Patti Smith on Closing Guantánamo, Remembering Rachel Corrie and Feeling Frustrated with Obama

October 08, 2015


Patti Smith

legendary poet, singer, activist and author of the new memoir, M Train. Her 2010 memoir, Just Kids, won a National Book Award.

Beside being known for her music and writing, Patti Smith has been a longtime activist, performing regularly at antiwar rallies and political benefits. She has also written songs about former Guantánamo prisoner Murat Kurnaz and Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old college student who was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza in 2003. She talks about these songs and her assessment of the Obama administration.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: And you also, Patti Smith, talk about—in your songs, in your poetry, you wrote about Qana. You wrote about and you performed about Rachel Corrie, who died March 16th, 2003, right before the invasion, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when she was standing before an Israeli military bulldozer trying to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian family’s home, who she knew well.

PATTI SMITH: Well, you know, again, it’s the other thing, when—when you cite me as an activist, this always humbles me, in the same way when people call me a musician. I can’t call myself a real activist. I have never done anything. I have never put my life on the line. I admire these people so much. And all I can do really is—because that’s not my calling in life. I’m not really a deeply political person. I’m more of, I hope, a humanist. But what I can do is to remember these people and to sing of them. I wrote of a fellow in Guantánamo Bay. I wrote—I write of these people and sing of them so their names aren’t forgotten.

Rachel Corrie, you know, such a lovely girl, who, you know, she—I’m sure she did not want to give her life. She stood up for what she believed in. And I think she believed, like Anne Frank said, "I believe that people are good at heart." And I think that she never thought that she would die for this cause. I don’t think she wanted to die. But she did. And I wanted her to be remembered.

All of my songs are in that vent. They try to take the humanist view, like in "Radio Baghdad." After the Iraq War—war, not really a war—invasion, immoral invasion—I was heartbroken, but there was—what could I do? I wanted to say something, but I didn’t want to go on a political rant. So I—what do I know best? I’m a mother. I could—I shut my eyes, imagined how I would feel if I was trying to, you know, comfort my daughter Jesse while bombs were falling on the city. And I took it from that mother’s point of view. And she tells of her history, the history of her people, and what is happening, you know, with bombs falling and how the infrastructure of her country is going to be destroyed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Let’s go to a clip from "Radio Baghdad."

PATTI SMITH: [singing] Oh, to the zero
The perfect number
We invented the zero
And we mean nothing to you
Our children run through the streets
And you sent your flames
Your shooting stars
Shock and awe
Shock and awe

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s a clip from Patti Smith’s song, "Radio Baghdad."

AMY GOODMAN: You also talked about Guantánamo, because these were all intertwined. You had the prisons of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram. You had the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Your song in 2006, "Without Chains," about the Turkish citizen—


AMY GOODMAN: —in Guantánamo, who you mentioned, Murat Kurnaz. And you ended up writing the introduction, right?

PATTI SMITH: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: To his book, Five Years of My Life.

PATTI SMITH: Well, I wrote about him because I read an article. Again, it’s like I can’t, you know, really claim to be doing all the groundwork that others do. So many people, including Vanessa Redgrave, worked so hard to get him out of prison. I wasn’t part of that. But when I read about it, and read how he could hardly walk to meet his family—he kept buckling because he had been in chains for so long that his legs, he had lost a lot of muscular sense in his legs—and I was so moved by that and so angered, that I wrote the song. And later his lawyer played the song to him as an expression of how people hadn’t forgotten him, that there was somebody that he didn’t even know, this girl that writes songs, had written a song for him. And I did meet him. And now he’s doing very well. He speaks against social injustice. He has children. And it’s very heartening.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to "Without Chains."

PATTI SMITH: [singing] Four long years
I wasn’t a man
Dreaming in chains
With the lights on
Four long years
With nothing to say
Thoughts impure
At Guantánamo Bay

And I’m learning
To walk
Without chains
To walk
Without chains
To walk
Without chains
Without chains
Without chains

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Patti Smith performing "Without Chains."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008. I wanted to ask—both at your concerts and on your website—how would you evaluate his presidency now, as we near the end of his second term?

PATTI SMITH: Well, I can’t say that I so heavily campaigned for—I mean, once he was running, you know, he was our choice. I thought it would be a beautiful and healing thing for us to have the openness and—to elect a black president. But I was worried. My concern about Obama was that he had a good sense of community and knew how to gather young people, and I thought that was a beautiful thing, but I was concerned that he might be green within the political structure. And I just—you know, the last eight years have been so frustrating—I can’t imagine how frustrating for him, but also as a citizen who had certain hopes. I hoped that he would close Guantánamo Bay. I hoped that he would not just pull back troops, but also bring us into a different kind of consciousness. But I feel, in the last eight years, not only by necessity, but by design, we’ve become even more military, more involved in so many different wars and skirmishes that I don’t even understand.

And, you know, I’m really actually the wrong person to talk to, because I’m not politically articulate. I feel bad actually talking on this show, where I watch to really find out from you what is happening. But I’ll say, as a citizen, I found him—he’s so likable. I love his family. I was proud to have him as president. But I don’t—I have to say, I don’t really understand him. I understand him now when he speaks about the need for gun control. I understand when he is, you know, really speaking from his heart. But so many things have been, you know, cloaked. Why are we doing all these strikes, where—all these drones, all of these things? We’re not being informed. That’s probably the best way I can say it. I don’t feel informed by the Obama administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Patti Smith, the legendary poet, author and singer. We’ll return to our conversation with her in a moment.

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