Because the Night: Patti Smith Joins Family and Friends in Central Park
August 1, 1995
Patti Smith folds the air. Onstage at Toronto’s Phoenix nightclub July 5, fronting a band for the first time in 16 years, the woman who brought a shamanistic force to punk’s tattered style is in an expressive trance. She seems unconscious of her elegant, long-boned fingers as they flutter before her, or as she crosses her arms over her chest and rests her hands on her shoulders, anchoring body to earth. Singing a new song, “About a Boy,” about Kurt Cobain, she shuts her eyes as if calling up an image, then raises her sight to the heavens to follow its ascent.
Suddenly Smith – her Modigliani features more sculpted, not damaged, by age — returns to the moment with an almost angry jerk, as if she’s grown tired of trying to communicate with people who are gone. She sings goodbye to the “golden-haired boy,” then releases herself into the familiar strains of “Dancing Barefoot,” her last hit with the Patti Smith Group. Hiking her loose, faded jeans up into her fists as if she were lifting a skirt to do-si-do, she enters the song’s abandon with idiosyncratic grace, shimmying, shaking her ass at the audience to the words: “Some strange music draws me in, makes me come on, like some heroine.” Chanting the line “Oh God I fell for you,” she suddenly changes it to, “Oh God I’m back again” and looks dazedly out at the club — her face mirroring the crowd’s disbelief and joy.
Patti Smith is back: playing rock ‘n’ roll, recording an album, publishing books, and preparing for a night of poems and songs Thursday, July 27, at SummerStage in Central Park. A semirecluse since 1979, when she abandoned her New York rocker life to raise a family in a Detroit suburb, Smith faces a decade and a half’s accumulation of fans’ delayed but not diminished expectations. Judging by overheard comments and the crowd’s mostly youthful appearance, most of the Toronto concertgoers (myself included) were hearing live for the first time songs we had memorized during repeated listenings to albums worn full of pops and crackles. And since much of the impetus and focus of Smith’s new work involves her testimony as a witness to death, it’s perhaps understandable that her return has been described not as the comeback of some bygone idol but as a resurrection.
Cobain — Smith never met him, but loves his music — is one of several men taken by death at an early age whom the 48-year-old artist is grieving. In the last six years she’s lost her best friend, Robert Mapplethorpe; her keyboardist, Richard Sohl; and — the double blow of late 1994 — her husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, and her brother Todd. These specters float over Smith’s shoulder, weaving into her conversation even though she’s decided not to talk about them, as if she were their oracle. “I’ve always liked collaborating with friends,” she said in a rare interview, explaining why she has set up her SummerStage appearance as a reunion of family and comrades. “And I’ve lost so many of them.”
In person, Smith seems tender and delicate, but also fierce. She’s thin as ever and dressed in clothes gauzy enough to see through — revealing the solid flesh beneath. Meeting her at the rehearsal studio, I get careful, protective vibes from her band; having gotten her back, we’re all afraid to move too quickly and startle her off. The first time I heard her voice over the phone, I was surprised how small and timid it sounded. Now I think Smith’s is the restrained humility of someone who knows her own power.
She’s polite but firm about the scope of our interview. This is a transitional time for her, as she eases herself back into the spotlight, and we have a transitional talk: Nothing about the deaths, the family (she has two children from her marriage with Fred: Jackson, 13, and Jesse, 8), or even her new material. We talk exactly the allotted hour. Mostly, Smith wants to tell me about her gig at Central Park. We also discuss the Toronto shows (she did two in one night; I saw the second) and Patricia Morrisroe’s recently published biography of Robert Mapplethorpe.
Looking haggard but translucent, her long black hair streaked with gray and twisted into a few braids, Smith sits next to me at the dining-room table of the grand West Village townhouse some powerful music-industry friends have loaned her for the summer. She has a severe case of wandering eye that can make it hard to know if she’s looking at you, through you, or beyond. It’s an ironic mystical mark: Patti Smith has always been a visionary.
