Patti Smith: I tried to think I sat and thought about my personal chronology with the Velvet Underground. And I remembered that my introduction to the Velvet Underground was entirely visual. Living in a rural area of South Jersey. It was I was very much involved with the work of Bob Dylan and and read a lot of poetry, of course, myself. But what I what I knew of the Velvet Underground was really through photographs. There was a huge exhibition in Philadelphia, an Andy Warhol exhibition in the mid 60s. And that was very exciting and very foreign to me being a girl in South Jersey. And I found through Andy Warhol specifically a book, I believe, by Billy Lane of black and white photographs. And so my whole my whole relationship with the Velvet Underground was entirely visual. I had never heard their music. All I knew was the silver Mylar pillows, the dark glasses, the grainy skies, the the the the water systems, what are they call them the water towers. You know, it’s like my whole relationship with the Velvet Underground was image. And of course, it was a very strong image from the boat neck shirt to, you know, to again, the ray ban style glasses. And when I came, eventually came to New York. By the time I came into the Chelsea Hotel, which was 1969, they had already disbanded. And so all of my knowledge of the Velvet Underground was through other people expounding about them. People like Donald Lyons or Lenny Kaye or Lisa Robinson, people in the Chelsea Hotel, they all spoke of the strength and the power and and how much the Velvet Underground so completely encapsulated the city. And I really didn’t see them until they converged again in Max’s Kansas City in the very early 70s. Donald Lyons took me to see them. He really wanted me to hear the Velvet Underground because I hadn’t yet heard them. I hadn’t had any of their records. And so it was very interesting to sonically hear what I had only known by sight. And I was the two things I was taken with and that I related to personally was one- they’re sort of like cerebral surf rhythms, which I could very, very much relate to. And the way that Lou phrased his language over it, which I mean, I thought it was very cerebrally sensual music and it was satisfying for me. It was it was intellectually satisfying without being pretentious or standoffish. And I. Well, I like them very much, but I think that what kept me kept me very interested in them was Lou obviously very well read. His poetics, though, were quite crystalline and simple. He had a way of taking. I think, you know, mounds of knowledge that and paring it down to a few lines, a line like I wish I had lived a thousand years ago and sailed on a great big clipper ship. The word I mean, just a simple thing like clipper ship. The way he used it in the context of the Heroin song evokes so much so much of the history of poetics. And I very much admired that.
Interviewer: You can leave now. That was so great. That was spectacular.
Patti Smith: Thank goodness.
Interviewer: Now that you said that maybe it would be a good time if you could talk about. I read the read. You did a review I think of the Velvet Underground live.
Patti Smith: In Texas. Yes.
Interviewer: Can you talk about that album and how it affected you or something?
Patti Smith: Well, I received. I was asked to do a I think Lester Bangs or someone asked me to review Live in Texas. And first of all, great title. I received the record. And I I mean, I think it’s one of the great records of our time. And I listened to it over and over and over and over again. And I I can’t remember anymore what I wrote about it, but I do remember and continue to listen to it in that vein that it’s really great work for me is often work that allows me to work. I can put on live in Texas or like Coltrane or something. There’s certain albums, UK or certain pieces of work or music that you can put on, and it’s generous in the way that it it not only transports you, but allows you to transport yourself within the context of your own work. So that’s another thing that I really like about their music in that particular period, especially because it allows me to work. I can put on live in Texas or most Velvet Underground records and write or and be concerned with my own work. And there’s such a it’s such an inspiring but not pervasive backdrop.
Interviewer: I know that you opened when you were August of 74, you played Max’s yourself and you would open often were going to have a really real good time together. Can you talk about the name of that song and tell us why?
Patti Smith: Well, we we covered to Velvet Underground songs. We covered Pale Blue Eyes simply because it’s, again, so beautiful, such simple language that evokes so much mystery in so many different emotions and and Real Good Time Together, which is really just it’s self-explanatory. Not a great song or anything, but immediately draws the people in. I mean, I always thought that was very interesting about Lou and the Velvet Underground is that they’re both you know, they have this this cool, seemingly standoffish exterior. Yet their work draws by the rhythm of it and by the power of its language. The evocative thing draws people in. So it’s it’s both it’s both self oriented and compassionate. So that’s why we did such a crazy song like Real Good Time Together.
Interviewer: You’re startedto talk about the lyrics a little bit. I had a question that was so intelligent. Here it is. I think that looks like a lot of risks constantly recording lyrics which were unsuitable to airplay. It is externalisation of the lifestyle that was anti-social, antipathetic to media assimilation and outside acceptance of television. I think this is where it was called The Godfather part. That’s my thought. Can you talk about that?
