Patti Smith
Photo by Christopher Felver

Patti Smith: “Rock 'n roll belongs to the people”

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Short Profile

Name: Patricia Lee Smith
DOB: 30 December 1946
Place of Birth: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Occupation: Musician

Ms. Smith, are musicians these days put on too high of a pedestal for your taste?

I don’t believe people playing rock 'n' roll should have crowns. We’re not kings and queens. Anybody can play it.


Rock 'n' roll belongs to the people. When I started playing I couldn’t sing very well and I couldn’t play an instrument. I didn’t know anything about technology. I’d never been in front of a microphone. I didn’t know shit, but I did know rock 'n' roll and I did believe that it was mine and I was one of the people and it was my art and I felt it was my right to get up and embrace it and to express my feelings through it by adding poetry or political energy or whatever. So it is not a matter of being humble or a matter of being divided, it is just that my definition of rock 'n' roll has an air of the common man about it.

Do you still consider yourself a rock star?

I’m not really a musician. I’m a performer and I love rock 'n' roll. I’ve embraced rock 'n' roll because it encompasses all the things I’m interested in: poetry, revolution, sexuality, political activism – all of these things can be found in rock 'n' roll. But I am also engaged in all of these things separately. I don’t have an image of myself, when I’m walking down the street, like I’m a rock star or something. I’m a human being, I’m a friend, I'm a mom, I'm a writer, and I'm an artist. I do play electric guitar and all of that but in the end I’m just a person. I really don't live like a rock star, economically or socially. I still live a pretty simple life beside the traveling aspect of it. I live with my daughter and she always has musicians and friends sleeping in our living room. We live a happy, sort of discordant life.

“The real thing is the actual purity of the connection and that doesn’t have a star, an icon, a lower person, it's just a pure thing.”

Are you tired of being seen as a role model after all these years?

Truthfully no, because I think people mean it in the best way. It’s just like I would mean it in the best way if I met Walt Whitman and started blabbering to Walt Whitman or William Blake. I knew William Burroughs really well and I was always star struck being around him. I adored him. I think it's nice. It makes me feel good but it doesn’t make me feel like I’m any better or anything; it just makes me feel like we’ve made some kind of connection, as an artist or as a performer trying to communicate.

But you still seem to be a person who is not always comfortable with being famous…

All of this stuff if you call it flattery or whatever, yes it's awkward, it's awkward for you and it’s a little awkward for me but in the end we connected and that is pure. That has no hierarchy, that has no pedestal, it's just so. So that other stuff is just human, we can’t help it; we get self-conscious and excited, that’s just what it is. The real thing is the actual purity of the connection and that doesn’t have a star, an icon, a lower person, it's just a pure thing. So that’s really what we’re talking about and that makes me happy and if we can find some unifying principal despite what we all look like and act like, that’s the shit.

We connect with rock 'n' roll not just through the music, but also through the people and the images of them. Your image is strongly connected to the picture that Robert Mapplethorpe took of you for the cover of your album Horses.

I love that picture. It represents my friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe and it just represents me how I was. I didn’t dress up special for the picture – that’s just what I wore. Image was important to me because the image of Bob Dylan was so strong. The image of Baudelaire was so strong. Image has beautiful aspects about it but except for beauty without substance, beauty can be forgotten with a new image. So I think that the image of Jim Morrison was a strong image, but what was stronger was his work. Without songs like “Texas Radio” and “Riders of the Storm,” we would get tired of the image and there would be a new image. But these images last because the work that backed it up was truly great. That is what made him iconic.

You became the voice of a generation. Why do you think that was?

What we wanted to do was open things up, back to the grass roots, back into the hands of the people. CBGB gave us a place where we could play our own music and dress the way we wanted and none of us had any money. When I recorded Horses and went out into the world in ’75, the thing I always told everybody was, “Start your own band.” I met a drummer in the seventies when he was really a kid in Ireland and I said, “Start your own band, you can do it.” He ended being in U2 later on. Because the idea for me was that rock 'n' roll could start a universal people’s movement that would be anti war that would be vigilant towards our environment, it would be free and there would be global communication through it.

When you look back on the New York you knew in the seventies, how does it make you feel looking at what New York is like today?

It's shocking, I still can’t believe it. Tom Verlaine and I lived in the East Village, we had a place that cost maybe a hundred dollars a month - six floor walk up with no bathroom - and now that same apartment is like a thousand dollars. Not only did it change aesthetically because they destroyed a lot of places, but the beauty of New York City for me was that people could come from all over – young people, people of any age – with ideas, with no money, but had creative instincts, or a plan, a design could come and get some cheap apartment, get a job at a book store as I did, and build their life. You can’t do that anymore; it’s a completely different economic structure. I mean I look at cafes and there are no people sitting around writing poetry anymore.

Just people with laptops…

Exactly. Just families, people with cell phones, business people, people setting up photo shoots and stuff like that. It’s a whole different atmosphere. It's so stressful that I just leave. The way our big cities change sucks. People should be careful because we are losing the creativity. The beauty of cities was that they were edgy, sometimes even a little dangerous. Artists, poets, and activists could come and unify and create different kinds of scenes. Not just fashion scenes, scenes that were politically active. When I walk into a cafe these days with my notebook to write poetry, it is so stressful that I just leave. Big cities are getting so high-end oriented, business corporate fashion, fashion not in an artistic sense but in a corporate sense. I don’t know, for me that edgy beauty of cities is lost, wherever you go.

There is no struggle in New York anymore. All the people that make a city cool can’t afford to be there anymore.

True. Also you have people coming in from suburbs, since cities now are hip and cleaned up. But they all want their suburban things. So you have so many Starbucks, K-Marts, banks…

“New generations have unprecedented power to make great changes.”

Now there is even a bank on Avenue C.

When we were living there you didn’t need any banks because we had no money to put in it.

Do you also see this development in the music industry?

Yes, the only upside thing of this development is the Internet and that the scene to me is now online. People said to me before, “Oh CBGB is destroyed, where is CBGB?" It’s on Myspace. When people ask me, “Where are the new bands?” I always tell them that they are on Myspace. I have a Myspace account, my daughter set it up for me. I don’t really care about it, but what I do is just go on random people’s music sites and check it out.

Anything good?

What I find interesting is that all these people that probably nobody will ever hear of are animating their creative spirit. I think it’s really great that people share their work and no one is paying for it. I think that’s a very healthy thing and it’s not a corporate thing. I know that it's under that umbrella that might be corporate but in the end you’re just going to see a bunch of people who sometimes have this wacky shit on, some of it is good, some of it is really good, some of it is really bad, and some of it is really funny, but it’s an equal opportunity. Our time is just very materialistic. But it doesn’t help anybody just sitting around saying that it's all full of shit.

Do you have an idea for a solution?

What we have to understand is that new generations can infiltrate this. New generations have unprecedented power to make great changes. Take the music business for example. The new generations have toppled the music industry by file sharing, downloading, and Myspace. Rock 'n' roll belongs to the people.