In part 1 of this interview with Patti Smith, a figure of such literary and musical standing that she has survived the countless, essentially meaningless references to her as the godmother of punk, talked about the physical connections she makes when travelling, especially at Uluru on her last tour of Australia.
With the cancellation of Bluesfest and the likelihood that the rest of her tour here in April will be one more victim of a global shutdown in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, that had special poignancy.
Today, in part 2, Smith speaks candidly of not just the decisions she made for herself, her family and her career, but of the essential wrongness of many assumptions made about those decisions. And then expands on a list of heroes whose territories stretch beyond rock and poetry and fill her to this day.
As she says, “no matter what, I have an enthusiasm for work, for my family, and for art, and travel. There are a lot of things to live for”.
That Patti Smith was set to tour Australia again, in her 70s, is only surprising if you hadn’t noticed that for the past 25 years she has worked at what by any standards, let alone those of her peers, was a busy rate. Albums, tours, two memoirs, collections of photography, social activism, and speaking on Bob Dylan’s behalf at the awarding of his Nobel Prize for literature.
In terms of visibility it’s a contrast with most of the 1980s where she pulled back from a public presence to live with husband Fred “Sonic” Smith and their two children. It was really only after the death of her husband in 1994 (followed not long after by the death of her brother), that she returned to full recording and performing mode.
The decisions she made about her time, her career and her family when she withdrew in the early 1980s seemed to some like madness and a few even suggested she was abandoning her calling, as if there was a higher obligation on her to be an artist.
Smith has never regretted that move though, for the benefits to her personal life. I wonder if in some way that separation, that focus away from the professional to the personal had a professional benefit too, maybe being one reason why she is still able to find pleasure and regeneration in work today.
“That’s possible. It’s also the fact that I didn’t destroy my voice, that I stayed healthy,” says Smith.
“But I want to back up a little. My calling, for me, was always for me to be an artist, to be a writer, a poet. I never felt a calling to be a performer, singer, or have a career. A career was never a thought for me.
“I didn’t really sacrifice anything. I might have sacrificed a certain amount of fame or fortune. Maybe I would have recorded more and things like that. But what I really wanted was to evolve as a writer and as a human being.”
The benefits were so obvious to her even if they weren’t to everyone else at first.
“So in those years, in the 16 years when I wasn’t in the public eye, I had a beautiful life as wife and mother, but also I wrote every day. I wrote and studied every morning and I could never have written a book like [her award-winning first memoir] Just Kids or the books I’m writing now had I had not diligently worked on my craft all those years. Something I could not do on the road,” she says.
“My time in public life was exciting, and rewarding but I was not evolving as an artist. Really, if anything I stepped back and embraced my original calling. And in the end, I’ve performed. In the 70s I had four albums; in the late 90s to the present day, I’ve had 10. I think it’s been a very fruitful time.”
The arrogance of those declaring that Smith had stepped away from creativity and some duty because she was not realising that art in front of us – and if it’s not public, it’s not real seemingly - says more about our assumptions about what work and art is, that anything it might say about her commitment to art or family or creativity.
“People are arrogant in many ways. Occasionally a journalist will say to me ‘you didn’t do anything in the 80s’,” she laughs. “I married the person that I loved, I raised two children, I evolved as an artist, and I worked diligently to take care of my family. To say that I did nothing is the height of arrogance. That’s like looking at your mother and saying you never did anything. I worked harder in the ‘80s probably than I ever did.
“It’s also that I like to study. I didn’t have really a highly developed education, after-school, so I had to work very diligently in those years to study books, study the history of art, study poetry. It was my university and I think that it was a blessed time and time well spent.”
The volume and quantity of musical work in the past 25 years – six albums since 1996, preceded by one in 1988 which was her first in nine years - would suggest it was a decade or so of important grounding and development.
“The quality of my work in the past 25 years has a lot to do with all of the ground work made in that particular time.”
Time, motherhood, creativity, the feminine aspect have a wider application. I asked readers for topics to raise with Smith and one that came up a few times was a question about menopause and creativity, or maybe more accurately post-menopause life and creativity.
Is there any connection? Was there more freedom or mental space or different energy?
“I couldn’t really answer you that because in that period of my life I was widowed and then I lost my brother, and had two young children. My life at that time was so difficult and contained so much grief and responsibility that I never really thought about things that that,” she says. “For me, I’ve always worked. I like to think that as an artist, I am an artist: I don’t think of it in terms of gender. I don’t know if my gender strengthens or shifts or makes it different from other writers, I just do my work.