Patti Smith: Well, I. I mean, I really am. I really shy away from labeling people or categorizing people. I think really what he did was he did his work. I don’t know. But I would I would suspect that Lou feels essentially as if I’m sorry Bill. Let me get this right. I have a sense that Lou’s internal identity is that of a poet and a poet of course, would never be concerned with the media or television restrictions or radio and things like that. I’m sure the performance part of him and the Velvet Underground and the fact that they’re American and are basically American and have a lot of of positive rebellion would make them want to permeate these the very things that they kept themselves from entering. It’s a conflict. It’s a conflict of a lot of artists. I’ve had I’ve I’ve experienced that same conflict myself. But because we one wants to communicate with the people, one wants to, you know, sort of mind meld with the people. But one must do their work in the way that and be the guardian of their work. And I think really with Lou, the poet in one out. And thank goodness for that.
Interviewer: You’re so, you’re so articulate.
Patti Smith: I don’t know, it must be my lucky day because I’m really.
Interviewer: I had a question about improvisation, which I have here. Improvisation is unusual in rock. It’s a very important part of your music. I think it also played an important part in the Velvets, particularly in their live performances. Can you talk about improvisation.
Patti Smith: I think improvisation. I think our generation, our particular generation was very we were set up for that through jazz. I really believe I think that in 1963, when I was a teenager, the biggest thing was culturing. My favorite things came out. And of course, Miles Davis. And there was various things happening, Roland Kirk. But I think Coltrane. I often think that Jackson Pollock and Coltrane informed a lot of what might a certain a certain facet of my generation. I mean, you have people like the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. There’s I think that it was we were we were helped. We were primed for that. Through listening, listening to Coltrane. And I think that that I mean, maybe not even intentionally. But I think it freed a lot of this sort of not freed it’s gave us a new structure because the rock ‘n’ roll song structure is great. It’s great to dance to. It’s great release. But we were really ready for a new structure. We were really ready to open that structure. And I mean, I. I always give thanks to Coltraine and often right in the middle of a improvisation he passes through my mind. So I don’t know who passes through Lou’s mind. You’ll have to ask him.
Interviewer: Can you now maybe talk about. You’re credited with bringing the music scene away from glam rock and goes back to playing close to the three basic chords. Can you paint a picture for me about the music scene of the 70s, CBGB’s, punk, new waves, all that. Set the stage for what was going on.
Patti Smith: Well, I really I think. I think it was a sort of like a nova, you know, a convergence of of of things in the heavens. And it just sort of converged at CBGB’s. But I really think it was probably happening in various parts of the planet. The early 70s for me in terms of rock and roll was a very difficult time. I mean, we lost some very strong forces losing Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin and then people like Bob Dylan or even the Rolling Stones, people that we were counting on sort of retreating or regrouping. And the things that were becoming very prominent, at least for me, seemed very theatrical, very, very limited. You know, in terms of lacking spiritual content and having a lot to do with image, but not in the way that, you know, the image was very important in terms of like Blonde on Blonde and the Velvet Underground and the way Jimi Hendrix dressed. But it didn’t it wasn’t at the sacrifice of spiritual content. And I really felt that that that political and spiritual content was was losing out. And we were being confronted with basically image. And I felt something worth fighting. And we were also experiencing probably like some of the death throes of folk music. And there there had to be some kind of something. There’s some some. Something had to shake things up within, you know, within the underground area. Something had to erupt. I didn’t have myself a lot of personal ambition. My ambition at the time was to sort of I always felt like the boy who puts his finger in the dike until the troops come or the people come to save the day. I really didn’t feel that I had. I was qualified to save the day myself, but I really felt that I could hold things. Do something, be of some avail until some new forces, you know, came about. And I think that with my band, we accomplished that. I think in CBGB’s, it was really it was a lot different than it is now. There were no real places to play. And the the poetry scene did not really accept the emergence of rock and roll and poetry. They really resisted that. The small clubs were trying to hold on to the folk scene, which they adored. And this little this a bunch of torn shirted renegades, you know, spelling poetry and playing out of tune Fender guitars wasn’t really desired by anyone. And it was really through the efforts of Tom Verlaine and Television to open up CBGBs because they found this place on the Bowery right near where William Burroughs lived. And and but no one was really coming. And I think that converging our two efforts, the efforts that at the time it was Lenny Kaye, Richard Soul and I and combining the efforts of television and our efforts started, you know, bringing a new energy there, which was happily taken over by new people. And today still stands because the idea wasn’t to open this this area up for ourselves. The idea was to open it up and remind people that this is a this is a genre, a very physical American genre with endless possibilities. And it belonged to whoever had the energy and the vision to take a hold of it and make that coal into diamonds. It didn’t belong to, you know, marketing crews and well. Anyway, that was sort of what it was like.
