Patti Smith: Warrior Poet
photo by Melodie McDaniels
Since she was a kid, she knew she was an artist, and a serious one, willing to go the extra mile. As early as 11, she approached her own art with a remarkable singularity of purpose that has persisted ever since. “When I was a kid, I wanted to write a poem about Simón Bolívar,” says Patti Smith. “I went to the library and read everything I could. I wrote copious notes. I had 40 pages of notes just to write a small poem.” Decades later, the process persists. She spent months reading every book she could find about Ho Chi Minh before spontaneously improvising “Gung Ho.” She relies on her ability to shamanistically channel songs and poems, but never blindly; she deepens her well with information before delving into it.
Of course, she’s more than a songwriter. She’s an artist who recognizes that art needn’t be restricted to any one means of expression. Like her great friend, the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, about whom she wrote the beautiful memoir, Just Kids, she’s always been devoted to making art itself – whether a poem, a memoir, a novel, a record, a series of drawings, a play (with Sam Shepard she wrote Cowboy Mouth), or a song. As a child, art for her was both a refuge and a means of escape from the monotony of the everyday world. “I did not want to be trapped,” she says. “I grew up in the ’50s, when the girls wore really bright red lipstick and nail polish, and they smelled like Eau de Paris. Their world just didn’t attract me. I hid in the world of the artist: first the 19th-century artists, then the Beats. And Peter Pan.”
Unlike Mapplethorpe, however, fame was never a goal. When she made her debut album Horses, which remains the most visceral fusion of poetry and rock ever recorded, she never intended to be a rock star, and was happy to return to her job at the bookstore, writing poems and creating drawings. But she also recognized the unchained potential of rock and roll to speak not just to an assorted few at a coffee-house poetry reading, but to 40,000 people or more in an arena, all united by song. Though she certainly never left poetry behind (she’s written twelve volumes of published poetry, and several more books of poetry and memoir that are unpublished), she embraced the electric promise of speaking to the whole world. “Even now, it’s an opportunity to have a universal voice,” she says, “because everybody, all over the world, loves rock and roll. It’s the new universal language. Jimi Hendrix knew that. The Rolling Stones knew that. We knew that. People of the future will know that. What they do with it is up to them.”
How is writing poems different from writing songs?
Poetry is a solitary process. One does not write poetry for the masses. Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit. Songs are for the people. When I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.
We always write a certain amount of poetry for the masses. When Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl,” he didn’t write it for himself. He wrote it to speak out. To make a move, to wake people up. I think rock and roll, as our cultural voice, took that energy and made it even more accessible.
When I’m sitting down to write a poem, I’m not thinking of anyone. I’m not thinking about how it will be received. I’m not thinking it will make people happy or it will inspire them. I’m in a whole other world. A world of complete solitude. But when I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.
I write songs when I’m by myself, like walking along the beach, and a song comes in my head. Or I wake up from a dream, like “Blakean Year.” I often write songs out of dreams, and take them to my musicians to help me. Sometimes I write melodies that are too complex and I can’t find them on the guitar, because I only know about eight chords. So I take them to Lenny [Kaye] or [bassist] Tony [Shanahan] and they transcribe them into a song.
“Free Money” came to me walking down St. Mark’s at three in the morning. It was pre-dawn, but it was so light in New York City, and it came to me and I sang it to Lenny. He structured it and found the proper chords, and we made a song. It was one of our earliest songs.
Other songs, they just come in my head and I sing them out loud, and the band finds the place, and they adjust it. For myself, the simpler format the better. “Gandhi” is nine minutes on one chord. It’s an improvisation. “Radio Baghdad” was completely improvised. I didn’t know the lyrics, but I knew I wanted to speak out against the invasion of Iraq. Being a mother, I freely entered into the mother consciousness of the mothers of Baghdad who were trying to comfort their children as they were being bombed. So these lyrics that come to me are self-perpetuated.
It’s miraculous that you can spontaneously come up with such amazing work.
It’s easier for me than to sit and write verse-chorus. Writing lyrics, sometimes, is torturous. Because I make them too complicated, and sometimes burden a song with complicated language. But it’s just how I work. So, for me, it’s freedom just to go and focus myself and see where my horse takes me.
Are there times you didn’t get there?
I have never been unsuccessful.
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