If you try and address Patti Smith as a musician she will quickly correct you. For the woman who defined a poetic laureate in NYC as the ’70s wore on, it wasn’t music that was her sole passion or her initial intention. It was about making art, whether touching pen to paper, or dropping melody over rhythm, Patti Smith is an artist.
Manhattan Island is a rock solid city of legend which has withstood the brunt of human violence, ethnic diversity, organized crime, and cultural explosion. She is steadfast and hardened as authors, poets, actors, and musicians fill the ivy covered window sills. It was from this very commune of artists that Patti Smith has watched the last 30 years of American music shuffle past her very eyes.
As the cocaine driven dance grooves of Studio 54 blared in Midtown and people lined up in droves behind a velvet rope with superficial expectations and presumptions, there was something brewing in the Bowery. It wasn’t a movement yet, it was simply an alternative and a scene of acceptance. Their house of solace was CBGB’s.
Patti Smith was performing her brand of expression at the legendary club a few years before the iconic summer of ’77 which saw the birth of hip-hop, a citywide blackout, the Son of Sam, and the eventual explosion of punk. Smith’s merit as an artist earned her name on the bottom of a record company contract before even the Ramones.
Born in Chicago in 1946, Smith’s family moved to Jersey when she was nine. Smith worked on an assembly line before earning enough money to move into NYC.
Smith participated alongside Luther Dickinson and Rich Robinson at The Bowery Ballroom in the early winter months of 2007 with Circle Sound and was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame alongside Van Halen, The Ronettes and R.E.M. in March. Most recently though, Smith was a key veteran figure backstage at this year’s Lollapalooza Festival in her birth city of Chicago.
Now reportedly working on a new album of original material, Smith’s legacy will enter another chapter. She sits in her NYC apartment, finally back stateside and weary from an extended weather-filled European tour leg, which touched 47 cities in 75 days.
“I was in several countries and it rained constantly. The first half of the tour I think it rained everyday. From England, to Ireland, Scotland, and Paris, it was raining everywhere,” she says.
Smith has embarked on continuous roadwork in support of her cover filled release, Twelve, which featured songs written by Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, U2, Bob Dylan, Nirvana, and the Allman Brothers Band.
“Music is probably, whether it is classical or rock music, the art that hits us physically,” says Smith. “It is the art that draws the most physical response. I just think it draws such an immediate physical and emotional response.
“The people that I listened to when I was young are the artists that I still listen to. They were John Coltrane, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. I used to love dancing to the Rolling Stones. Rock-n-roll is just something that is part of my life, and well… I guess that answers your question,” says Smith with a quiet, sweet chuckle. “When I was growing up rock-n-roll was just being born. In the early ’50s what you would hear would be mostly standards, jazz and classical music. Then rock-n-roll started permeating the culture. It was a normal thing for me to know just as much about jazz as rock music. With the Internet and all of these media outlets these days, don’t you think people are exploring more types of music now?” she asks.
“Music is such a great backdrop,” she preaches to the choir. “It regulates the heartbeat. When I was a kid I can remember the first time I heard Little Richard. It felt like something was happening then. The record was so high energy and you could feel how afraid of it the parents were. My father used to flip out whenever he heard the Rolling Stones. He was an educated man but just didn’t understand it at all,” she recounts.
“But it was the sound of experimental jazz with John Coltrane and Roland Kirk that really stirred the imagination. There is something that is continuously happening. If you think about Stravinsky doing his first symphony and people rioting because the sound to them was so outrageous, they just couldn’t understand it. People are either thrilled with new forms of music or angered and frightened by it. I think that is what happened in the ’70s. I know this to be true because some of my friends were part of this energy of the ’70s and CBGB’s.
“It was 1974 when Tom Verlaine and Television were playing alongside my band in the Bowery. That was a couple years before the Ramones and everyone erupted. For us there was no place to play for people like us. We were the maverick musicians who were blending rock-n-roll with poetry and political ideas. CB’s gave us a house, a place where we could experiment and declare our existence.
“We wanted to remind people that rock-n-roll was our cultural voice. It was something that belonged to us. It wasn’t just a thing for entertainment, or for stadiums, or for the music business to make a lot of money, or for rich rock stars to take lots of drugs and pick up young girls. It was more than that. It was a voice,” she says. “It was a way to make global noise and initiate change. It was the same thing the kids were trying to do in the ’60s with The MC5 and The Who. They were trying to wake people up and remind them about things like, ‘the war is wrong,’ or that ‘the civil rights movement was important.’ It was about claiming the right to be free,” she says.
“I never expected to get signed to a record label,” says Smith, “it just happened. I wasn’t a good singer, nor was I a good musician. All I was trying to do was to create space for other people and to just express myself. Some people say, ‘there is no more CBGB’s,’ and my only response to that is, yes there is! Look on the Internet, that is the new CBGB’s. All of these thousands and thousands of people are out there producing their own music while listening to other people’s. They don’t buy as much music, which totally fucks with the music business, and I think that is important.
“These are the people that will have a strong 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 will be performing at the Beacon Theatre on Sept. 14. For more information on Patti Smith including additional tour dates, full biography, and discography, you can visit her homepage at pattismith.net