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Punk Rock Legend Patti Smith on Her Life, Her Art, Her Singing and Speaking Out

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We bring you a Democracy Now! special with the singer-songwriter, poet, artist and punk rock legend, Patti Smith, on her life, her art and her singing and speaking out. “I do things that make people upset. My political views or my humanist views have caused me a lot of censorship, but I don’t have a problem with that,” Smith says. “What I would have more of a problem is if I had to look back on my life and say, 'Yeah, I compromised here' and 'yeah, I did this so I could get that.' Once you start doing that, it’s like a house of cards — it all falls apart.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: “Grateful” by Patti Smith, performed in our Democracy Now!

studios in New York on Monday night, as we launched the greenest internet-TV-radio studios in the country. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Today we are broadcasting from Minneapolis.

Well, Patti Smith, the singer-songwriter, poet, artist and punk rock legend, joined us on Monday evening to perform some of her songs and to sit down for an extended interview about her life, about her art, about singing and speaking out.

Patti Smith’s influential debut album Horses came out in 1975 to critical acclaim. Her best known song “Because the Night” was co-written with Bruce Springsteen. It was number thirteen on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1978.

More recently, Patti Smith has performed in numerous antiwar rallies. She has written songs about American peace activist Rachel Corrie, the Israeli assault on the Lebanese village of Qana, and Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen of Germany who was imprisoned at Guantánamo for five years.

Patti Smith is just out with a new memoir. It’s called Just Kids, and it tells the story of her lifelong friendship and creative collaboration with the renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

On Monday night, Patti Smith began with, well, a spoken word performance of a song that’s become a protest anthem, “People Have the Power.”

    PATTI SMITH: In 1986, I believe it was, my late husband and I wrote a song that — which we wrote for all people. And it’s too complicated for me to play, but I remember I was backstage at some rally, and I can’t even remember what it was for, but I was standing there with Howard Zinn, and he said he really wanted to hear me do the song, but I didn’t know how to play it, so I figured, well, I didn’t want to let Howard down, so I figured I could just speak it. So I’ll do the same, remembering Howard.

    I was dreaming in my dreaming
    of an aspect bright and fair,
    and my sleeping, it was broken,
    but my dream, it lingered near
    in the form of shinin’ valleys
    where the pure air recognized
    and my senses, newly opened,
    and I awakened to the cry
    that the people have the power.

    [music clip: “People Have the Power”]

    Speaking of empowerment, I thought you might like to know as a footnote the way that song was written was I was in the kitchen peeling potatoes, and, you know, I had one kid at my feet and another kid, you know, running around carrying on, and just peeling potatoes, cursing to myself. And my husband came in, and he said, “Tricia.” And I said, “Yes, Cap’n?” And he said, “People have the power. Write it.” And so I did.

    [music clip: “People Have the Power”]

AMY GOODMAN: Patti Smith on “People Have the Power.” Well, on Monday night before a studio audience in New York, Democracy Now!'s Anjali Kamat and I sat down with Patti Smith to talk about, well, her music, her early life in New York and her political activism.

    AMY GOODMAN: It's a great privilege to be here with Patti Smith. And, well, I’ll just start with, Patti, how did you end up here in New York? Where were you born?

    PATTI SMITH: Oh, I thought “end up here” at this stage with you.

    AMY GOODMAN: We’ll get there.

    PATTI SMITH: Well, I was actually born in Chicago, and then when I was a toddler, my parents moved to Philadelphia. My dad got a job in a factory in Philadelphia, so I was raised in Germantown in a sort of a barracks for soldiers. They had housing for temporary housing. And then my parents saved money and bought a little house in South Jersey, built on a swamp. And I lived there 'til 1967. And, you know, I had a great childhood. We were a lower-middle-class family with a lot of financial struggle, but very happy, open-minded family. My parents were very humanistic, but where we lived was not the cultural center of the world. Hardly. So I came to New York for two reasons: to find my own kin and also to get a job. And that’s what I came to New York for in ’67. Got me a job in a bookstore. And so, that was great.

    ANJALI KAMAT: And Patti Smith, how did you become a musician? You've been called the godmother of punk.

    PATTI SMITH: Well, I never became a musician, obviously.

