Music quieter, but Smith no less outspoken


June 18, 2004



With the new "Trampin'," the fourth album that Patti Smith has released since she returned to performing in 1996, the Chicago native turned legendary godmother of punk has given us what may be her most political recording.

Like her old friend and collaborator, Bruce Springsteen, Smith felt compelled to comment about 9/11 and the war in Iraq, but she goes much further than the Boss did on "The Rising." The music may lack the ferocious drive of her best early work -- there's no "Free Money" or "Gloria" here, just a lot of quieter folk-rock -- but the outspoken poet and singer has lost none of her courage or conviction when it comes to speaking out.

I talked with Smith by phone as she was in the midst of a tour that brings her to the Skyline Stage at Navy Pier on Thursday night.



  • 8 p.m. Thursday
  • Skyline Stage at Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand
  • Tickets, $35 (18-over show)
  • (312) 559-1212

  • Q. You're on a short list of artists who've dared to take an outspoken political stand in these turbulent times. How is the new album being received in that regard?

    A. Well, I think like all our records, it takes a while for a record to permeate the public consciousness, but I've actually been pretty pleased with the reception. Anyone that hears it seems to really like it and to appreciate its breadth. There are some people that seem very reactionary about certain political ideas, but I think that the record isn't as political as it is humanistic. That's why a song like "Radio Baghdad" -- which is obviously from the point of view of myself, a person who was against the strike on Iraq--that's why the actual piece is from the point of view of a mother. I felt like one can't argue the position of a mother trying to protect her children.

    "Radio Baghdad" is from the point of view of an Iraqi woman who loves her country, who is recounting the history of her country and her city, but also is trying to protect her children the night that we bombed. I'm not articulate politically, but I am a human being. I'm a mother. And I can look at things from a mother's point of view.

    Q. That's the other concept that permeates the entire record--the notion of motherhood.

    A. It was completely conscious, because when I stood back and examined it, it was obvious, and there are obvious reasons: My mother had passed away right before we started writing songs. I know her spirit is within me; it also permeates the album. But thematically, it just evolved that way.

    "Jubilee" is about having the sort of American-mother-courage-type person praising her land but also being considerate about the state of things and the people. "Mother Rose" is a song for my mom. "Cartwheels" is for my daughter, and "Radio Baghdad" is from the mother's point of view. It moves right through the album.

    Q. Were you consciously trying to make a connection between "Radio Baghdad" and your earlier song "Radio Ethiopia"?

    A. Well, it happened organically. I mean, there's an obvious connection. The way the song evolved, I came into our practice room and [guitarist] Oliver Ray had written the chords and the riff and the structure, and the band was jamming on it. I stood there and listened to this music -- and we had just bombed Iraq and Baghdad -- and I had an instantaneous vision that this piece of music would be an improvised field on those chords and that it should be called "Radio Baghdad." So, obviously, it does resonate with "Radio Ethiopia," with the same type of idea.

    I was very concerned about the state of things in Ethiopia at the time [1976] -- there was a famine -- and I was concerned about the Ethiopian people. Those concerns came out abstractly on an improvised field. So, in that way, there are similarities.

    Q. This album does seem to have the loosest feel of any of the records you've made since you returned to performing in 1996. Were you consciously moving back into the improvised free-jazz areas you first explored with the "Radio Ethiopia" album?

    A. Well, we do move into that area on every record. There are songs on every single one of my records that were completely improvised in the studio, from "Birdland" to "Memento Mori"; "Peace and Noise," "Gung Ho," "Strange Messenger." We do improvise, but this particular album has two very focused improvisations, "Gandhi," and "Radio Baghdad." Just as a band, we've been together now over eight years, we have a lot of confidence and trust in each other, we produced the record ourselves, so the whole album reflects only us.

    Q. Is it odd to think that at this point, this group has been together longer than the original Patti Smith Group?

    A. Yes, but also, in a way, it makes sense, because I created my first group with a specific mission. That specific mission was finite in that I had only started that band hopefully to inspire others, or to inspire some kind of movement in rock 'n' roll, or to return rock 'n' roll to the hands of the people. I felt that the mission I tried to accomplish was accomplished, but with these musicians, it was a different type of mission. This mission is very work-oriented; it's not as conceptual. We're working on things and evolving, and we're not trying to create a new movement as I was hoping to in the '70s. We're trying to continue to contribute and respond to the world around us.

    Q. Many people say that rock 'n' roll just doesn't have the same cultural force that it had in the '60s and '70s. Certainly, very few artists have come forward to talk as directly about the current political situation.

