Patti Smith in Conversation With Bill Flanagan

[caption id="attachment_22517" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Patti Smith performs in Paris, France, November 2011. Photo: David Wolfff Patrick/WireImage"]Patti Smith[/caption]

The following conversation between Patti Smith and MTV Networks’ Bill Flanagan took place in front of an audience at MTV Days in Turin, Italy on June 26th, 2010. Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids –- the story of her early days in New York City with then-unknown photographer Robert Mapplethorpe -- was being published in Italy. Patti told the audience, “Today is a very special day for me because my book has come out in Italian. I am very proud of that. It’s really the story of struggle, of calling, of what Robert Mapplethorpe was like as a young man, about love and friendship and remembering that what we aspire to as artists is not fame and fortune. Those things may come and they are very nice. What we aspire to is to do good work.”

Flanagan introduced Patti Smith to a great ovation. When the talk was over she left the stage and got a guitar. She returned and performed “Beneath the Southern Cross,” “My Blakean Year” and “Because the Night.”

Patti Smith:

Hello everybody. Glad to see you.

Bill Flanagan:

Patti, you are big in Italy.

Smith: The Italians are my people.

Flanagan:

I just learned that you did two big shows in 1979 that were sort of the Woodstock of Italy. Just before you retired from music you came here and said goodbye.

Smith:

Yes, it was not only the Woodstock of Italy - it was the Woodstock of myself. I never went to Woodstock but I did come to Florence and Bologna in 1979. And the people made their own festival. It was a beautiful thing.

Flanagan:

I read in the newspaper yesterday that the Library of Congress in the United States has added Horses to the register of great American recordings. That’s an honor.

Smith:

Yes, that’s a big honor. Considering all of the trouble that I’ve gotten in America for all of my political beliefs. It’s very exciting to be preserved. It shows that using your voice actually turns out to be a very American thing.

Flanagan:

You just have to stick around long enough. I have a real fan question about the imagery in “Land” on Horses. That record came out in 1975 and Equus, the Peter Shaffer play about a troubled boy who has images of horses, was a big hit in New York at the time. When your record came out I thought of Equus and Picasso’s Guernica. Were those things in your windshield at all?

Smith:

Well Guernica was very much in my windshield. I visited Guernica almost constantly whenever I had the money, at the Museum of Modern Art. It was a very important influence on me as a young aspiring artist because it showed how an artist could make an impact, politically and humanistically, through art. And I remember Equus was out but it was just a zeitgeist. It was the “Horse” zeitgeist.

Flanagan:

Well it worked. Let me hold up your book. Just Kids by Patti Smith. The portrait of the artist as a young woman. It really moved me. One of the things that struck me in the book was that sense that you knew you were an artist, but the medium was kind of liquid. You painted, you wrote poetry, you loved music but it wasn’t initially obvious that you were going to be in music. You tried acting. You wrote a play with Sam Shepard, which is pretty hip. Do you think the artistic sensibility can flow from form to form? If Picasso had not been a painter would he have been a good musician?

Smith:

Well, I don’t know about that. I think that people have a calling. I think it’s unique with certain people. William Blake moved from form to form. Obviously Leonardo, Michelangelo moved from form to form. One difficult aspect about moving from form to form is - you leave a lot of unfinished work behind because one keeps leaping like a rabbit from form to form. When I was a child I read Peter Pan and Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland and I thought there was nothing more wonderful than the book. I wanted to be a writer. I thought of it all of the time. All I wanted to do was write.

Flanagan:

Did you have a great teacher? Was there an 8th grade English teacher or art teacher or someone who might have inspired you along the way?

Smith:

The first great teacher I had was my mother when I was maybe three. I wasn’t in kindergarten yet. My mother read all the time and I wanted to read those books. I begged her to show me how to read. My mother did ironing, she was a waitress, and she had two other children. We didn’t have much money and she didn’t have a whole lot of time. But finally because I begged her so much, she taught me how to read. That was one of the most beautiful gifts I ever have gotten - to teach me to read books. So I would say she was my first great teacher. I had a few teachers that encouraged me because I was, in the late 50s and early 60s, a little bohemian for my southern New Jersey school. I didn’t really fit in but I had a couple of teachers who did not really fit in themselves. So they understood and encouraged me, especially to write.