Smith’s renewal actually began two years ago, when she read at SummerStage on a steamy July night — her first public reading since the 1979. Unaware of how sorely she’d been missed over the years, she had worried that no one would come; instead, the concert area overflowed. “It was one of the happiest nights of my life,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how great those people were. The whole atmosphere — not just the audience, but I had my brother there, and Fred was there, and so I have really happy memories of it.” Smith seemed regal and maternal that evening, worrying about a baby who cried in the torrid heat and embarrassed to read some of her older, more sex-and-drugs-and-rock ‘n’ roll poems. The night had a magical aura; at one point Smith looked out over the mass of people and remarked that she felt like she could step off the stage and float above us.
Smith has again chosen Central Park as the site of her return to performing in New York. “I have a sense in going back there — there’s a certain sadness. But it’s a festive week,” she says, citing various birthdays and anniversaries. The “family night,” as Smith calls it, will open with a reading by Janet Hamill, whose luminous meditations on Giorgio di Chirico’s paintings were published in a 1992 book called Nostalgia of the Infinite. She and Smith have been friends since they were students at Glassboro State College in south Jersey; they met when the impoverished Smith used to grab unfinished food off Hamill’s tray at the dorm cafeteria. Smith will then read her own poems and sing a few songs accompanied by Lenny Kaye, her original collaborator in the Patti Smith Group, and her youngest sister, Kimberly, a musician from Richmond, Virginia. “That’s the thing I’m most excited about, because I’m going to see her play a big area,” Smith says with familial pride. She mentions only one song she plans to perform: Two summers ago, she forgot the words as she recited “People Have the Power,” the populist anthem she and Fred wrote that should have been the ’80s sequel to “Imagine.” Smith figures she’ll have to play it early in the show, while her memory’s still fresh.
Don’t, however, expect a greatest-hits revue. This is not time slipping backward, but time, having stopped, starting again. Smith has been writing new songs and is in town recording her first album since 1988’s Dream of Life. In Toronto she performed with cyclonic energy, as if her rest had fueled her fire — teasing the audience, cracking jokes, rolling on the floor, rubbing her crotch (with casual horniness rather than ball-grabbing machismo), and transfixing the crowd with poetry. Her singing was a revelation: Still raspy as a raven’s caw, her vocals had a strength and depth not heard on record. “My voice might be better,” she admits. “I don’t know why. Sometimes I think Fred’s with me — I mean, I always think Fred’s with me — but sometimes, I think my singing seems to have gotten stronger … ”
Smith opened the Toronto show reading “Ballad of a Bad Boy,” one of her earliest poems, written in 1970. She savored the words’ wickedness — “Oh I was bad/Didn’t do what I should/mama catch me with a lickin’/and tell me to be good” — posturing like a young tough. The poem, a sort of blues for Rimbaud, shows the way Smith combined modernist lyric poetry, an unconstrained sexuality, and rock ‘n’ roll mythology to create a playful arena for dreams and transcendent visions. She began her performance career reading in places like the Mercer Arts Center in the early 70s, sometimes accompanied by Kaye on guitar. They gradually formed the Patti Smith Group, and along with bands like Television, turned a Bowery blues bar called CBGB into the center of a new musical scene. The Patti Smith Group’s 1974 debut single, “Hey Joe” b/w “Piss Factory,” has been called the first punk record.
The Group’s four albums — Horses, Radio Ethiopia, Easter, and Wave (all on Arista) — mixed the singer’s incantations with insurrectionary rock structures. Horses and Easter in particular are absolute classics: no self-respecting music collector’s archive is complete without them. Because Smith wrote her lyrics as poems to be chanted and sung, the music frequently slipped out of the verse-chorus grid and into inspired compositional terrain, as on “Land,” a track on Horses that switches from a story about a JD Jesus to a chorus from “Land of 1000 Dances,” and “Ghost Dance,” a rock ‘n’ roll song for an Indian ritual.
Smith was critically acclaimed and a superstar in Europe, but commercial success eluded her in the States until 1978, when “Because the Night,” written with Bruce Springsteen, went to No. 13 on the pop charts. Smith, who as a youth had always felt out of place because of her strange looks and frequent hallucinations (the result of a bout with scarlet fever at age seven), found her footing in New York’s artistic and bohemian circles. But she had grown up in a working-class family, and chose to play rock ‘n’ roll in order to reach more than an elite cadre of Americans. She still has such populist aims, and disappointment edged her voice when she said, “I’ve never gotten a gold record. Even though we had a successful single, we were still looked upon as an underground-type band — alternative, or new wave, whatever they call it.”