Interviewer: That was beautiful. What you also mention there was the poetry scene. And I know Jim Carroll got you involved for a moment or two at the St Marks. And I think, Lou, also around the time was left the Velvets had stopped performing, playing together. And he was I think before his solo career, started to read and read a couple of times there also. Can you sort of give us a little picture of that scene?
Patti Smith: Why didn’t know that much about the poetry scene. Actually, I was brought into that through a you know, Robert Mapplethorpe was very much was very interested in seeing me. Present my work to people. And he it was really through. He was a very, very caring and ambitious person. Not only for himself, but very ambitious for me. And he really spoke to Gerard Malanga, who is doing a poetry reading at St. Mark’s in February of 71, and asked if I could read with them and draw very generously, let me, even though I had no track record at all. I think they thought it would be fun, you know. And it was actually quite a night because I had asked Lenny Kaye, who had recently met to work with me because I didn’t want to just stand there and read poetry. I actually found the whole poetry scene or the idea of like reading a lot of self-indulgent poems, really boring. And so I had Lenny interpret some of the poetry with an electric guitar. And it was it was quite a night. It was really completely unexpected. And it was I mean, I can still when I think of that night, I see so many people, of course, who aren’t even with us anymore, but so many camps. It was a really great night because of the camps. We had Lenny Kaye’s camp, which crossed over into the rock writer camp and the Warhol camp to see Gerard Malanga, which I believe Andy was there and Lou was there, and I imagine they were all there. But there were a lot of people from the Warhol camp and I was very good friends with Sam Shepard and he brought his camp and. And then there was the usual poetry scene camp. So it was quite an electric night. It was also the first time I had performed in front of people. And it was t was it was. It was great. It was a great. It was, I discovered things about myself I didn’t know. I had no idea what it would be like. But I was very. I had a lot of nerve in those days anyway. And Placide really great snakeskin boots. So I wasn’t worried, but I. I didn’t think that it was really well-received by the poetry community. Also, truthfully, in in their defense, I was not at all respectful to the poetry community because I didn’t believe I had to be. I believed I would I would be respectful to is a great poet or great work. Somebody like Gregory Corso or work the work of Gregory Corso. But I was not going to call tail to a poetry system or a project or a social situation. And I’ve always thought that was really important not to get involved in the social situation around work because scenes come and go and they’re meant to come and go. I mean, I was involved in some cool scenes and I’m glad they’re gone. They’re meant to be gone. And new people, they develop the new scenes. But it’s the work that indoors. I mean, the Velvet Underground was. I’m sure I wasn’t there. But looking at the pictures looks like a really incredible scene, as if the whole world was black and white then, you know. But the scene is gone. But the work indoors.
Interviewer: Beautiful. Which makes me think of two questions. One was, of course, that great line of yours. I think that was aboutpoetry world. It’s like if 80 percent of the poetry world is against you but if William Burroughs was on your side.What’s the line, do you remember saying it at all?
Patti Smith: But I can’t imagine. I mean I mean, I guess all I was saying then in my youthful spurt of narcissism was I didn’t really care if most of the poetry world was against me or even if the whole world was against me. Because, you know, I often had a real sincere smile from William Burroughs and and nice handshake from Lou. You know, you don’t really need in terms of your own work, what you all really need is yourself and your own instincts and encourage and a little encouragement from a master is always appreciated.
Interviewer: And I forgot my second question. I was so involved in that. We were talking about poetry. You told us about the scene there. I’d love you to talk about any particular songs. So maybe it’s a good time to talk about Heroin, the song. You can read part of it if you want or.
