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Feature Article

Patti Smith blazes the comeback trail

by Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., May 29, 2000) - - Any list of the 10 most influential albums of the rock era would have to include Patti Smith’s landmark 1975 debut, “Horses.” Nothing quite like its combination of incantatory poetry and garage rock was ever heard before. And although it wasn’t quite the same as what would come to be called punk-rock - it was a little too serious and a little too literary for that - it was the first nationally-distributed album of music that came out of the punk-nurturing New York club scene.

How did she do it? What made this daughter of a South Jersey, blue-collar family think it would be a good idea to rap ecstatic, Rimbaud-influenced poetry over chunky, metallic electric-guitar chords? “I think it’s because that’s all I knew how to do,” said Patti Smith in a recent phone interview from her New York apartment. “I just didn’t think about it. I wasn’t trying to consciously do anything really different. In some ways I was long on guts, maybe short on talent.

Smith would go on to carve out a place in rock history as midwife to punk-rock and godmother to grrrl rock on her way to revolutionizing the role a woman could play in a rock band. She upended the conventional portrait of a female singer as sex symbol, or at the very least -- in her schoolboy suits and with unshaven armpits and tangled hair - she presented an entirely different image of what a sex symbol could look like.

Twenty-five years later, at age 53, Smith is a widow and a mother on the comeback trail. She recently released “Gung Ho,” which garnered rave reviews (“The crowning album of her amazing comeback” gushed Rolling Stone), reunites her with original bandmates Lenny Kaye on guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, and features new band members, including boyfriend Oliver Ray and her 17-year-old guitarist-son, Jackson Smith.

And Smith has returned to the concert stage in the most committed fashion since her early retirement in 1979. Her “Gung Ho 2000” tour comes to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams on Sunday, June 4, as part of Mass MoCA’s opening weekend. New York band Gloria Deluxe will warm up the crowd for Smith, who is slated to perform beneath the open skies in Courtyard D, beginning at 6.

When Smith began performing in the early-‘70s, it was not with the intention to be a rock musician. Rather, hers was an attempt to widen the audience for poetry.

It’s all I knew how to do, said Smith. “Even if it was a presumptuous idea, I was trying to revolutionize the way in which poetry was presented. I started very organically, having a little electric guitar for some sonic aspects to drive the poems.”

The guitarist she began working with was Lenny Kaye, whom to this day is the guitarist in her recording and touring band. The duo’s early poetry-and-guitar gigs at St. Mark’s Church in New York’s East Village are now the stuff of legend.

Bit by bit Smith added musicians to the ensemble. First came keyboardist Richard Sohl, then drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, then bassist Ivan Kral, until the Patti Smith Group was a full-fledged rock band performing partially-improvised, 20-minute song-poems segueing into classic rock and R&B songs at punk clubs like CBGBs.

The opening track of “Horses” set the basic pattern. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” moans Smith over a piano-and-guitar riff. At some point, the narrator goes to a party, sees a girl leaning on a parking meter, and before you know it, Smith is barrelling into the Van Morrison/Them classic, “Gloria.”

A handful of albums followed in quick succession. After “Horses” came “Radio Ethiopia,” “Easter” and then “Wave” in 1979. “Easter” spawned Smith’s biggest radio hit, “Because the Night,” a collaboration with fellow Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen.

Following “Wave,” however, Smith fell off the rock ‘n’ roll radar. After marrying Fred “Sonic” Smith, guitarist for the seminal garage-rock band the MC5, she moved to Detroit, her husband’s hometown. They lived in semi-seclusion, raising a family and collaborating on the album which would eventually be released as “Dream of Life” in 1988, which spawned the hit anthem, “People Have the Power.

On the heels of this tentative return to the public eye, interest in Smith grew to its highest point since the late-‘70s, when she was enough of a mainstream icon to be satirized by Gilda Radner as “Candy Slice” on “Saturday Night Live.”

