"Godmother of punk" Patti Smith, who has become renowned over the years for more than her music, will appear in Seattle Jan. 25.
Often called the “godmother of punk,” Patti Smith made her Seattle debut at the Paramount nearly 35 years ago, with her band, the Patti Smith Group. Next Monday, she’ll stand alone on stage at Benaroya Hall, an accomplished singer-songwriter, author, visual artist, poet and rock icon whose early music — along with the Ramones, Television and Talking Heads — ushered in the New Wave of American rock and roll in the mid-1970s.
Smith’s new memoir, “Just Kids,” about her longtime close friendship with the late, controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, will delve into the years before either of them found their calling, let alone fame. In Smith’s case, her fame grew rapidly following her stunning first album, “Horses,” with its bursts of feverish, lyrical inspiration and minimalist production by former Velvet Underground member John Cale. Smith’s later rewrite and recording of Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night” broadened her audience before she left the music business in 1980 to marry former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith.
Fred Smith’s death in 1994, along with three other significant losses — Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith Group pianist Richard Sohl and Patti Smith’s brother, Todd — brought her back into the spotlight with one of her finest works, “Gone Again,” an equally mournful and high-energy album about many aspects of grief.
Several records later, Smith seems to be everywhere as a performer, human-rights activist, supporter of progressive politicians and much else. Her musical influence has been acknowledged by R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Morissey and many others.
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Q: Let me start by asking what you’ll be doing in your appearance at Benaroya Hall.
A: I thought I’d do a number of things. I’ll read from my new book, and sing, and ask people if they have questions. When I do things like this, I design the evenings as they go on. So I’ll be celebrating the book and communicating in different ways.
Q: The book is “Just Kids.” What is it about?
A: It’s a book I promised Robert Mapplethorpe I would write. It’s about our friendship, which began in 1967. We were just kids, and struggled with a lot of things together. A lot of our friends are gone. It’s a memoir with letters, journals, and memories. It’s based around youth.
Q: Will you have musicians with you when you
A: No, I’m by myself. It’s not a concert. I’ll play guitar, though I’m a limited player.
Q: At this point in your career and life, your impact as an artist can be seen everywhere. Scores of other artists cite you as a major influence. You’ve performed at political, anti-war and human-rights rallies [including one in 2003 in memory of Evergreen State College student Rachel Corrie, killed in the Gaza Strip while protesting Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes]. Your song, “People Have the Power,” is played by Bruce Springsteen and others at similar events. What is it like for you to see such a sprawling legacy?
A: It’s a good thing to see you’ve been productive and have resonated with people. But it’s also always important to be working on something new, too, and not spend a lot of time looking back. Most artists are involved with protest of one kind or another. Fred and I wrote “People Have the Power” in 1986, and it stays alive and vibrant because of others who perform it: Bruce, Eddie Vedder, grass-roots kids.
Q: Part of what you were about during the punk years of the 1970s was highlighting rock and roll as a powerful, populist force for changing hearts and minds.
A: Sure. I always felt rock had a wide spectrum. There are political aspects to it, artistic aspects, dance and sexual aspects. It’s important to me in every way. The political part is not just reserved for a song like “Ohio” [the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young classic about the Kent State shootings], but in other great songs you can dance to. It’s an important cultural voice. When our band started, we worried that rock could be lost, and the voice of the people with it. It’s not just a business.
Q: It seemed for a while during those years that rock culture was at war with itself. I remember going to see your occasional collaborator, Tom Verlaine, and his great New York band, Television, at a Seattle club and watching in horror as a clueless opening act — would-be rock aristocrats in the early-’70s mold — pushed a kid off the stage to the concrete floor.
A: Young kids were always jumping onto our stage. We’d hand them a guitar and say, get to work.
Q: When I attended a couple of your concerts, I wondered if it was hard for you to balance your ideals with emerging stardom as a performer.
A: No, I didn’t feel like a star, and I don’t feel like a star now. I feel appreciated, but not on that level of celebrity and commercial success. I’m more people-oriented. I don’t like being separated from life with an alternate ego. I’m the same offstage as on, except I’m more aggressive and physical in performance. That’s only natural.
Q: Your 1975 debut album, “Horses,” is still cited as one of the greatest records of all time. I’ve often heard that the making of it was tense and difficult. Can you elaborate?
A: I’d never made a record, and had no sense of how making a record was both like and not like performing live. We only did a few overdubs, so I didn’t get the idea that recording was different than live performance. John Cale was great but I wasn’t open to being told how to perform. At the same time, while it was my record, it was hard to lead the situation as a woman. But John and I got the work done. He was older and more sophisticated than me and my band. He’s really smart, and has a wide knowledge of music.
Q: On one of the most dramatic tracks on the album, a mostly spoken-word piece called “Birdland,” you sounded as if you were in a trance.
A: “Birdland” was an improvisation. Lenny [Kaye] and Rich [Sohl] and I improvised. I knew the story I wanted to tell. There were no finished lyrics on that or on “Land.” We were channeling the music and the words, I was very conscious of the characters when I was speaking, the disenfranchised, the outsiders. It was no small task. We were on a mission. I had a deep sense of concentration. It was an intense thing. I had a migraine the next day. The intensity of that concentration is so strong, it wears out your adrenal glands. In concert, you have the collaborative energy of people who come to see you. It gives you strength. I’ll tell people in concert, I need this collective energy to leap over the next hurdle.
Q: It’s a high order of inspiration.
A: We all use that creative impulse. There are many ways you use your intuition. You get a feel or sense of things. Mothers use it to understand what their children need. We all have a story and special gifts. I’m happy to be an artist, but I also admire people with other gifts: baking beautiful loaves of bread, diagnosing what’s wrong with a person. There’s beauty in everything.
Q: After you were married and started a family, you went into semiretirement from music. You emerged again in 1996, in an atmosphere of great personal loss and sorrow.
A: It was very difficult. Fred and I were going to do a record together. But he died, and instead I made “Gone Again,” which was extremely painful. All I can hear on it is grief from one song to the next. I worked with Tom Verlaine, and Lenny, but I didn’t even know if anyone cared or remembered me. When I went back to performing, it took me a bit, but after I took the stage a couple of times, I realized it was something I knew how to do. Bob Dylan offered me my first tour in 16 years. I opened for him on some shows, including Philadelphia, where I first saw him perform. He told me to choose a song of his and we would perform it together. I chose “Dark Eyes,” and we sang it every night. You can see it on YouTube. I was happy to be singing with him.
Q: Do you have to pick and choose the causes you support as an artist-activist? Is it possible to do too much and wear out your welcome?
A: No. I’m not so big. Sometimes the only reason I wish I had more status is that I’d have more use. No matter how much you speak about war or the environment, these things still exist. You have to constantly use our voice and educate. These things are really important.
Q: What are you working on these days?
A: A new record, an exhibit in New York and I’m working on detective stories.
Q: Detective stories? Can you talk about them?
A: No (laughing).
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org