Patti Smith: Let me see what I can say. I don’t really like. I don’t like speaking about it. A song like Heroin in a certain way, because I’m really not qualified to talk about the whole, you know, the physical or or various aspects of of Heroin as a drug, and I don’t really want to make any qualifications about that. But Heroin is a song and it’s a work of art to me is one of our more perfect American songs because it addresses a very conflicting subject, a subject, you know, that’s that has so many stigmas attached to it. It addresses the all of the deeply painful and destructive elements of it. And also whatever is precious about it in in one piece, in a nonjudgmental piece, in a non preaching piece. And and just with again, lose such beautiful, simple, direct language. And I mean, I find. I mean, after all of the the first two verses that are very descriptive and very strong and very they seem so beautifully masculine with this very feminine rhythm, feminine being, that it just if you imagine the sensual, the sensual part of it, that it, you know, quietly cascades. It’s not like a fast spurt. It quietly cascades. So I think it’s a very beautiful mergence of the masculine and feminine. And then he just like leaves the whole thing with this little. I wish that I was born a thousand years ago. I wish that I had sailed the darkend seas on a great big clipper ship. I mean, it’s just like any boy’s dream. I mean, it’s like any part of him that was going through conflict, pain about what he was doing, about the drug itself, about his life for a moment of beautiful clarity. He he expressed the boy’s dream. And I just think that’s so beautiful, really.
Interviewer: Horses was released in seventy five, was produced by John Cale. You played several nights at the bottom line in January of 76. And apparently, Lou and John joined you at the end of one of your performances to give a poetry reading. Does that sound possible?
Patti Smith: Yeah, but I truthfully, I could never remember. We had so many nights. So, I mean, you’d have to ask Lenny or somebody about it.
Interviewer: No remembrance of any of that?
Patti Smith: No. I remember we had a lot of crazy nights with John, but I so I really just couldn’t tell you. I wish I could but I did.
Interviewer: My deep researches. This is an odd question, but do you think there any similarities between characters in Rambos writing and Lou?
Patti Smith: I don’t think I could answer that. I mean, really, I don’t. I don’t know Lou that well, you know, so I can’t really.
Interviewer: The New York album, you’re familiar with it much at all?
Patti Smith: No.
Interviewer: OK. And then this one you could do. You and they were both recording with Arista in the late 70s. Lou came out with Street Hassle which had this song that you love the ending on, particularly. Can you tell us anything about that album or that song if you want to talk about that. I think the album was in the top 20 albums of the 70s by Rolling Stone. Do you have any thoughts on Street Hassle or just that song?
Patti Smith: Well, I don’t have anything profound to say about. I mean, not that I mean, I I heard the I listened to the record, I think. The one song that I that really that I like so much. Was, I believe, though I haven’t heard it in a long time at the encounter of two people who make love, I believe, and it’s a very 70s song because it it illustrates something that, you know, is was more likely to happen in the 70s. I mean, we really it’s it’s not a very wise thing today to to do or to. But, you know, if one forgets about, you know, the the health or social implications of the song, just the the the compassion, again, within the song, you have these two people who meet sort of like devour each other and then go their separate ways. But the line the last line I could remember it something and neither regretted a thing. Again, it’s just Lou has a way of delivering these certain simple lines that like break your heart. I remember listening to the song and thinking, you know, sort of like, you know, going along with it, but not totally convinced until that last line, which just I found just eloquently heartbreaking.
Interviewer: Are you familar with Walk on the Wild Side at all? It was such a huge commercial hit.
Patti Smith: Yeah, he talked a lot about people, you know, isn’t that one, Jackie?
Interviewer: Want to talk about that at all?
Patti Smith: It’s not really. I mean.
Interviewer: I know you weren’t part of … He told me on the phone.
Patti Smith: Well, I knew that particular the Walk on the Wild Side song, I believe is more. Not so much. I don’t see it so much as a Warhol type song, but a Max’s Kansas City song. I could be wrong, but a lot of the people or a lot of the atmosphere that’s evoked in that song really comes from, I believe, the Max’s Kansas City era, which was the crowning to me, the very poignant crown of Max’s Kansas City was the for for lack of a better word, the transvestites. I think that’s the term that was used at the time. And Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis and Wayne County, there was a few a few of them that so, so desperately loved what they perceived to be the female element and Hollywood. And and they they were really the rag tag queens of Max’s Kansas City. And they really got very little in return for all of their energy, all of their efforts, all of the groundbreaking things that they did for others of their of their persuasion, except to be the queens of this little restaurant and to be heralded by someone like Lou. And it’s a very I know this might sound a little dramatic, but it is sort of slightly a nice little Christlike twist to give these specific people their time in the sun. You know, I. I think. Again, really very lovingly compassionate without being syrupy. You know, I mean, it’s that life that Max’s Kansas City life. And for those people, not for myself, because I really didn’t depend on that was not my lifeblood. Again, it was the scene. A scene is often the lifeblood for these passing stars who their whole life. Their greatest moment is within a scene. And I think that was the type of person he was heralding. And I forget what my thought was. Did I have another thought there. Oh well, forget it.