Flanagan:

One of the things that I have always loved in your work is this great sense of play with language. In “Redondo Beach” when you talk about making a pay phone call, “another dime mentioned.” And, “I’m no dervish but I’ll give it a whirl.”

Smith:

Oh, I have a good one. “I gave you a wristwatch; you wouldn’t even give me the time of day.”

Flanagan:

That’s like an R&B lyric. There’s just tons of them. “The Polaroid melting in my hands, I can’t get the picture.” The first time I saw you, you did a riff on radio and “the ray of God, the ray ‘Dio.’ ”Did you see words that way from the time you were little?

Smith:

I think that’s partially because I saw words visually. I loved handwriting, I liked to write, and I liked calligraphy and then started drawing with words. I would write the word “radio” and realize R-A-Y, the ray, ‘Dio’, which has to do with God. When you look at a word big or you look at a word flat on a piece of paper, you can see how it can expand. Also I come from a family who love to make jokes and puns. My father was always making plays on words. I loved Alice in Wonderland which is full of that type of wordplay.

Flanagan:

Where John Lennon got so much of his stuff.

Smith:

Yes and I love John Lennon. He was a great word player.

Flanagan:

In the book you talk about being around the Chelsea Hotel in 1969 and 1970 and getting to know Janis Joplin and Kris Kristofferson. Was there something you recognized in them? Did you feel like, ”I could be part of this,” or “I understand in some way how they do what they do”?

Smith:

I didn’t feel that except when I saw them perform. I didn’t look at rock and roll stars in a restaurant and think that I could be like them. Because I wasn’t a musician I had no aspirations to do that. I should mention that in the Chelsea Hotel in the late 60s and early 70s all of the rock and roll stars of a certain type stayed there. Robert Mapplethorpe and I lived there and so they were coming into our home. We all sort of mingled because being a rock and roll star was different then than it is now. You weren’t a big celebrity, you weren’t a multi-millionaire - you had a little more money. Me and Janis Joplin lived in the same hotel. Her room was just three times bigger. We all sort of dressed the same. Jimi Hendrix and all of these people were only a couple of years older than me. Sometimes people read the book and think, “Oh, you have dropped all of these names,” but it wasn’t like that then. The cult of celebrity had not filtered into rock and roll. Rock and roll was subversive. They didn’t want to be celebrities.

[caption id="attachment_22653" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Patti Smith performs at the Venice Film Festival, Venice, Italy, September 2011. Photo: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images"]Patti Smith[/caption]

Flanagan:

I remember, to drop a name, Peter Buck saying, if you look at film of the Rolling Stones in 1972 when they were the biggest rock and roll band imaginable, they’re walking through the Holiday Inn and nobody knows who they are. I think people might have known the name Mick Jagger. But they just looked at Keith Richards like, “Get this beatnik out of here.”

Smith:

Yeah, he’s got pimples. Going back to the first question you asked, I felt a kinship with these people because they were our people. They spoke for us. The songs that they wrote that we heard on the radio voiced our political concerns, our revolutionary or sexual concerns. But when I saw them live something in me - which I didn’t really understand and that’s the truth, I was embarrassed to say it but - I felt like, “I think I know how to do that.” It was just innate because I didn’t want to be a performer. I certainly didn’t want to be a rock and roll singer. It just didn’t occur to me. But I guess I had a natural affinity for performance. When I saw them I thought, “Yeah, I could do that.” And I accidently did. But that doesn’t mean that I think that I am as great as they are or anything. It’s just that rock and roll is the people’s art. Of course some people are more gifted and give us a canon of work that is Blakean - like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan or George Harrison. But really it is a very accessible form. So I just stepped into it.