    AMY GOODMAN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

    PATTI SMITH: I never wanted to be a musician. The only thing I daydreamed about was being an opera singer. But I was so skinny and so pathetic that that sort of wasn’t going to happen. I really evolved as a performer. I think I’m a natural performer, but not really a real musician. I was writing poetry and then performing poetry. It just became more aggressive, more energetic, more oral. I grew up at the same time as rock-and-roll grew up, so rock-and-roll became — was part of — a great part of my vocabulary and our cultural voice. And I just merged my poetry with what I knew best, was rock-and-roll. But to this day I wouldn’t call myself a musician, I would say I was a performer. But I have two kids who actually are musicians, who remind me that I am not a musician quite often.

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: How old are they?

    PATTI SMITH: My kids are twenty-seven and twenty-two.

    AMY GOODMAN: I bet everyone in this audience wishes they weren’t a musician like you’re not. But who influenced you most as you came to New York?

    PATTI SMITH: Well, I mean, I had a plethora of influences. I mean, one of my earliest influences was Jo March in Little Women, you know, because I — there was a — she was a writer, a tomboy, she went out to help her family, and she was probably my first real role model. And that followed with all kinds of people. Lotte Lenya, Bob Dylan was a very important influence. Joan Baez was very important. And John Coltrane, and I just — you know, there are so many artists and poets and musicians and activists that I’ve drawn inspiration from. That, to me, is one of the great parts of life, is all the work of other people and how it influences and inspires us.

    ANJALI KAMAT: And your latest book, Just Kids, it chronicles your friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, the great artist. Can you talk about your friendship with Mapplethorpe over twenty-two years?

    PATTI SMITH: Well, I met Robert in 1967. Again, you know, I came to New York with nothing. I had a lot of bravado. I had a few dollars in my pocket, but I had a good work ethic. I knew I wanted a job, and that’s what I was looking for. And I also didn’t feel any fear in New York City. I really loved New York. I was brought up in a very rural community, and we didn’t have cars. The roads were dark. There was nowhere to go. You’d have to walk like four or five miles to, you know, go to a pizza place. And, you know, New York, where everything was right there, there was all kinds of places to get coffee, you could sleep on the subway. You know, it seemed like the safest place in the world.

    So, and in the middle of this atmosphere, I met Robert, quite accidentally. And we were both quite — we were more alike than not. We were the same age, both wanted to be artists, both had nothing, and both sort of on the fringe of things. You know, both of us were more the late bloomer type. And, you know, despite the fact that Robert was — you know, had a very engaging face, he was still sort of a wall flower, a person on the fringe, even in an art school. So we gravitated toward each other and supported each other and evolved together and went through all kinds of things, you know, from Robert discovering or coming to terms with his evolving sexual identity to becoming a photographer, me evolving from poetry into rock-and-roll. And we evolved together.

    ANJALI KAMAT: And he took the iconic photograph of you on the cover of your first album?

    PATTI SMITH: Yeah, he did. He did. And we did that just like we did everything else. Our relationship was built on trust. And, you know, sometimes people ask me about how we took this picture, like it was some big drama. Like now, you get your picture taken and the photo shoot, that you’d think they were doing a movie. There’s like catering and, you know, four monitors and a bunch of people running around. It’s like a Peter Sellers movie, you know. Really, it was just me and Robert, you know, in a white room and with natural light. In fact, his light meter was broken, so he took twelve shots, and we got it.

    AMY GOODMAN: You know, the geography of this city tells so many stories, and Democracy Now! has just moved from this hundred-year-old firehouse. Our dear friends — who could think you’re calling your landlords your friends, but Keiko Tsuno and Jon Alpert, I hope they’re here tonight. I’m not sure if they are, but really embraced us and protected us, until we outgrew this firehouse, because they were growing, as well, Downtown Community Media Center. And so we ended up here in Chelsea, just around the corner from the Chelsea Hotel.

    PATTI SMITH: Yeah, yes.

    AMY GOODMAN: So talk about 1969 and you and Robert going there.

    PATTI SMITH: Well, first of all, I just want to say that there’s nothing better than to be able to say that you had to move because democracy was growing, so…

    But Robert and I were both —- we went through a lot of different things. And in 1969, we were a bit down on our luck, and we had heard that if you went to the Chelsea Hotel, they would often trade art for a room. And we went to the Chelsea Hotel, and I checked out the lobby, and the stuff was pretty bad, and I thought, oh, we won’t have any problem. But Mr. Bard was not really interested in our work, but he was interested in the fact that I had employment, which was something that probably 70 percent of the people of the hotel did not have, so -—

    AMY GOODMAN: Who was there?

    PATTI SMITH: Who was there at the time? Well, the first person we met in the lobby was Harry Smith, who was definitely not employed. But we saw all kinds of people there. I mean, there was a lot of artists and writers. Virgil Thomson lived there. I’d say Shirley Clarke. I saw Jonas Mekus there a lot and Allen Ginsberg and just about — I mean, we could go on and on with lists of people. Even Arthur C. Clarke lived there.

