poet, singer, mother: patti smith is back

     by neil strauss

[from the new york times, december 12, 1995]

On Thanksgiving weekend, Patti Smith, the influential poet and musician of the 1970's, traveled to Philadelphia to visit the grave of her brother, Todd, who died of a stroke last year. She left not flowers but cigarettes.

The last time Ms. Smith, who is 49, saw her brother was at Thanksgiving 1994. It was then that he consoled her after the loss of her husband, the former MC5 guitarist Fred (Sonic) Smith, who had died of heart failure only weeks before, and urged her to start performing again after a 16-year hiatus.

"When I saw my brother last year, he took me for a drive, and he had the soundtrack to 'Natural Born Killers,' " Ms. Smith said, speaking by telephone from Worcester, Mass., on the way to a concert in Boston as part of a tour with Bob Dylan. "My song 'Rock-and- Roll Nigger' is on it, and he put it on really loud, and we drove around. I was just totally desolate, and he said: 'I'm going to get you back on your feet. You're going to go back to work. Working will help you.' He said, 'I'm going to be right there with you.' And that's the last time I saw him alive. We talked about it for a few days, and I felt that with his help I could do it. And he's still helping me in my heart."

(Ms. Smith played in Manhattan last night at the Beacon Theater as an opening act for Mr. Dylan, and is to return there with him on Thursday night for another sold-out show.)

From the belligerent Bohemian punk poet of the 70's who galvanized the New York underground to the loving wife and mother of the 80's who shocked her fans by disappearing to the Detroit suburb of St. Clair Shores, Ms. Smith has stayed true to the refrain of "Rock- and-Roll Nigger": "Outside of society is where I want to be."

Though Ms. Smith had only one hit, "Because the Night," which she wrote in 1978 with Bruce Springsteen, her spirit hangs over much of today's rock-and-roll, from the dozens (possibly hundreds) of band inspired by her 1975 debut album, "Horses," to the music of the alternative-rock band Sonic Youth, which was inspired not just by her poetry but also by her raucous guitar-playing.

Where some fans snidely say that Ms. Smith withdrew from the music world to become a housewife, Ms. Smith takes pride. "I don't mind being called a housewife, though I didn't disappear to be a housewife," she said. "I disappeared to be by the side of the man that I loved. It was a sometimes difficult but always honorable position, and I think nothing greater could have happened to me at that time. I learned a lot of things in that process: humility, respect for others. We had two beautiful children, and I developed my skills and hopefully developed into the clean human being that I was as a child."

"People like to think that you went and stopped working," she continued. "There's no job harder than being a wife and a mother. It's a position that should be respected and honored, not looked upon as some sappy alternative. It's much more demanding, and required much more nobility than the other work I did. Hopefully, I can inject some of the things that I learned from that experience into the work that I'm doing now."

Ms. Smith appears to be taking on a new image in the 90's, that of an extremely empathetic and compassionate woman pushed back into the public eye by the hand of death. On the new album she is completing in New York, her first since she recorded "Dream of Life" in 1988 with her husband, there are songs not only for Mr. Smith (who was 44 when he died), but also for other talented musicians who fell victim to early death, including Kurt Cobain and Jerry Garcia.

"I've seen a lot death lately," she said. "When we did 'Dream of Life,' I had a child, the engineer had a child and Jimmy Iovine, one of the producers, had a child. Three children were born in the process of making 'Dream of Life.' And now, when I look back at that record, Richard Sohl, my keyboard player, died and Fred died and Robert Mapplethorpe died, all of whom had key roles in the creating of that record. And so three children were born and three men died: that's the beautiful way of life."

In addition to the new album, to be released on Arista in the spring, Ms. Smith also has a book, "The Coral Sea," to be published in May by W. W. Norton that she wrote when Mr. Mapplethorpe, the photographer and one of her closest friends, died of AIDS in 1989. When asked which was more important to her, having her own music heard or spreading the names and legacies of friend and relatives who had died, Ms. Smith quickly chose the second.

"I don't have any particular message right now," she said. "My main thing is to make a good life for my children, and to get strong myself. Globally, I'm most concerned with people showing consideration to each other and to the planet. Doing music in memory of and in respect to others will turn into other things because if you have respect for your fellow man, you'll want things to be good for your fellow man. And, hopefully, that will extend to respecting the planet."

The tour has been going smoothly so far, Ms. Smith said. Her band includes her longtime collaborators, the guitarist Lenny Kaye and the drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, as well as Tom Verlaine, the singer and guitarist in the band Television, which circulated in the same underground scene that Ms. Smith did in the 70's. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. is also traveling with her, not to make music but to lend encouragement. With Mr. Dylan's blessing, the band is performing his song "Wicked Messenger" in concert.

"The atmosphere was happy at our first show," MS. Smith said. "I thought the audience was basically Bob's people, but they seemed real happy to see us because they know that I'm one of Bob's people, too. They couldn't lose, and neither could I. I feel nothing but joy. If I had to spar with a hostile audience every night, I'd still be happy."

Ms. Smith said she would not tour when her album comes out unless her children -- her son, Jackson, 13, and her daughter, Jesse, 8 -- are on school vacation. But that does not mean that her recent productivity is just an isolated burst. "As long as I think I have something worthwhile to impart on the people, I'll do work," she said. "I think right now if all I can do is be a small reminder to people that in the face of all of our difficulties, all of our sorrow, all of our personal tragedies and disappointments, we can still be all right . . ."

Ms. Smith broke off in the middle of her sentence and paused. "I didn't really articulate that the way I wanted to," she continued. "Basically what I'm trying to say is, 'Well, it's good to be alive.'"

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