Flanagan:

In the first half of the 70s you wrote a poem for Marianne Faithfull, I think in “Sister Morphine,” that was almost like you were calling her back - like “Let’s not lose you; we’ll throw you a rope here.” You did a poem that was a riff on God’s promise to Noah about the drowning of Brian Jones, the drowning of Jim Morrison dying in the bathtub “like Marat.” You wrote about Edie Sedgwick. There was a feeling in these poems that you sensed a void. That something had gone out of the culture.

Smith:

Yes. You are exactly right. I was just a little younger than these people. But I had been such a sickly kid. I’m not being dramatic but I had tuberculosis, I had scarlet fever, I had hepatitis, mononucleosis, living in poor neighborhoods. By the time I was 20 I had been through so much I didn’t want to die. Then I entered this atmosphere where people were so self-destructive and truthfully I worried about them. I worried about them all. I’m not saying that I was friends with them all but I knew a lot of them or exchanged words with them. I saw what their lifestyle was like and I worried about them and they did indeed die, one after another. It was not only tragic because so many of them were great artists with so much to contribute, but they did fill a void. They gave us a voice, they gave us language, they gave us rhythms, they gave us hope, and they gave us knowledge. I just saw that whole pantheon; the people were just dying and I worried about what would happen to our cultural voice, what would happen to rock and roll. That’s really one of the reasons that I started my band. Not that I thought I could save it or anything but I thought we could temporarily fill a void until the new generation figured out how to keep it going. That really was my only plan. So when I left in 1979, I left way later than I had thought. I thought I would do Horses and then the new people would appear and then people would be inspired and then I could go on my way and rewrite Pinocchio. I wound up being there longer than I had imagined. But then new people did come. It was Television, The Ramones, The Clash and on and on. They are still coming. Rock and roll is very much alive.

Flanagan:

That’s interesting because at the end of the 50s, too, it sort of felt like rock and roll was over. We were going to move on to the rumba or something. Then around 1963 and 64, in all different parts of the world, Bob Dylan…

Smith:

The Animals!

Flanagan:

The Animals and the Stones…

Smith:

The Animals! The Animals were one of the first saving graces of rock and roll.

Flanagan:

And they brought it back.

Smith:

Yes.

Flanagan:

They said, “We reject a future without rock and roll.” And that happened again in the mid 70s. It felt like in different places, you and Springsteen and Tom Petty and Joe Strummer and all these people…

Smith:

A lot of people.

Flanagan:

…were saying, no. This is too important to us.

Smith:

And now we live in a time where everybody can be part of that culture. Because of the internet and people being able to post their own music because of protocols, because of the accessibility of technology, because of people’s vast storehouse of knowledge and the heritage they have. All kinds of people are creating music. So it is in a certain way just as Lenny Kaye and I had hoped for in 1971, 1972 - that rock and roll would get back into the hands of the people. Now the people rule, they have pretty much toppled the music business and they’re creating their own work. So it’s shifting. It’s transitional right now but it’s interesting.

Flanagan:

It’s interesting when you really don’t know how something is going to turn out.

Smith:

No I really don’t. I know that record companies don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

Flanagan:

They certainly don’t. I just read that the latest head of EMI has said - and I’m probably misquoting him, so forgive me, but something to the effect of – “We are going to follow the music publishing model, which is that recordings are a valuable thing to license to movies or commercials or whatever.” The key was, “We are not really that worried about selling records anymore.”

Smith:

Well it’s like the Dalai Lama says, “Why worry about things that you can’t control? Spend your effort on the things you can control.” But I still look forward to making records, even if I call them records. I like making a body of work that people can examine. I’ve always made records like a movie. It’s a movie of my own imagination. When we put Horses together, in my mind it was like a movie. I think that was a very late 60s way of putting records together. Then people disseminate and take them apart the way they wish. But it’s still a beautiful form. It’s not a form that we shouldn’t abandon no matter what that guy says.

