Patti Smith: interview

Punk poetess Patti Smith is adamant that rock ‘n‘ roll still matters, though Michael Hodges isn‘t so convinced

  • ‘It was evil, corrupt, caused chaos in the world and lead to the death and suffering of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.’

    Patti Smith is telling everyone in the first-floor lounge of the Covent Garden Hotel – which is mainly rich men and rich women – just what she thinks about her country’s invasion of Iraq.

    The rich women glance down at their cocktails, the rich men readjust their cufflinks. They’re not here for an impromptu lecture from a 60-year-old woman who looks and sounds like she’s escaped from the oracle at Delphi, they’ve come here to talk about shopping. But it’s too late now; they’re going to have to shut up and listen.

    ‘I’m not afraid of terrorism at all,’ Smith tears on. ‘I’m afraid of loss of our freedom, loss of mobility, loss of global comradeship. I live down the street from the World Trade Centre, I saw it come down. I knew people who died there. That did not have the same emotional effect on my morale as what the Bush administration has done in response.’

    Unexpectedly this is going down well with the wealthy crowd: is an American woman really saying that Bush is a worse disaster for the world than 9/11?

    ‘Absolutely. A stronger, more decent man could’ve used September 11 to global advantage, tried to find some dialogue but it went the opposite way. I haven’t studied world global politics and I knew that it would be a disaster.’

    In 2004 Smith wrote ‘Radio Baghdad’ in response to the invasion, a bitter commentary on the US bombing one of the mother cities of world civilisation (‘It wasn’t political it was humanist: how would I feel as a mother, on the first day of spring, to have bombs falling on my city?’) but the rest of the rock world – happy, like most rich people, to wear Make Poverty History T-shirts – was conspicuously quiet when it came to bombing women and children. It took country music to voice any credible opposition to the insanities and inanities of the war on terror.

    ‘We don’t have the Dixie Chicks’ visibility.’ Smith contends. ‘They’re huge. They got, like, nine Grammys or something. They were raked over the coals for what they did and then they were also rewarded. We did stuff – 150,000 people in Washington DC – and the media didn’t cover it. Like we didn’t exist. We were betrayed by the media, our government, even the Democratic party. Now I find it very difficult to be in my country.’

    Smith is in our country to play the Roundhouse and promote ‘Twelve’, an album of covers in part inspired by her complete rejection of her country’s foreign – and, one suspects, domestic – policy and the random songs she encountered on the radio in a New York café. ‘When I heard “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”

    I said, “Right on brother, everybody does want to rule the world.” That’s why we’re in such a mess. The higher-ups carved up the world after World War II – this bit’s for France, this bit’s for Israel. Well, you can’t carve up the world. It’s not a pie.’

    Unfortunately, the Tears For Fears 1985 original is awful, and not even a performer as distinctive as Smith can bring meaning to lyrics like, ‘Acting on your best behaviour/Turn your back on Mother Nature.’ But on the tracks where Smith reinterprets great work by great writers, inspiration does occur, in particular her wailing assault on ‘Pastime Paradise’ (recorded on Martin Luther King Day) which turns Stevie Wonder’s song into a demented paean to the state of her country that could bring the Roundhouse down around her head.

    The concert, too, will have extra resonance for Smith. It was here, in 1976, that she first played in London, shortly after the release of her first, astonishingly accomplished album ‘Horses’. ‘The Roundhouse then felt like being in The Beatles,’ she says. ‘I never saw anything like that before. It was an important moment and we can all be proud of it.’

    Half poet, half proto-punk, Smith’s work – from 1974’s uncompromising ‘Piss Factory’ through to the chart-topping-yet-transcendent ‘Because The Night’ in 1978 – established her reputation just as rock was about to leave its last creative period. From the ’80s onwards the genre would increasingly become a self-referential reworking of what had gone before. Appropriately, Smith withdrew in 1982, to bring up her children by husband, ex-MC5 guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (he died of heart failure in 1994). Yet when she re-emerged at the end of the century she was, if anything, even more committed to independence of thought and deed. ‘I don’t believe any artist who says, “I had to do that because DJs will tell me I can’t play that music. I will lose my job.” Well lose the job and create a new job. If your label won’t let you have the cover you want or sing the songs you want, then leave!’

    Such an attitude is unwelcome in a business now so rife with conformity. A business so in hock to celebrity that any claims of any kind of revolutionary potential seem laughable.

    ‘No!’ she shouts, exasperated perhaps that anyone can be unconvinced by rock’s credentials. ‘It’s how people use it. Music television is a big corrupter and people’s motivations have changed, but the people I revered in the late ’60s and the early ’70s, their motivation was to do great work and great work creates revolution. The motivation of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan or The Who wasn’t marketing, to get rich, or be a celebrity. I’m not saying that they didn’t want to make money and have a good time, but their driving force was to work and that’s why the music is still revolutionary. It’s just like Jesus’s great teaching is to love one another. They build temples and misconstrue and misinterpret or reinterpret that simple principle, but the teachings still exist. Just like rock ’n’ roll.

    ‘It’s what you do with it. The new generations have more power potentially than anyone dreamed of to make change; they could bind together through modern technology, get millions of their brothers and sisters and overturn our government. It’s a question of motivation: do they look at each other having sex on their mobile phones and on their websites? Or are they going to use technology creatively: write their own music, share their ideas and analysis of their times?’

    My money’s on ‘looking at each other having sex’, but I’m a miserable old fool in his forties and Patti Smith is a brilliant young woman in her sixties with an utter conviction – despite the evidence offered by Coldplay et al – that rock ’n’ roll still matters. Looking at the rich men and the rich women around the room on the edge of giving her a standing ovation, and then into her intense, slightly out-of-kilter eyes, you feel for a moment that maybe it does.

    ‘I might sound like a dinosaur or something,’ she says, speaking quietly for the first time this evening, ‘but I’ve always been like this. If you’d talked to me when I was 22, I’d probably say similar things. Only with more curse words.’

    Patti Smith plays the Roundhouse on Thursday and St-Giles-In-The-Fields on Friday. Her album ‘Twelve’ is out now.

  • Add your comment to this feature