    So I talked Mr. Bard into, you know, letting us have a room based on the fact that I had a job. We had the smallest room in the hotel, which doesn’t even exist anymore. It had no bathroom. It was $55 a week, and I made $65 at Scribner’s Bookstore. So that pretty much could say what our living situation was. But it was really a great stroke of luck to move at the Chelsea, because the people that we met there — Gregory Corso and William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. I met Bobby Neuwirth and so many musicians, people you never heard of and people who, you know, we all revere. And I think I said it in the book, but it’s true, it became my new university. I couldn’t think of a better place to be at the time, because I learned so much about everything, about painting and poetry, performance, activism, all in this one hotel.

    AMY GOODMAN: Two years later, 1971, talk about putting poetry to music.

    PATTI SMITH: Well — sorry. Well, I had my first poetry reading. It was on Bertolt Brecht’s birthday, February 10th, 1971. It was a full moon. I was opening up Gerard Malanga at St. Mark’s Church. And, of course, St. Mark’s Church was, you know, the Mecca for poets at the time. And it was quite an honor to get eighteen minutes at St. Mark’s Church. So I really wanted to do something special, and also I knew Gregory Corso really good, and he would really harass you if you were boring. I mean, he would sit in the back, way back there, and if you were boring, you could hear him all the way from back there letting you know that you were really boring. And so, I asked Lenny Kaye to play some interpretive electric guitar, a little feedback, to some of — to certain of the poems. And I didn’t think much about it. I just thought, you know, it was sort of like Kerouac and Steve Allen playing together. It’s just only with electric guitar. But it seemed to cause a bit of a stir, and I guess that’s how it began. Still stirring.

AMY GOODMAN: Patti Smith, singing and speaking before a Democracy Now! studio audience on Monday night. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Patti Smith singing “Wing” in our Democracy Now! studio before a studio audience Monday night. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we go back to our conversation with rocker Patti Smith. Anjali Kamat and I interviewed her in Democracy Now!’s new studios.

    ANJALI KAMAT: You talked a little bit about your activism. Some of your more recent music is also — sort of builds on these themes. And you had a song called “Qana,” a song about a detainee who was in Guantánamo. Can you talk a little bit about these songs?

    PATTI SMITH: Well, I mean, I would never call myself an activist ever. I don’t really — I mean, I hope that I’m a humanist and sort of a good citizen. I really think of the people who are out there in the front lines every day, and I’m so grateful to all of you. I’m sort of — I think of activism on many levels — the people that are out in the trenches and then citizens who can do just small things, the smallest things. And one of the things that I can do is respond to things that are unjust or — and hopefully by putting it out into the world, free, putting it on websites, these songs, maybe it will be of good use.

    The song that she was talking about, about Guantánamo Bay, I wrote in response to Murat Kurnaz. He was a boy the same age as my son. And he was detained for suspicious travel. He was German and Muslim, which made him very suspicious after September 11th, and wound up in Guantánamo Bay without any real charges, just a comedy of — or not a very — like a very black comedy of errors brought this boy for like five years, chained, in a very small room, never with the lights out. He had lights on twenty-four hours a day. He couldn’t really lay his whole body down on the floor, because his cell was too small. And he stayed there for five years. And when they finally did get him out, when he was finally released, he was put on a plane, chained to the floor, with soldiers surrounding him with machine guns, or guns. And that was his first taste of freedom. And because he’s the same age as my — well, because he’s a human being, but also, as a mother, I was so horrified by this, imagining, projecting that if this was my son, and so I wrote the song “Without Chains.” The gist of the song is it tells his story, but it says in the end, “They say I walk strange,” because he’s walking — when he greets his parents, they finally take the chains off, and he fell to the ground, because he wasn’t used to not having chains. And the song talks about how he now has to learn to love without chains, vote without chains, dance without chains, breathe without chains.

    [music clip: “Without Chains”]

    You know, you do these little things. I wrote the song. I put it on my website. I gave it to people. And then I was in playing in a church in Germany, and the boy that I wrote the song and his lawyer came to see me at this church. And they told me that when he got out of prison, his lawyer took him for a ride and showed him an iPod, you know, for the first time, and put the song on. And the young fellow was so moved and happy to see that anybody cared about him in those years, and enough to write a rock-and-roll song. And he’s a young fellow, and hearing a rock-and-roll song about him and his situation made him really happy. And the other nice thing is he has actually become a — he goes around and tries to help other people, tries to help people who have been in the same situation, and is conducting his life as well as he can without bitterness. So, you know, it has its positive resonance.