    A. Well, you're absolutely right. I don't know exactly why. I know, in terms of the atmosphere in the country, I think the Bush administration was very adept in really developing the atmosphere of fear in our country. And fear and nationalism do not produce art -- or they produce reactive art. I can't really account for why else certain artists didn't respond or speak out anymore than I can account for why our Congress didn't oppose Bush when he wanted a blank check to strike Iraq. There was so little dissent in our own Congress. One would have to really speak to these people and ask them, "Why would you stay silent?"

    You would think learned people should know the difference between patriotism and nationalism. You read the Declaration of Independence -- Jefferson clearly points out that we have to be vigilant, and if our government isn't serving us properly, turn it over! I mean, it's a very revolutionary document. He did not want to create an atmosphere for Americans to be sheep. I thought the fact that no one questioned or fought against him was very unpatriotic.

    Q. But when you look at your kids and their generation, do you think that it's possible for rock 'n' roll to have the power that it had -- or that poetry or theater had -- for your generation in the '60s and the '70s?

    A. I think it always has the power. I always have faith that a new breed or a new guard will be the next Paul Reveres and wake the people up, and the other people will follow. I believe in change. If it isn't one generation, it'll be the next generation.

    Just because things aren't going our way doesn't mean we turn away. We have to keep setting examples. That's why somebody like Ralph Nader keeps doing his work. I know people don't understand that, or they fear that, but people have to keep setting examples for the future. Like William Blake -- he was poverty-stricken at his death, he was ridiculed in his life, he was misunderstood, he never had any success, people didn't buy his work, they didn't display his work, and yet he kept working. He was on his deathbed still working on his etchings and his drawings, and he set an example for us all to work under those conditions -- to keep a hold of your visions. I always try to use that as counsel.

    Q. Isn't that a piece of Blake's art on the opening page of your Web site (

    A. Yes, that's "Glad Day." In fact, the first line of our album is, "Oh glad day." And "Glad Day" is the name of the painting with the arms outstretched.

    Q. Let's switch gears: There's been quite a bit of controversy in Chicago between filmmakers David Thomas and Laurel Legler and the surviving members of the MC5, particularly Wayne Kramer, who are blocking the release of their film, "MC5: A True Testimonial." You were married to the late MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith. Where do you stand on the issue?

    A. I feel very sad about it. I haven't seen the film, but my son has seen it. He thinks it's great. He really wanted to see it come out. I mean, I've done everything that I can legally do to help them. The MC5 era was before my time, so I know very little about it, except that I hope that the filmmakers get a chance to distribute their film. I don't have very much respect for Wayne Kramer as a human being, so I can't really make any judgment. I haven't found him to be an honorable person. I shouldn't comment on it because I haven't seen the film, but I take my son's word that it was good and good for his dad.

    They were a great band and they should be remembered. And they should be remembered together. This film is a very good opportunity to give them recognition. I don't understand why he would want to block it except for monetary reasons. The only reason I haven't seen it is just it's hard for me to watch Fred. It's just painful.

    Q. Another piece of ancient history that I've always wanted to ask you about, if you'll indulge me, is your roots as a rock critic. You contributed to Creem magazine along with Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, and Richard Meltzer, and Tosches wrote the lyrics for your song "Distant Fingers." I'm curious to know your thoughts about that era of rock criticism.

    A. Well, they were pioneers. I did some writing in that period, but not as much as any of them. These people and people like Paul Williams were very dedicated. Writing about rock 'n' roll was evolving, and the writers were evolving just as the form was evolving. I think that everyone was interested in merging various things in one form: revolution, poetry, politics. The difference perhaps between me and some of these writers is that I did not become disillusioned in my life, nor did I destroy myself with substance abuse. I think that, unfortunately, some of our great writers had difficult lives, but their contribution was great. It was a great energy. They had a lot of belief. If I noted anything, though, a lot of writers became quite cynical, and I think that's because as they evolved, they got too involved in lifestyle -- as a lot of musicians and a lot of people got so involved in lifestyle -- and the content of the work suffered. And cynicism is not a good place to work from.

    Q. How have you avoided that sort of cynicism or self-destruction? Both are such a big part of rock 'n' roll, and so many people fall into those traps.

    A. I think the thing is one has to focus on the work; that to me is always the most important. It's always the work. Their life can always be interesting and romantic, but it's nothing without the work.

    I cherish work. Through my life, I like looking cool, the power of the image, and I love the way this person or that person dressed. I had orange pants like George Harrison, an outfit like Bob Dylan on the cover of Tarantula, and I dressed like Baudelaire. I still enjoy those things, but they were what they were, and what was always the most important to me was to do good work. The other stuff was either fun or peripheral. When material things like lifestyle or image come first, that's what you're going to be left with. That's not going to endure. People aren't going to remember that.