Flanagan:

It’s like the old days of singles and LPs. If I’m a really big fan of yours and you make 12 new songs available the same day, I’m going to download them all that day. But somebody who is a more casual fan might say, I just like that one song. It’s kind of back to when you could just go buy “Street Fighting Man” or you could buy Beggar’s Banquet.

I had some very bad luck last January. I had a new book come out, I had a big reading in New York and you and Sam Shepard were reading together from your books the same night.

Smith:

I’m sorry.

Flanagan:

I just said, “Wow! I don’t even want to go to my reading.”

Smith:

It’s not my fault.

Flanagan:

I loved Sam Shepard’s book Day Out of Days. It was kind of great that you two who had worked together back in the early 70s both came out with these books at the same time. Yours was a memoir of the beginnings of an artist. Although his was a collection of short stories it felt…

Smith:

It had an autobiographical sense.

Flanagan:

It had a real autobiographical sense. It felt like he was kind of dropping the Sam Shepard persona and really talking about who he was. Have you two always stayed in touch? I think he thanked you in his book.

Smith:

Yeah. I write about Sam in my book because he was very important. In fact I wrote my first songs that were actually performed for a play of Sam’s called Mad Dog Blues. We’ve stayed really good friends. I just saw him. He shot a movie in Bolivia for a couple of months, playing the older Butch Cassidy. He said that he rode 12 different horses up in the mountains.

Flanagan:

That’s such a Sam Shepard thing to say.

Smith:

I was in LA and he picked me up in this big old SUV. He opens up the back of his trunk and it’s fishing rods, spurs, shot gun, it’s just total Sam. That’s how he lives. He likes riding horses and he likes fishing.

Flanagan:

There was a great passage in your book about his play “Cowboy Mouth.” You acted in it?

Smith:

Yes, we wrote it together and we did three performances of it.

Flanagan:

You said that you realized then that you didn’t want to be an actor. You didn’t want to surrender that authority for the authorship of what you did.

Smith:

Even of myself. Sam and I wrote the play. I liked being in it but it wasn’t really even that. It was doing a lot of experimental theater at La Mama. I was working with actors and that’s what their vocation was. Being an actor is very difficult and you have to almost totally surrender yourself physically, emotionally to become someone else - whether it’s with makeup or your costume or how you are blocked on stage and the words you have to speak - and I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t take the repetition of it and also the stress of remembering all of that. I did a Euripides play. This was 1966 I think. I played Phaedra and I had speeches that were 100 lines long. I still have nightmares about it. I do! I have these dreams that I’m in the backstage and they are saying, “You’re about to go on! Hippolyta has just left the stage, you have to go on.” I can’t remember my speech and then I look for my script and I open it up and it’s all blank pages. Then I have to go find another script and I go through a door and it locks behind me. It’s like Spinal Tap.

Flanagan:

Classical Spinal Tap.

Smith:

The theater is beautiful but it’s not right for me. I like to improvise. I like freedom. I like to be able to shift and change and feel the communication with the people and channel their energy and see where they want to go. You can’t do that with theater. You are very responsible. You’re responsible to a lot of people.

Flanagan:

When you’re improvising, when you’re out there, when you’re on the leading edge of yourself, do you ever just suddenly go into a different head and think, “How do I get back from this?”

Smith:

Sometimes it’s not “how do I get back?” but “where am I going?” Sometimes I just freeze. But I found years and years ago that if you are going to take a risk that there is going to be a certain amount of failure in that risk. I found that the people would rather see you fail than take no risks at all. Because we all fail, we all feel like an asshole or we all freeze up or have a self-conscious moment. Usually if I feel it‘s that bad I’ll just tell the people. I’ll say, “Whoa I feel really weird right now.” And the people are with you. I always say, “If next week or next year you feel really stupid in the middle of a party, remember this moment -because I’m feeling stupid in front of 20,000 people.” We are all human beings.

Flanagan:

We are all human beings.

[caption id="attachment_22654" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Patti Smith performs at the Joyful Heart Foundation Gala in New York, NY, May 2011. Photo: Mike Coppla/Getty Images"]Patti Smith[/caption]

Smith:

And then - it’s rock and roll. How can you make a mistake in rock and roll?