Of course, nowadays alternative bands have multiplatinum records; it’s possible they wouldn’t even exist if Smith hadn’t paved the way. She’s been a major influence on some of the most celebrated strains of current pop culture: spoken word, female rockers, the revival of punk. Perhaps with the renewal of her career, she will finally achieve her long overdue success.
Smith may have sabotaged her stardom herself. In 1979 her career was still on the upswing: Wave yielded three of her most popular songs: “Frederick,” “Dancing Barefoot,” and a cover of the Byrds’ “So You Want To Be (A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star).” The band played to its largest audience ever — 80,000 people — in Florence, Italy on September 10, 1979. It was also the Group’s last show. Afterwards Smith announced that she was breaking up the group. She then moved to Detroit with Fred to raise a family.
For fans who felt like Smith’s example had opened up a “sea of possibilities” (as she once sang) for women in particular, and for artists in general, her retreat into domesticity was disappointing. As her absence grew prolonged, and when she dashed hopes of her return by declining to tour for Dream of Life, rumors circulated that Fred was holding her back, as Morrisroe’s book, which doubles as a biography of Patti, implies. Smith’s return to the public eye after her husband’s death certainly adds credibility to this interpretation. The pain of his death is still very close to the surface for her — in Toronto, she barely got through “The Jackson Song,” a sweet tune they wrote for their firstborn, without breaking down — and Smith isn’t ready to talk about this part of her life yet. Even if she did, she’s probably not going to confess that the father of her two kids, for whom she wrote one of the most tender, beautiful love songs ever written by one rocker to another (“Frederick”), was an evil Bluebeard who kept her locked up in a suburban nightmare.
There is a different explanation for her semiretirement, one she’s hinted at in song and verse. It’s there on Wave, in her cover of “So You Want To Be (A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star),” with its warning of fans “who will tear you apart,” and in her fatigue with touring expressed on “Frederick.” But mostly it’s evident in “Florence,” a poem she wrote after that last show (included in the 1994 collection Early Work 1970-1979, published by Norton), in which she questions the artist’s role in the spectacle of the concert:
I have sung to your children. They descended
upon us like waves; like wolves. They have
torn my clothes and collected my hair scraps.
They have trampled my boots. They no longer
And that is as I wish.
What have we done?
We have reinvented frenzy.
Smith’s flight from the sort of adulation that certainly never deterred the Rolling Stones resembles the fear of success that many women experience, a psychological response that’s kept men on top in rock and elsewhere. But Smith was also remaining true to a both punk rock and feminist belief that people should not surrender themselves to leaders: that people have the power. “This is the era where everybody creates,” she sang in the bridge she added to “So You Want To Be (A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star),” rewording the independent credo of do-it-yourself. Inspired by the rock stars of the ’60s, Smith had pursued her dream of the artist as “a saint but with a cowboy mouth,” as she described it in the play she wrote in 1971 with Sam Shepard. But as she began to realize that dream herself, it collided with the degeneration of ’60s utopian fantasies into ’70s stadium nightmares, and contradicted her own populism. Long before there was a record label with that name, Smith — who in 1977 broke her neck when she fell off a Florida stage — knew that people do “kill rock stars.” John Lennon’s murder a year later must have confirmed her worst fears.
“I think our country’s at a crisis point because people just don’t have respect for each other and each others work,” she told me. “The general feeling seems to be if you are a public person — which means you are continually giving something of yourself — that you have to give everything.” Smith specifically cites the modern penchant for unauthorized biographies and movies as evidence of this spiritual malaise, but she’s also reacting to Mapplethorpe, Morrisroe’s book. Smith doesn’t want to be seen as attacking the author, who worked hard on research and was authorized to write the book by the photographer before he died. But she’s disappointed with a book that has been criticized for portraying Mapplethorpe — and herself — in a lurid fashion, more as freaky bohemians than inspired artists.
