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Patti Smith On Writing, Poetry And Music

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October 10, 2012 1:23 p.m.


Patti Smith, writer, performer and visual artist.

Related Story: Patti Smith On Writing, Poetry And Music


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Punk rock lovers of a certain age can probably tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard Patti Smith's 1975 album, horses. Her blend of punk, performance, and poetry was groundbreaking. Her stark and slender black and white image on the cover was spellbinding, and the fact she was female, mind-blowing! The '70s created an iconic image of Patti Smith. Now, luckily, she's back performing, giving new life to that image. She'll be in San Diego later this week for two shows, one focused on her new album, and one focused on her poetry and award-winning book, Just Kids. It is a pleasure to welcome Patti Smith. Hi, Patti!

SMITH: Hello! Nice to talk to you.

CAVANAUGH: You've written poetry and book, songs, created visual art, recorded albums. Are all these connected for you or do you have to switch gears in your approach to each?

SMITH: Well, they're all ultimately connected. How I have to switch gears is process. And obviously when I'm working on an album or performing, it's a collaborative process, and when I'm writing poetry or taking photographs, it's a solitary process. So the things that motivate me might be very similar. Certainly the amount of effort and care I put into each discipline. But it really breaks down to whether it's collaborative or solitary.

CAVANAUGH: Is it nice to have that balance between the collaborative and the solitary?

SMITH: Yes, I think I'm very lucky. I mean, I crave solitude, and I'm sort of a loner. But I really also like having a camp. I like having a team. Our operation is small. We've been together, most of my people, for decades, and I really feel like we have, well, a camp. And we're all -- we have the same mission, and it feels good. I have this sense of leadership in a very -- leadership in a democratic situation. But when I need to be by myself and create on my own, I can validate my ability to do that through my writing or taking a photograph. So I'm very lucky, actually, to have these two poles to go back and forth.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you've said that at a young age, you knew you wanted to be a poet. How did you know?

SMITH: Well, first of all, I mean, I was -- I wanted to be a writer. I didn't when I was very young, I didn't specifically desire to be a poet. But it just seemed that that was the way that I most expressed myself when I was younger. And and the thing about being a poet, you can't want to be a poet. It seems to be something that comes from within. One can learn how to write a poem. But poetry is such a special language and it takes a special gift. So for me, I think it's probably the most difficult of the arts. I haven't devoted my whole self to poetry. But I started writing it so young, and my first published work was a poem. I feel very akin to poetry.

CAVANAUGH: When did music enter into the picture as being sort of a way to give your poetry new dimension?

SMITH: I think really I just wrote. Again, poetry is really a very solitary experience. But when I was 19, 20, in my early 20s, I was so energetic, had so much energy, and was such a physical writer, that the act of writing, and even the act of later performing my poems just wasn't satisfying enough. I started performing poetry because I felt compelled to do that. But I had too much energy. And I felt, you know, I'm a child of rock and roll. So it seemed almost initial to have some electric guitar behind me, propelling me on. So I recruited Lenny K. Really to give me just an energetic surge behind my words, and then we started working with very simple cord structures, the same structures in songs like Gloria, and then I just organically began to sing. But I came from a neighborhood. I was brought up in rural south jersey and hung out a lot in Philadelphia. And back then in the early '60s when I grew up, everybody sang.


SMITH: So it wasn't really far fetched for me to sing. I never thought of myself as as I singer. But everybody sang when I was young.

CAVANAUGH: Patti Smith is coming to San Diego this weekend for two performances. I want to you can that about your memoire, just kids. It's about your friendship with artist Robert maple thorpe. And he of course died in 1989. How did the two of you meet?

SMITH: We met -- I came to New York in 1967, the summer of 67 when I was 20, looking for a job, and there was no work in south jersey, north Philadelphia back then because of the closing of the New York ship yard. So I went to New York City because there was a lot of book stores. And I went near Brooklyn because I knew some kids who lived near prat institute. And I had no money, no plans, and I was just trying to find a place to sleep. But my friends who moved, and the concern that I found in my friend's old place was this slim, curly-haired boy with masses of dark hair, and a lopsided grin, very kind, very sweet boy, and that was Robert.

