Singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist Patti Smith discusses the early days of punk rock. In this never-before-heard interview from Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart (1998) conducted by filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Smith paints a picture of the vibrant music scene of 1970s New York City, talks about her influences and shares her thoughts on art, poetry, censorship and punk.
Patti Smith: I think improvisation — I think are genera–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 Coltrane. My Favorite Things came out and, of course, the 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 my — 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 it — I mean, maybe not even intentionally, but I think it freed a lot of this, or if not freed us, gave us a new structure, because the rock and 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 Coltrane and often right in the middle of the improvisation he passes through my mind.
Question: You’re credited with bringing to the music scene away from glam rock and kind of back to plain clothes to the three basic chords to — so, can you paint a picture for me about the music scene of the 70’s, CBGB’s, punk, new wave, all that, set the state for what was going on?
Patti Smith: I really — I think — I think it was a –sort of like a nova, you know, or a convergence of — of things in the heavens. And it just sort of converged at CBGB’s. But I think it was probably happening in various parts of the planet. The early 70’s 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 — 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 that was something worth fighting. And it — we were also experiencing probably like some of the death throes of folk music. And there — there had to be some kind of something, 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 — 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 mergence of rock and roll and poetry. They really resisted that. The small clubs were trying to hold onto the folk scene, which they adored. And this little — this — a bunch of torn-shirted renegades, you know, spouting 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 CBGB’s. They found this place on the Bowery right near where William Burroughs lived. And but no one was really coming. And I think that converging our two efforts, the efforts that at the time it was Lennie 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 ahold of it and make that coal into diamonds. It didn’t belong to, you know, marketing crews and — well, whatever. Anyway, that was sort of what it was like, I guess.
Question: What you also mentioned there was the poetry scene. And I know Jim Carroll got you involved for a moment at Saint Mark’s and I think Lou also around time was — left the Velvets, had stopped performing, playing together. And he was — I think before his solo career started to read a couple of times there also. Just sort of give us a little picture of that scene.
Patti Smith: Well, I didn’t know that much about the poetry scene. Actually I was brought into that through, you know, Robert Mapplethorpe was very much — very — was very interested in –in seeing me present my work to people. And he was a very — a very caring and ambitious person, not only for himself, but very ambitious for me. And he really spoke to Gerard Malanga who was doing a poetry reading at Saint Mark’s in February of ’71 and asked if I could read with him. And Gerard 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 Lennie Kaye who I’d 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 Lennie interpret some of the poetry with 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 Lennie Kaye’s camp which crossed into the rock writer camp and the Warhol camp to see Gerard Malanga which I believe Andy was there and Lou was there and — or I imagined they were all there. But there were a lot of people from the Warhol camp. And I was very good friends with Sam Sheppard and he brought his camp. And then there was the usual poetry scene camps. So, it was quite an electric night. It was also the first time I had performed in front of people and it was — it was — it was great. You know, it was a great — it was — I discovered things about myself I didn’t know. I had no idea what it be like. But I was very — I had a lot of nerve in those days anyway. And plus I had 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 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 — what 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 kowtow 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 endures. I mean, the Velvet Underground was, I’m sure — I wasn’t there — but looking at the pictures, it looks like really incredible scene, as if the whole world was black and white then, you know, but the scene is gone. But the work endures.
Question: The thought of getting radio play and the conflicts within record companies, do you have any thoughts on that? I know in your own work you have 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 fought, and fought against censorship, and fought radio, and – and – I still – there is a part of me also that believes it’s very important that artists 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 informed nor helped by all of art. I think that there is 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 to – I respect their values. They might not be my values, and I wouldn’t – I don’t think what we need in America 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 very heightened ideals. I think these things are important. I think because one – one spouts an obscenity doesn’t make them an artist. You know, it’s a really simple statement, but only art is art. And we are invar – 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 obliterated. But I don’t know. What do I know.
Question: Okay, last question. What is it about rock ‘n roll where if you write in the first person they think it’s autobiographical? Whereas, if you are Shakespeare you can 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 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 – I was amazed when I was confronted with that. I used to say to people, well when Hemin -Hemin – Hemingway created these really great women and spoke as them, like Brett or something, did that make him you know, a – 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 remember reading, even though I always found the term you know, something like "action painter" a very cool term, Jackson Pollack didn’t want to be called an action painter. You know? He was – 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 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 for 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, 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.