Punk's high priestess on poetry, pot and psychedelia
An hour-long conversation with Patti Smith will invariably become a wide-reaching and fascinating symposium on everything from Presidents to Popes and all points in between. You’ll learn about Walt Whitman and Arthur Rimbaud, about Bertolt Brecht and William Blake, about the Ark Of The Covenant and Russian literature; about the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Silver Mt Zion. We discover, for instance, that she is a huge admirer of the short-lived Pope John Paul I (“I feel that he was a true revolutionary, and someone who would have transformed the Catholic church”); that her touring regime in the 1970s was influenced by the memoirs of TE Lawrence (“the crew used to call me the Field Marshal!”); that she once read Peter Reich’s A Book Of Dreams and believed that she, too, might have been an alien; and her thoughts on Sinéad O’Connor’s lifestyle (“she should give up smoking!”). Now, after a year in which she has been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, exhibited her Polaroids at a Paris gallery, released an album with Kevin Shields and was the subject of a documentary, it seems as good a time as any for Uncut readers to quiz her about a few things…
What do you hope the world will be like in 50 years’ time?
Antony Hegarty, Antony & The Johnsons
I won’t be here, of course! But the things that I hope for, I’m not too certain will happen. I would have hoped that we’d be more attentive to history. That we wouldn’t have gone into Iraq because of the lessons of Vietnam. That didn’t happen. I just hope that, as a people, we will wake up and tend to our environment. I think that’s going to be the terrible battle in the next 100 years. I hope people become aware that the way to measure themselves is by their own deeds, by their own love for their fellow man, and not by material power and material things. My generation turned out to be the great betrayers. Not all of us, but George W Bush is my generation. He’s my age. It’s kinda frightening to think that a guy you might have seen on a dancefloor when you were a teenager was responsible for the invasion of Iraq.
What was it like raising two children as a single parent here in New York City?
Phillip Ward, New York
They’re pretty grown-up now – they’re 26 and 21 – but when they were young and their father [Fred “Sonic” Smith from the MC5] was alive, we gave up everything external to live simply and raise our children in Michigan. So my son and daughter had a real sense of both parents being there 24 hours a day. We did everything together – cooking, cleaning, nursing, teaching – whatever we could do for them, we were there. When my husband died at the end of 1994 it was very difficult. I had to not only be both their parents, but I had to make a living. So I had to move back to the East Coast, near my family who could act as a support system. Still, we all did okay. I was very open – my kids could talk about anything with me – but I was stricter than most other parents. My daughter didn’t have a cellphone until she was 16 – she was the only kid in the school who didn’t! But I don’t push them in any particular direction, you let them make decisions in their life. Now they’re both musicians, and their ambition is to be really good musicians, not famous ones. I think a good parent learns from their kids. I’m learning from mine all the time.
I got into your music after reading your journalism in Creem magazine – I loved the voice you wrote in. What do you remember of that time?
Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth
I did write for Creem, but I don’t know if you could call it journalism! I was a very impressionistic writer. I was writing at a time when writing about rock’n’roll was very idealistic and exploratory. People like Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer were writing about rock’n’roll in the way that Apollinaire and Baudelaire wrote about poetry and art. Rock’n’roll journalism bordered on an art form among a certain circle. And I was sort of on the fringes of that. For me it was kind of a bridge between appreciating rock’n’roll and performing it. I wrote about my emotional responses to things I cared for. I never wrote negative pieces – I wasn’t a critic. I just wrote homages to things that I liked, like The Velvet Underground. I remember being asked to write about Carole King’s album, Tapestry. And, much as I liked it, I couldn’t. I said to them, get someone who can really do this album justice, who could talk about her history. That’s proper music journalism. For me to write about something, I had to valorise the heroic aspect. Much as I love Carole King and her songs, I couldn’t mythologise her in that way.
What’s the difference between writing poetry and song lyrics?
Carol Green, Paris
A lot of that difference is about process. When I’m writing poetry, I close myself off from the world. I need to isolate myself, and my goal is not necessarily communication. My goal is the poem itself, to discover something in the language of poetry. But if I’m writing lyrics, my whole motivation is to communicate something, even if it is also encoded in a poetic language. I don’t write lyrics for myself, I don’t write lyrics for the God of lyrics, I write lyrics for people. I’m directly expressing something, for people to hear or read or think about. When I’m writing poems, most of my poems aren’t even published. The only person who has read them is myself. Of course, there are certain formal elements that make something a poem or a lyric. But mainly it’s about process and intent.
I’d like to know more about Patti’s psychedelic influences and leanings. Does she see a relationship between the psychedelic and surrealist movements?
Chris Stein, Blondie
I wasn’t really part of psychedelic culture in the 1960s and never took psychedelics. I took them later in my life. But, yes, I was a fan of a lot of psychedelic music – the Airplane, 13th Floor Elevators, Hendrix, Big Brother & The Holding Company, and a lot of the psych stuff by The Beatles and the Stones. I liked that sort of music because I could write to it or daydream to it. It was almost like a heightening background. To me, My Bloody Valentine is the ultimate psychedelic music, because you don’t have to take drugs. You listen to it and you’re there!