Interviewer: That was great, because it is true, it was sort of this Max scene more than it was the Andy scene. Maybe the last question I really have. Yeah. I’ll Be Your Mirror sort of a for me a very much the theme for this film, because Lewis sort of a mirror to all of us in some ways. You have any thoughts on that song, I’ll Be Your Mirror.
Patti Smith: No, I don’t really know. I know the song, but it wasn’t really one of my. I mean, I really. The songs, the things that, again, the songs that I more gravitated to were songs that provided expanse or some kind of transfiguration. I really believe for me the Heroine’s song did that because I found that that song because especially at the end of it, where it took me just in listening, was to sort of buy a black expanse with like a spray of stars and like this winking, blinking and nod ship, you know, this boyhood ship going going through the night skies and that’s more what I was looking for I think that there are a lot of people who would be grateful to him for celebrating them or mirro, showing them I’m not really one of them, but I am grateful for all of the transporting that I’ve had on that clipper ship.
Interviewer: I quickly have a question about you kind of answered it before, but the thought of sort of getting radio play and the conflicts with the record companies, do you have any thoughts on that? I know you your own work you’ve certainly run up against this.
Patti Smith: Well. I feel that. I’m not always the one to ask about that, because even though I’ve fought and fought against censorship and fought radio and and. I still there’s a part of me also that believes it’s very important that artist monitor themselves and develop a conscience in terms of what they give the people. I think everything the masses don’t need, don’t want and are not going to be informed nor helped by all of art. I think that there’s just certain things that are not for everyone. And I don’t feel as I feel myself. I never, even though I fought for certain things or certain rights when I thought it was important. I wouldn’t fight for certain of my work to go to the masses because I. I respect certain. Well, I just. You have I respect their values. They might not be my values. And I wouldn’t I don’t think what we need in America is is a race of artists. I believe that that artists, you know, have to maintain their strength outside of society and permeate it and help to elevate it or even spiritually inspire society. But society must move on its own. And I think even in these times. I would rather fight against censorship than have things so open that no one respected one another, that we no longer had a conscience, that we no longer had a very heightened ideals. I think these things are important, I think, because one one spouts and obscenity doesn’t make them an artist. You know, it’s a really simple statement, but only art is art, and we are in very we are in danger at this point in time of like just to make up for especially record companies and things to make up for what they blew or missed in the 70s or the 60s. They’re ready to embrace anything that seems vaguely artistic or controversial in guise of art. And they’re not the same thing. They’re not the same thing. I mean, even a song, again, a song like. You know, a song like Heroin to Me has. It might in some ways glorify it. But it also offers within that, you know, the price. And I think that we have to in all things we do and in every new freedom we take, we have to remember that everything has a price. And if we don’t remember that, we’re just obliterate. But I dont know.What do I know?
Interviewer: My last question. I think it’s really about, Lou writes in the first person alot, and I know that people ascribe to him a lot of what he writes about. That’s Lou. But what is it about rock and roll where if you write in the first person tey think it’s autobiographical, whereas if you’re Shakespeare, you could write it and it doesn’t.
Patti Smith: I don’t know because I have had that difficulty throughout my own my own time as a worker, I mean, I find it amazing that if you if I, that people are immediately ready to categorize you, if you shift gender in a song or, you know, I’ve often in in my work been the predator, the rapist, the murderer and or the one admiring, you know, a beautiful female. And people immediately want to categorize each thing. And I think it’s media. I think it’s really media and just our tabloid consciousness. You know, I’ve I was amazed when I was confronted with that. I used to say to people, well, when Hemingway created these really great women and spoke, is them like Brett or something, did that make him, you know, you know, a cross dresser or something? It’s like we’re in a very label conscious time, which I find really unfortunate. Artists never like to be labeled. I, I, I remember reading even though I always found the term, you know, something like action painter, a very cool term, Jackson Pollock didn’t want to be called an action painter. You know, he was and he was an artist, you know. And I myself, I don’t really like being called a like a female vocalist, which I find, you know, absurd. You know, they don’t call. You know, it’s like calling Jim Morrison a male vocalist, you know, or Picasso a white painter, you know, and they they always people seem very, very label conscious. But we can take this into anything. I really it’s one of my things that I find disturbing and sometimes humorous. But I really look forward to a time where we don’t have to where I don’t have to pick up a book and read that this person is a a gay poet of a black artist, a female artist. You know, I think if if people’s work is heightened to where it should be, if a person has a calling and really, truly articulates that calling, there there needs to be no label no matter what that particular calling is. And I look forward to a time when people are relate to each other in terms of their the how they exemplify themselves, how they carry themselves as a human being and.