Flanagan:

It’s just a new opportunity.

Smith:

Yep, that’s right.

Flanagan:

An interesting thing in a lot of your writing is that you’ll go back and forth between very street level language and very elevated, sometimes almost archaic language. In “Up There, Down There” you jump from very formal writing to, “Cats like us, we’re obsolete.”

Smith:

I think it comes from reading the Old Testament, the New Testament, Allen Ginsberg, William Blake and Vachel Lindsey. We contain multitudes not only within our persona but also in the levels of the way we express ourselves, or our levels of learning. Sometimes it’s appropriate to communicate from a street level and sometimes you are just lifted up. Especially if you’re improvising, sometimes it’s almost like the muse or the angels are lifting you up into another stratosphere and the language seems to shift as you go up. It’s like Coltrane doing a saxophone solo. He starts sometimes very banal or he’ll start with a melody and then he keeps moving out on it and it goes so far out, you wonder, where is he going with this? He’s going to God. But you have a responsibility to the people to come back.

Coltrane went far out and then he always funneled back down. I think a lot of improvising or performing is like that. The human saxophone solo - you go out but you do have to come back.

Flanagan:

In Just Kids you talk about the fact that the artist or the writer has to go up and put his head among the gods - and it’s tempting to stay there – but you have to come back. You have to come back and do the work.

Smith:

Yeah, exactly. It’s the same with self-indulgence. It’s like having a few glasses of wine to get to a certain state. But if you drink seven bottles it might kill you. The idea is to have a sense to be able to expand in some way. But really an artist must work. One may be blessed with a gift, whatever the gift. Whether as a gardener, as a mother, as a mathematician. We have these innate gifts. But it’s important to magnify them to use our gifts and to do work. Because if you don’t, then you are only an artist inside or in your head - which is okay. The head is a beautiful place to live. I believe that we’re given gifts. If one thinks they are God-given, that’s a beautiful concept. He doesn’t give them for us to selfishly keep them inside but to share them with the people. What if Michelangelo and Picasso said, “Hey, I’m really good. I’m going to keep it in here. I’m not going to let anybody see”?

Flanagan:

There’s a responsibility. That’s a very Blakean idea.

Smith:

Yes animating one’s creative impulse, very Blakean. You’re exactly right.

Flanagan:

Kris Kristofferson studied Blake at Oxford, he is a Blake nut. He said once, “If you are organized by the Divine to be an artist and you fail to do it then you ain’t worth shootin’.”

Smith:

Yes! There is an example of the lofty and the street. Only he is like a cowboy, so he’s on the road.

Flanagan:

That’s right. He’s on the road. In the poem “Edie Sedgwick,” I want to talk about the cadence.

Smith:

It goes, [Patti Smith sings]

oh it isn't fair

oh it isn't fair

how her ermine hair

turned men around

she was white on white

so blonde on blonde

That’s how it was written.

Flanagan:

It’s almost like Ophelia’s song in Hamlet. It’s a very contemporary subject and fairly contemporary language but it feels like the rhythm of it is 500 years old.

Smith:

Well, it’s like a mad child. I’m sure most of you know who Edie Sedgwick was. When I was a teenager she was just such an unbelievable image - so new and fresh with her short white hair and big black eyes. She was Andy Warhol’s muse. So beautiful but very self destructive and she died quite young. The night she died my friend Bobby Neuwirth who was sort of Bob Dylan’s alter ego in the mid 60s, called me up and asked me to write a poem for her. I didn’t know Edie Sedgwick but I had pictures of her taped to my wall as a kid. I just sat there trying to write a poem for her and I looked at her face and she was so childlike in a way. So I decided to write a poem accessing, sort of like Ophelia, the mad child aspect of her. It was really written in sing-song so when I used to perform it -I wrote in 1971, I guess - that’s how I would do it.

[Patti Smith sings]

oh it isn't fair

oh it isn't fair

how her ermine hair

turned men around

Like a child, playing by herself. Sing-songing to herself.