Jones Christopher, via email
Actually, I am working on two manuscripts, one non-fiction, one fiction. The non-fiction one is a little memoir of [photographer] Robert Mapplethorpe when we were young. The fictional work is a detective novel. I’m not going to tell you too much about that, as it’s very much a work in progress. What I will tell you is that it’s a historical novel set in London, with St Giles’ Circus as a key spot.
What is Kevin Shields like? Is he really a reclusive perfectionist?
Wendy Wu Wu, Dublin
Kevin Shields is like what you get if you mix a child genius, a hobo and a saint together. If you enter into Kevin’s universe, without design, you find that it endlessly unfolds, like his music. His mind is a lot like that music. It has many layers. It also has a melody! I have a very high opinion of Kevin, even though his music is too loud for me! I’m not ashamed to say that I can’t listen to his shows without wearing earplugs. But within that sound, obviously, it’s not just noise. There’s layers and layers and layers of experience. The universe that they’ve created in MBV is, to me, an endlessly interesting and beautiful one. I like working with him very much, too. He knows what he wants. Some people might see him as a perfectionist, but I also know him as someone who’s prepared to take big risks. Those performances we did at the Royal Festival Hall for The Coral Sea were done with nothing but trust. We talked a little about the landscape of my piece. I looked at his pedals, we sat, we got to know each other a little. For whatever reason, we really trusted each other, and just walked out on stage and did what we did. We didn’t spend weeks perfecting it or talking about it or practising or anything.
What are you reading at the moment?
Unni Bysveen, Norway
I’m just off around the world for a few weeks, and books are the one thing I worry about. I don’t worry about clothing – I throw a couple of T-shirts and a couple of pairs of dungarees and a black jacket and my Polaroid camera in the case. But I hate to leave my books behind. I get terrible separation anxiety! So I’m taking The White Guard by Bulgakov. I’ve read The Master And Margarita several times, but not this one. I’m also taking a copy of Oedipus, because I want to re-read it before seeing Ralph Fiennes playing the role on stage in London. I’m also taking Heinrich Boll’s The Lost Honour Of Katharina Blum, and a biography of René Daumal called The Life And Work Of A Mystic Guide.
Was there a single piece of poetry that affected you in your youth, or a book?
Well, lots. But the thing that affected me the most – on a visceral level – was Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud when I was 15 or 16. Poetry is so mysterious, and good poetry is often difficult to decode or decipher. I couldn’t say that I could decipher Rimbaud, but the beauty of it struck me so deeply. I felt akin to him, even if I didn’t understand all his references, the language was so beautiful that it captivated me. It still captivates me. I’d also say that, more than anything, he made me want to pursue writing poems on my own, because he gave me another way to approach poetry, through the prose poem, which was very important.
What’s the appeal of Rastafarianism?
MS Pender, Wellington, NZ
I’ve always been interested in religion. I was brought up a Jehovah’s Witness and I’ve always studied the Old and New Testament. I’m not a believer now, but I appreciate the links between art and faith, like the links between Catholicism and the great art of the Renaissance. So I find Rastafarian music and culture fascinating. I’ve always found Rastafarian musicians very interesting. I’ve found I can sit around with them and discuss music and the Bible. Rimbaud lived the last part of his life in Ethiopia and was one of the earliest white explorers, so I got to know a lot about Ethiopia through that. And, by extension, I got to know a lot about Rastafarian culture and their faith. Weirdly, I didn’t start smoking pot in the 1960s. I started in late 1974, and so my pot smoking really coincided with my entrance into that world. I liked how pot and the Bible and the music are all seamless. I always found it more interesting to smoke pot with Rastafarians who could pick up the Bible and talk about the Ark Of The Covenant or the Queen of Sheba – that was a lot more interesting than going to a party and smoking pot with a bunch of suburban people.
If you could own any artwork from history, what would it be?
Ben Tennyson, Australia
It would be very selfish to say Picasso’s Guernica! But apart from that… I would like to own one of the Endless Columns by Constantin Brâncusi. It’s such an elegant, inspiring, beautiful work. But that’s a difficult question, isn’t it? As soon as I say that I think, hmmm, I’d really like a Turner or a Jackson Pollock!
How was Meltdown and how has it changed the way you work?
Gaspar Garção, Portalegre, Portugal
I didn’t want to do Meltdown [Smith curated the festival in 2005] when I was first asked because I didn’t think I was qualified. I’m not very open and I have trouble socialising with people! I don’t like to go to parties, I don’t like to have to talk to people. So I thought it might be a social nightmare for me. So, when I took it on, I thought, right, I’m really going to go against my character and against my grain, and I’ve got to really try to reach out to as many people as possible and learn. And it’s made me much, much more open. I got to work with Sinéad O’Connor and Kevin Shields, and then The Black Crowes. I’m now writing stuff with Flea, and recording my next album with Silver Mt Zion and lots of other people. And I might even write a song with [playwright and actor] Sam Shepard. He was the first person I ever wrote a song with.
Picture credit: Melodie McDaniel