In the early-‘90s, Smith was hailed as a seminal influence on “alternative rock,” saluted by bands like Nirvana and U2. The latter covered her tune “Dancing Barefoot.” Other groups began recording her songs, including 10,000 Maniacs, which had an MTV-hit with their version of “Because the Night,” and Smith was touted as an inspiration to the new wave of tough female rockers like Liz Phair, Johnette Napolitano and Courtney Love.

About her influence on a whole new generation of rockers, Smith said, “I always like to see people do their own work. I’d never take responsibility or claim to be of any more importance than they say. But if people do say that, I’m proud of that. One of the reasons one does work is to inspire others. So if that’s the case, that’s a good thing.”

Fred Smith died in 1994, and afterward Smith slowly began her return to a more public profile. She joined Allen Ginsberg and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. at fund-raisers for Tibet. She returned to the concert stage for a series of one-shot dates in 1985, and at the end of the year opened a series of shows in New England and the Northeast for her old friend, Bob Dylan. Her death-haunted 1996 album “Gone Again” - in addition to her husband, in quick succession she lost her longtime friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and her brother Todd -- marked her return to recording. “Peace and Noise” followed the next year. “Gung Ho,” which came out earlier this year, is perhaps Smith’s most accessible album, featuring radio-ready tunes like “Glitter in their Eyes” with guest vocals by Michael Stipe, next to vintage Smith epics like “Strange Messengers” and the title track. The question is, in a music market currently overwhelmingly dominated by corporate-manufactured artists, can Smith make a dent? Can she even get a hearing?

Smith, who once proudly wailed, “Outside of society, that’s where I want to be,” seems philosophical about the changing nature of the pop-music scene. “I think young artists are a lot more sophisticated, and they’re participating a lot more in and strategizing their own exploitation,” said Smith. “In other words, they’re more hands-on, and it’s become a whole acceptable genre. Instead of it seeming really square or selling out, it’s actually appealing to new generations to be involved in marketing and even mild self-exploitation. And I think it’s just part of the materialism of our times.

“It doesn’t make these people bad or anything like that. I just think they mirror how our times have changed. That artists, instead of wanting to be happy and proud to be on the fringe of society, are more happy being within it. I think fortune and fame are a lot more important these days to artists. “People are very economy-oriented, they’re not spiritually-oriented or revolutionary-oriented or they’re not environmentally-oriented. They’re economically-oriented, and I don’t see that as a healthy thing.” Does Smith see this as having an adverse affect on the art itself? “Only art is art. If something is true art, it will endure. True artists and true art will always rise above this.

“But I think right now high art is not as big a preoccupation as successful art, or successful artistic ventures. There’s a lot of difference between something being artistic and actual art. I think we’re certainly in an artistic age: commercials are artistic, videos are artistic, and clothing, photography, advertising…..We’re in a very artistic age, but very little art is being produced.”

For Smith, the true test comes in live performance, which is what draws her back to the concert stage. “I’m always striving to communicate one on one with the people, in the moment,” she said. “I’m always at risk of going through a lot of things on any given night. I’ll have ecstatic moments, very self-conscious moments, just very blank moments, very revolutionary moments.

“Every night is different, and the course of the night is different. That’s one of the things that makes performing for me so wonderful and difficult. Our band really strives to reach whatever heights we can, but also be aware that we are in the present and also that we are amongst our people, and we’re not playing at the people.

“We’re not just entertaining a faceless crowd. We’re trying to have some kind of communication, some kind of meaningful exchange with the people….Sometimes I have more confidence than ever; sometimes it seems like I feel just like I did in 1973 and I can access the same energy I had then. And sometimes I feel totally exhausted. I’m still a similar style of performer; I’ve just evolved to a different place. It’s still me, though.” Tickets to Patti Smith are $19 in advance and $24 the day of the concert. Tickets are available through the Mass MoCA box office at 87 Marshall St. in North Adams from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. through Sunday. Tickets can also be charged by phone by calling 662-2111 during box office hours or purchased on line at www.massmoca.org.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 2, 2000. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2000. All rights reserved.]



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