Flanagan:

Bob Neuwirth was also her boyfriend for a while. So it’s kind of beautiful…

Smith:

Oh, he was heartbroken.

Flanagan:

…that he asked you for a poem. That’s touching,

Smith:

A lot of the songs on Blonde on Blonde are said to have been inspired by her. “Leopard Skin Pill Box” and maybe “Just Like a Woman.” She was a muse to many.

Flanagan:

Like John Lennon, like Leonard Cohen, like Lauryn Hill, you took a break. As we were saying at the top, after you played those big shows in Italy, you said, “My work is done and I’m going to go off and be a mom and wife and live in Michigan.”

Smith:

Well, I didn’t say my work is done. I did say I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course, as the bible says. Because I felt in rock and roll I had done that. I had done what I planned to do. I didn’t plan to become a big rock and roll star. I planned to create space for new people and I felt that I had finished my course. But I always work. In the 80s I took a 16-year break from the public, pretty much. But I worked all the time. I worked, I wrote novels, I studied politics, art history, I drew, and I took a lot of photographs and most important, raised two children. So I was working all the time - just not in the public eye. It’s very important for an artist to step back and refuel and replenish themself. Especially at that time in my life. I was 29 or 30 years old and I felt like I wasn’t growing. I felt like yes, I could become a bigger rock star. I could make more money, be more famous. But was I growing intellectually, was I growing politically, was I growing artistically or humanistically? And I wasn’t. So it was the right decision.

Flanagan:

In the middle of that time away came Dream of Life, which is an album I really love.

Smith:

Thank you.

Flanagan:

It felt like it arrived at the perfect time. It was like a letter from an old friend and shined some light on what was going on. “People Have the Power” was a very inspirational song at a moment when people probably needed to hear it. It was in some ways the most straight ahead hippie song that you’d ever written. It was “Come on people, shine on your brother,” in a way.

Smith:

Dream of Life was sort of my late husband Fred Sonic Smith’s love letter to me, because he wrote all of the music; he played all of the guitar, a lot of the titles were his, the album title was his. We had a child right in the middle of it, we had my daughter. But “People Have the Power” came about because I was in the kitchen and I was peeling potatoes. I was on KP duty as most mothers often are. I was peeling potatoes, agitated in the kitchen and Fred came in he said, “Trisha!” which is what he called me, “People Have the Power.” Write it!” I said, “Aye, aye captain.” At the time I was reading the New Testament. Just re-reading it, studying it. I was focused on the lines that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” I thought about the people as a collective, the people as an individual. I thought of our environment. It was an interesting time. There is something within this song that still makes me very sad. In the center of the song are the lyrics, “And the shepherds and the soldiers lay beneath the stars, exchanging visions, laying arms to waste in the dust.” I was so heartbroken that there was war in Afghanistan, because I had studied Afghanistan. It was a very tribal country and to see the Russians in Afghanistan and tanks littering the desert and the people changing their culture, I thought was so sad and I wished that the soldiers and shepherds could convene as men. And look where we are now! I had great hopes when we wrote that song. I did do what Fred said, I wrote the lyrics and gave it to him and he wrote it as an anthem. It was Fred’s dream that this song would be played all over the world and rally people to vote and to strike and to protest their government and to protest corporations. He didn’t live long enough to see that happen but it did happen. It’s been played and sung by everybody all over the world. So his dream came true.

Flanagan:

I suppose that’s probably your most famous song.

Smith:

I think of those that I have written myself, my lyrics, “People Have the Power” is our biggest song. It’s actually moving neck and neck or above “Because the Night,” which of course, I wrote with Bruce Springsteen, which has become an Italian song. I say that because when I’m traveling in Italy sometimes a fellow will come out of the café and say, “Patti, sing me a little of that song ‘Because the Night’ and I give you coffee.”

Flanagan:

That’s a good thing for a song to do!

Smith:

I have sung in kitchens in Rome for pasta. I have sung “People Have the Power” in kitchens for the chef and he has made me truffle pasta. It has done very well for me in Italy.