CAVANAUGH: What role did you play for each other at really crucial stage when you were both becoming artists?

SMITH: Well, I think that Robert instilled confidence in me. I was kind of awkward, I was still discovering myself and asking questions of my worth. And Robert had no such qualms about who he was. He had a lot of confidence. And he instilled that confidence in me by believing in me. And I was very happy and able to work, get a job, be a bread winner, where Robert was a little more delicate in that area. It was hard for him to create when he had to extend a lot of energy into a monotonous, 9:00 to 5:00 job. So I believed in him, I supported him financially, and Robert taught me everything he knew about drawing, and we shared skills. He had more skills than I did so we worked together, and he instilled a lot of confidence in me. I really think we helped each other get strong enough and ready to face the second tier of our world, which was New York City.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, ha! That was the next step. I really want to play just a little bit from your latest album, Banga. Here's a little clip from the tune called April Fool.

(Audio Recording Played)

CAVANAUGH: One thing that you're going to be doing here in San Diego, two performances, but the one on Saturday night at Spreckles, you'll be reading basically. But what kinds of things do you expect to do during that performance?

SMITH: Well, when I do performances like that, they pretty much -- we invent them as we go along, you know? When I go without my whole band, I'm certain some of my band members will come by and we'll do songs. I just make it an evening. I see what the people want. They can ask me questions. I'll read poems. I'll read from Just Kids. Sing songs that I think are relevant or take requests. Sometimes spar with the people. Those kind of evenings I really like because they're unfetterred by a lot of technology and some of the responsibilities of doing a concert. Done with the same energy, just there's more room for improvisation. But I really like these evenings because I'm up for anything. I'm up for just sitting there, talking to the people, or if they want to hear more songs, and Lenny K. Stops by or one of my other musicians, we'll just play song, and certainly I'll be reading.

CAVANAUGH: I saw a video you have on your website in Italy, and there was a person in the audience who wanted to make a political statement. And you basically just said go for it. And you ended it out by saying there aren't that many forums where people can get out what it is they need to tell a whole bunch of people. How important is that for you to have that kind of a -- for the people in your audience to feel comfortable enough to interact with you in that way?

SMITH: Well, it's very important to me. I mean, obviously I need to just channel their energy and speak myself. We played in Paris for 1,000 people, and that's not the right forum to spar and talk with people. It just doesn't -- it's not going to translate. But if I'm in the right venue, and I feel that we can do something that will benefit everyone, we just do it. Every concert for me is totally different. That concert was unique because I don't know how many people were there, there could have been 10,000, I don't know how many. But it was a day, a special concert commemorating an event that happened in Italy that was suppressed by the government and that the people had fought very hard to bring out to the open. So when this young girl needed to speak about another issue, be I thought this was not the time to suppress a young person that really needed to speak about something important. So every night is different. You know? You have to sort of monitor -- sometimes I'll joke around or do a calm of Johnny Carson 1-liners with somebody who's a little intoxicated or something.


SMITH: But you got to think of everyone there. There's -- you have to get a sense of what the individual needs are of the people, but we're still a collective. So I always try to keep a thread of my responsibility. But I like that kind of thing. Sometimes you do a classic rock concert where you just -- it's all music, all songs, and it ramps, and it's a rock concert. And other nights, maybe there's more talking, maybe there's more stories, maybe there's more improvisation. There's no predicting.

CAVANAUGH: I have to tell everyone that Patti Smith will be performing at two events in San Diego this weekend. UCSD art power presents downtown with Patti Smith, a reading of just kids, and Smith's poetry at Spreckles in downtown San Diego. And she performs Sunday with her band at house of blues in San Diego.

SMITH: Oh, thank you, nice to talk to you.