“I’m not the kind of person that makes that kind of self-analysis. For me, my work is good or it’s not good, and I haven’t really made any connections like that. Some people might, I’m just saying simply that that time in my life I was surviving.”
How does she think she survived that time? How well did she survive?
“Very well. Surviving losses that great and then more losses, my parents, some great friends, you just get through it,” says Smith. “I love life. I feel grateful for the gift that I’ve been given. I love to work. I love the work of others. I look forward to new books and new films and new ideas. And above all I had two children and my children magnified my husband.”
Looking more broadly, she says she will usually compare any of her issues with those who she thinks really suffered: the people in post-war Europe or those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki “having to pick up and continue on”, or more recently those in Syria.
“My own trials, though great for me, there’s always someone with greater trials. That philosophy was ingrained in us by my mother,” she says. “You were asking about enthusiasm. No matter what, I have an enthusiasm for work, for my family, and for art, and travel. There are a lot of things to live for. And human memory which brings all of our people with us wherever we go.”
Something else brought up by readers was the fact that over the years as she has been asked about her inspirations and the basis of her creative birth and development, Smith generally has talked about key male artists.
As she said earlier, she thinks of herself and art without gender, but the rest of us aren’t quite so straightforward. Are there significant female figures to sit up there with people she has noted in the past such as Baudelaire or Dylan.
“Certainly. There are many many women. It depends what your conversation is,” says Smith. “A poet like Sylvia Plath, in the work and her manner of expression she hardly has an equal. There are many great artists and painters such as Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo. You can go back to someone like Joan of Arc or Maria Falconetti [French actor of the early 20th century who played Joan Of Arc in the silent class La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc], and Jeanne Moreau.”
Smith also brings in artists she says she admires, “that I couldn’t even match what they do but I like to listen to them”, such as Amy Winehouse and Rhianna, Adele and PJ Harvey.
“Yes I’ve had many male role models, because in the area that I was pushing when I first entered the arena of rock ‘n’ roll, there wasn’t a female that I could liken to. I mean I loved Tina Turner, I loved Joan Baez and I learnt so much by studying the work of Maria Callas,” says Smith. “But in terms of rock ‘n’ roll I was looking at Jimi Hendrix. I was looking at maybe Jim Morrison. I can’t say that I’ve seen any female or male to surpass Jimi Hendrix.”
If there is the slightest hint of defensiveness in Smith it does fade into the greater argument she’s made over many years, whether you agree with her or not, that gender was irrelevant in this discussion.
“When I recorded Horses, that was 1975, and on the back I gave my little manifesto and one of the things was that I created beyond gender. I’ve not ever being hung up on my gender and I also refuse to be defined by it,” she says. “I’m not going to be defined as a female vocalist or a female artist, because men, you don’t call Picasso a male artist. To me, you are an artist, it’s that simple.
“[So] I was never thinking that ‘oh I’m talking only about guys’; I was talking about the people that moved me. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Coltrane and a lot of time listening to Callas and I never really thought of that she is the girl and he is the boy; they were just great artists.”
What did she learn from Maria Callas, an operatic singer of seemingly wholly different character and interest?
“What I learned from Maria Callas, from listening to her and studying her over and over is how to deliver the inner narrative of the song with feeling. So that the listener feels it, feels what the message or the essence of the song is. Because I listened to Maria Callas for years when I was younger and often didn’t have a libretto, sometimes I never knew what the songs were about, but they would still make me cry and they would still make me feel strong, or they would make me feel empowered or ecstatic. I learnt how to find that in the narrative and express it, note by note,” says Smith.
“Of course I’m no Maria Callas but I still could learn that from her. Sometimes when I’m singing a very emotional song, like Pissing In The River, and the build within the song and being able to deliver that, my ability to do that song as well as I possibly could was from studying her. And also her dignity in delivering an aria.”
However, that doesn’t end the point for Smith who recalls the influence of Texan bluesman Johnny Winter, someone else who declined to be defined by how others saw him.
“He was fearless, he would go right into the people,” she recalls. “I never saw anyone so fearless as Johnny Winter, and so when I started performing, I accessed that: go right to the people - don’t sing at them, sing with them. For them.”
Patti Smith was to have played: Bluesfest, Byron Bay, April 9-13; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, April 15-16; Newcastle, Entertainment Centre, April 18; The Forum, Melbourne, April 21-23.
Patti Smith was due to be in conversation with Paul Kelly at Sydney Town Hall on April 8.