Flanagan:

Well that’s probably how the whole song thing got started 500,000 years ago.

Smith:

You sing for you supper. For me, that’s great! This is a true story. I was in Rome by myself and I was staying near the Pantheon because I was taking photographs and I wanted to be near Raphael. Then I took a long walk and I wound up near the train station. I realized that I had forgotten my money. I had no money, I didn’t use a cell phone. This was just a few years ago. I had no money, no phone; I couldn’t remember the name of my hotel. I didn’t know how to get there. I knew it was near the Pantheon. I had my small guitar on my back and I was really hungry. I was looking at this pizzeria and these kids come up to me,

“Patti, hello, what are you doing here?”

“Oh just walking around.”

They said, “Oh you have a guitar?”

I said, “Yes.”

They said, “Oh, why don’t you play us a song?”

I said, “Well maybe if you want to give me a piece of pizza.”

So they go in the pizzeria and tell the guy in the pizzeria. He comes out and says,

“Patti, bring the guitar in the pizzeria and sing some songs, I’ll give you a whole pie.”

So I sang a couple songs, he gave me a whole pizza pie, we all ate it. He was happy, I was happy and then I said to the kids,

“You know what? Let’s keep talking. Why don’t you walk me back to my hotel?”

They said, “Where is it?”

I said, “It’s right near the Pantheon, no problem.”

It was a long walk but we walked back. So for a few songs I got home and I ate. But I think this could only happen in Italy.

[caption id="attachment_22655" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Patti Smith performs at Yoko Ono & Friends To Japan With Love in New York, NY, March 2011. Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage"]Patti Smith[/caption]

Flanagan:

I think you are right. Speaking of what began in Afghanistan and where it’s led makes me think of “Radio Baghdad” which is an amazing construction. It reminds me of what you were saying before about how a Coltrane solo spreads out and then rises. You’ve always done “babelogues.” You’ve always done exciting, rising improvisation or semi-improvisation. But if your other babelogues were hand grenades, “Radio Baghdad” felt like a saber. It felt directed, it felt specific and it felt like there was tremendous craft as well as inspiration in the way that song accelerated and the way it went through contrition, accusation…

Smith:

You’re so nice.

Flanagan:

Well, I spend a lot of time wearing headphones. Can you talk about that piece?

Smith:

Yes, all of my band protested along with not enough people against the eminent strike on Iraq. We were deeply opposed to it. We marched in Washington and spoke out. But we weren’t able to stop the Bush administration. I have to say I was heartbroken. The outpouring in Italy - we did not have that kind of support and that kind of unity in my country. Europe was much more focused. I went and marched. I happened to be in France on February 17th when everybody protested, when they dropped the flags in Italy.

I marched with the Palestinians. I was heartbroken that I had to come to Europe to see this kind of mobilization. When we struck Iraq, I wanted to speak of that in a song but I didn’t want the song to be political. I didn’t want it to be obscure, over poetic. I wanted it to be humanistic because I knew that it would make a lot of people angry in America. I knew that the radio would never play it. I wanted to take it from a place that was so righteous that no one could question it. So I took it from the point of view of a mother, trying to sing her children to sleep the night of Shock and Awe. Because I am a mother myself and have two children I could project the horror and fear and the anger and the sense of betrayal of a woman trying to shepherd her children during a bombing raid. So I sang it in her voice. The piece is about 14 minutes long and it’s entirely improvised. It’s not edited. We had a structure. Oliver Ray had written a chord structure but I told the band, “Learn the chord structure but I’m not working on it. Just trust me. When we go into the studio I’ll know what to say.” I didn’t want to burn out. I just wanted to go in the studio and say it. I had some sense of where I was going to begin. But I had no sense of where it was going. So it’s entirely improvised. It was an extremely emotional recording for everyone.

Flanagan:

I am flabbergasted that was totally improvised. It really hangs together.