    AMY GOODMAN: What about independent music? I mean, we talk a lot about the importance of independent media in these critical times of war and peace, of life and death. But talk about the music world, the art world. You’re a photographer, as well. And how you maintain that independence.

    PATTI SMITH: Well, I maintain it, because that’s all I ever wanted. I mean, I never cared about having a career, so I made all my decisions based on protecting my work. So it could be a simple decision like if you get $100,000 and do what they tell you, or you can get $20,000 and do what you want. And I was like, “No problem, $20,000 sounds fine to me.” I’ve always chosen that route in everything I do. And, you know, people who say that you can’t, it’s just not true. You know, you can do — we are the master, pretty much, of our own situation. And, you know, if one wants a mainstream career, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. You just — that’s what you should go for. I wouldn’t whine because I don’t have hit records and stuff. I haven’t written any. And I haven’t — and I don’t engage in the world that would put me in that position.

    I do things that, you know, make people upset. My political views or my humanist views have caused me a lot of censorship, but I don’t have a problem with that. I mean, it isn’t right, but what I would have more of a problem is if I had to look back on my life and say, “Yeah, I compromised here” and “yeah, I did this so I could get that.” Once you start doing that, it’s like a house of cards — it all falls apart. You know, you can’t make any short cuts. And you just got to — it’s all a question of what you want out of life, you know? If you wanted to be an anchorwoman on Fox News, perhaps, then you could make certain choices that would have put you there, including, you know, becoming a blonde, you know?

    But I mean, I just do whatever — it’s like Mother Teresa used to say. She did things according to the need. And I do things according to the need. I have a record company, and I make records on big — like I’ll be doing a record on Columbia, but I’ll do the record that I want to do. I’m old-fashioned. I was brought up with, like, a record company like Columbia has a lot of historical significance to me. You know, it was Bob Dylan’s label. You know, I’m really proud to be on Columbia Records, but in my own way. But also, I also put out a lot of stuff for free, in my own way. And I just think you just — you know, one can make a living and do it the best way they can, and then we serve the people for free the best way we can. You have to do both joyfully. You know, I’m really — it’s just like if you’re not going to do stuff joyfully, you shouldn’t do it. I mean, I never —- for instance, I never believed there should be a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was really opposed to it, but they made one. And -—

    AMY GOODMAN: And then they inducted you into it.

    PATTI SMITH: Yeah, after — yeah, after much strife. But — and then I had to think about this moral question. You know, should I be in — should I accept something that I was opposed to? Well, I was opposed to it, but it exists, and it’s also an honor to be recognized within our cultural voice. And I decided that it would make my parents really proud, that I would accept it happily, not cynically, because if you’re going to do stuff cynically, then you shouldn’t do it. And so, I don’t know if that answers your question. I can’t even remember what the question was, but — I’m such a — sorry, I’m such a rambler.

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: You were saying commercial success is not what motivated you as an artist.

    PATTI SMITH: No, but I’m — yes, it didn’t motivate me as an artist, but I don’t think it’s criminal to have commercial success. I did have some commercial success in the '70s when I did a song with Bruce Springsteen, and it was my biggest commercial success. And I was proud of the song. I was happy to have — I was happy that people liked it. Believe me, when Fred and I wrote “People Have the Power,” we used to daydream that everybody in the world would love it and buy it and that the whole world would be singing it, and we'd make millions of dollars. Only joke — just joking. But, you know, I think — when I think of commercial success, I think of the fact that if you can do something that touches the public nerve, and with integrity, all the better, because that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to communicate, you know, important ideas. That’s what is so great about, you know, Michael Moore’s movies. You know, he, like, has touched the public nerve. You know, the more successful his movies become, all the better for all of us. You know, we don’t — you know, we’re not like trying to — it’s not an exclusive thing, you know? If you’re doing something that is going to benefit all of the people, we don’t want it to be, you know, exclusive. That’s why it’s so great that Amy needed a bigger space. You know, it’s very cool to be in the little firehouse, and, you know, it’s nostalgic and wonderful, but all the better to see it grow and get too big. And may it get too big for this place.

AMY GOODMAN: Rock legend Patti Smith in our Democracy Now! studios. She concluded our conversation with the song she wrote with Bruce Springsteen, “Because the Night.”

[Patti Smith singing “Because the Night”]

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