“Obviously there’s a lot of sensationalism embedded in his life, or even in our life together, our lifestyle,” she said. “But there was also a lot of magic, a lot of innocence, a lot of youth. One can’t forget that things that were addressed in that book were done by people who were 20, 21, 22, who were still amazed by everything, who were exploring, fearful, awkward …
“Artists are, by the nature of being artists, self-involved or self-possessed. But also, they maintain a certain innocence, partially by continuing to be spoiled children all their lives — like Picasso, who some people say was cruel to his women, but still maintained a certain childlike quality that made him constantly joyful to be alive. So joyful that he created art for nearly 100 years. I think that spirit was not captured [in Morissroe’s book]. Robert’s story was not a depressing story. What could be depressing about having a gift from God? It’s sad, even tragic, that he died at a relatively young age, when he was still at the height of his powers, and still had a thousand ideas. But the whole scenario is not a depressing scenario.
“I was hoping for a book that would give a real sense of Robert as an artist and of the things that drove him internally as well as externally. I think the whole reason a biography was made about Robert was because he had a calling as an artist, which is a rare thing. I knew Robert since he was 20 years old, and he was driven from an early age; he had a definite calling. He wasn’t a hustler who did art, he was an artist. And that to me in itself is something that’s worthy of examination: what does it mean to be called, what does it feel like to be called, what kind of life does one have being called?”
Smith’s own collection of prose poems in tribute to Mapplethorpe, The Coral Sea, will be published by Norton in the spring. She wrote the book shortly after the artist died. “It was my way of dealing with grief,” she says. “I knew he was going to die after a certain point and I wept for him so much while he was still alive that I found when he died I was unable to weep. And so I wrote. Which I think he would have preferred anyway, because Robert liked to see me work.” (Smith’s collection of new pieces, Wild Leaves, remains unfinished; she has had trouble writing since her husband’s and brother’s deaths.)
Whatever her reasons for vanishing during much of the ’80s, her departure was neither complete nor permanent. “I never left,” she cracked messianically to the crowd in Toronto. “I was never gone. I was with you always. When I was cleaning my toilet, I thought of you. When I was doing my laundry, I thought of you. When I was changing my children’s diapers, I thought of you. Do you believe that? You may.” Reports of her appearances in Michigan clubs surfaced occasionally, and she and Fred did record Dream of Life. In 1990 they performed an acoustic version of “People Have the Power” at an AIDS benefit at Radio City Music Hall. In 1992, Hanuman Books published Wool Gathering, a pocket-sized volume of new writings. In ’93 she read at SummerStage, and last year Norton published Early Work.
But those were trickles and spurts compared to the burst of activity this year: reading with Allen Ginsberg in Ann Arbor, performing with Kaye at St. Mark’s Church on New Year’s Day, recording a cover of Nina Simone’s “Don’t Smoke in Bed” for the benefit album Ain’t Nothing but a She Thing, and sitting in with Carolyn Striho and the Detroit Energy Asylum, an outfit that plays a somewhat cumbersome mix of soul, rock, and new wave, at several gigs in Michigan. She performed again with that band in Toronto. “All of them are very heartfelt,” Smith says. “To give somebody to your people is really generous. That group of people really cared about Fred, and they really wanted to help me get back to work. It’s been good for getting me focused for this record.”
Smith has borrowed DEA keyboardist Luis Resto for the album. The band also includes Kaye (who’s producing the disc), Patti Smith Group drummer J. D. Dougherty, and bassist Tony Shanihan (who’s played with Kaye and with John Cale), with guest appearances by sister Kimberly and others. Judging by the few new songs she played in Toronto, it will be a reflective, mystical album populated by ghosts and angels — a continuation of her early work, imbued with new meaning. Although all of you who see her in Central Park could change that. “I always liked performing while we were recording, because I like to keep in contact with the people. Somehow that energy you receive gets funneled into the record. I mean, you’re doing a record for everybody, and I like to go into the studio having a sense of those people — some symbol of them.”
To be a whole person, to enjoy the full range of human creation and participate in the human community, everyone must learn to balance work and family (whether blood or chosen), public and personal life — although the pressures can be particularly difficult for women. Having swung from an artistic, rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle to a domestic one, Smith seems to be finding her center.
“If generally I seem more austere and conservative than you might think, it’s because you have a different focus when you’re a parent,” she explained in a phone call after our interview. “I still have the same intensity in my work, but I don’t need to put it in my lifestyle.” I relish the woman I saw shooting poetry from her hips in Toronto, and I cherish the careful, caring woman who worries about finishing her album before her kids go back to school. In the introduction to Early Work, Smith offers a blessing and maxim that is undoubtedly the key to her own survival: “In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.” ♦