Smith:

“Birdland” was improvised and “Ghandi” was improvised, “Gung-Ho” was improvised. I studied things. I studied about the life of Ho Chi Minh, went in and improvised it. I studied about the life of Ghandi. There is information there but propelled by the band, I just go. But I think “Radio Baghdad” is our finest piece.

Flanagan:

I agree with that.

Smith:

Thank you.

Flanagan:

I want to get back to Dream of Life. It becomes more moving as time goes by. As you say, it was written with your husband, it preceded, obviously, his passing, the passing of Robert Mapplethorpe, the passing of your brother. The song “Dream of Life” is sort of like a promise from a ghost or a saint. “I’m with you always.” In “Paths that Cross” and even in “Up There Down There” there are images of the continuity of life beyond the physical shell and of the communication between two souls that can continue to exist beyond this life.

Smith:

You’ve actually articulated it better than anyone. I’ve never sat with someone that has spent so much time with this album. It was sort of overlooked in its time. But in the making of this album Robert was suffering with AIDS. I was pregnant with a child. Jimmy Iovine our co-producer’s wife got pregnant, our engineer’s wife also got pregnant. Three babies were born in the center of this album and three of the four principle men -- Richard Sohl my pianist, Robert Mapplethorpe who did the cover, and Fred who wrote all the material -- all died within a few years after the album was completed. The album represents for me all of these things, the communion between Fred and I, birth and passage. Also Robert’s patron Sam Wagstaff died. “Paths That Cross” was written for Sam Wagstaff. “Dream of Life” was written sensing that I was having a child but also that I was losing Robert. When I sang “I’m with you always” I was saying that for Robert but also for my child someday. Of course I took it from Jesus Christ, who said in the end of Matthew, “I am with you always even unto the end of the world.” I directly took that line to send out to a dying person and to a child not yet born.

Flanagan:

Dylan disappeared for a period in the late 60s and early 70s. He said that one of the things that got him back to work was hearing Neil Young and saying, “Hey wait a minute! The muse is giving my stuff to that guy. I better get back in there.” During that time that you were away, The Smiths and U2 and REM and so many artists came up who cited you as their most important influence. Was there anyone you heard during that time that made you say, “Maybe I should get back in the game”?

Smith:

Kurt Cobain.

Flanagan:

What did you recognize in him?

Smith:

I just saw some of myself in him. I can’t really say why. When I heard Unplugged actually, “In the Pines.” There is something about his rawness, this intelligence. He was such a natural, yet in another way it was like a mantle that he both desired and was born for but also that he wanted to run away from. I’ve never felt competitive with people. I was just happy that people were doing all kinds of things. I enjoyed listening to Madonna and Michael Jackson. I loved REM, loved The Smiths. There were all kinds of things happening. U2 came out. All of these songs that I would hear when I was buying groceries in the supermarket in Detroit. I would hear these songs and see some on MTV. I was just happy that there was all this new energy. But I just loved Nirvana. I loved their people because they reminded me of our people or myself. Seeing girls in these old dresses and combat boots, it’s like I used to dress. I went, “Oh! It’s my people.”

Flanagan:

You made the bridge that you and Lenny talked about. It held!

Smith:

I know that Kurt Cobain really admired Fred. We were quite heartbroken that life was too tough for him. But he gave us some good work, that’s for sure.

Flanagan:

Sure did. Your son Jackson is married to Meg White of The White Stripes? Do you get together at Thanksgiving and compare notes? “Don’t go with this booking agent”?

Smith:

Oh no. My son and daughter really look at me as mom. They never even knew I sang or anything until I was forced to go out on the road to make a living after their father died. They had no concept that I did anything but shine their shoes and make their food and teach them to read. When we’re all together the thing we do the most is talk about their dad. They like to hear stories about how we met, over and over again. Stories about when they were kids, how my daughter used to steal pickles and stuff them in her socks. They want to hear about our life. They want to remember. We look at pictures of their dad.

We all play music. I sing and my daughter is a pianist, my son is a great guitarist. So sometimes we play together and in playing together we also magnify their father. That’s what we like to do.