, on a personal level– that song that I found in my brother’s record collection– the first time that I kind of moved on to “I’m not just listening to pop radio, I’m now going to start paying attention to lyrics.” So to have that come back for me after so many years– and it’s one of those songs that I guess his fans would know but it never really got a lot of radio play. What took you back to this song?
Patti Smith: Really, after I had recorded “Constantine’s Dream,” it was so dark. Because the lyrics of “Constantine’s Dream” were improvised in the studio. I didn’t write them. I just went in and improvised them over the track. And I listened to what I had delivered, and it ends so darkly. And that was how the record was supposed to end, and I thought, I don’t want to end the record that dark– I need a piece of dawn. And so I was going to write…something. And I was in a café, having coffee, and the song came on. And I thought, Neil’s written the exact song that I need, because, even his language– again he’s got the seed– he’s got the silver seed. It’s about voyage, it has the cautionary tale, concerned with nature.
Ron Bennington: Almost a survivor song…
Patti Smith: Yes, exactly. But it’s also– the language is almost archaic. He has “the archer splits the tree” and “the knights in armor” and it fitted after “Constantine’s Dream” which is about the eleventh to the fifteenth century and so I decided that I wanted to do the first two verses, because the first two versus were exactly what I needed for that type of dawn to break. But I wanted to do it very cleanly with no embellishment. So my son Jackson and my daughter Jessie and I did it live in the studio. And Jessie’s playing piano. I think it’s a very simple pure delivery of a very pure song.
Ron Bennington: “Banga” is the new album. I was just in a conversation about how people aren’t paying enough attention to album covers, but to me, this is a real album cover. I just love this shot.
Patti Smith: What’s great about that is, you know, I hate getting my picture taken, really, at this point in my life. And my friend Steven Sebring who I do a lot of work with– and I did a documentary with– he and I were in Spain. And I was taking photographs, and I was, I suppose stalking something. Because I didn’t see him shoot it. He just shot it in front of a grafitti’d wall. And he just sent it to me. I didn’t know what to put on the cover of the record and I saw it and I thought, that’s a strong picture. And it’s not a posed picture, I’m in the act of working. So I thought that resonates the record.
Ron Bennington: We were just talking about “After the Gold Rush”– that’s the way that famous picture of Neil was shot. He was just walking down the street, they took that shot and it all tied in.
Patti Smith: I just saw Neil, about an hour ago because I had to interview him at the book expo and we talked about a lot of these things. And I was a little worried, because I clipped the last verse off of his song but… he was really happy with it…
Ron Bennington: …he was loving it?
Patti Smith: Yeah, he was fine with it. He’s a wonderful person.
Ron Bennington: The CBGBs movie is being done, and they’ve already cast somebody to play you. Is this something you’re looking forward to seeing?
Patti Smith: You know what I feel about that? I feel like….I’m still alive. (Laughs) That’s what I think. I don’t understand why anybody wants to play a living person. But, I don’t …you know, to me, we lived through that period. It seems ridiculous to be filming it. I think what should be done is– the new guard create their own things. You know, what I look forward isn’t to some rehash of what we did a couple of decades ago– when a lot of us are still here, and still working and still vibrant. You know, part open the gates and let the new guard in.
Ron Bennington: Yeah and there needs to be more places for people to play live original music. Certainly in Manhattan it’s hard to find.
Patti Smith: Well we had no place. That’s why CBGB’s became so special. Because literally, for people that were offbeat like us, or Television, there wasn’t any place to play. So Hilly gave us that shot. But I think it’s time for places for new people. We don’t need to glamorize or try to approximate what already happened. We need new things, new blood, new energy.
Ron Bennington: Always looking ahead.
Patti Smith: That’s right.
Ron Bennington: And that is the new album, — Patti Smith. And I’ll see you next time through.
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can get more information at pattismith.com and grab a copy of the new CD Banga at Amazon, on iTunes, or in music stores.