In a year of comebacks great and small, none is more welcome than the return of rock poet Patti Smith. A true legend of the late '70s punk era, Smith -- whose influence is still felt in music and literature -- only recently started performing again. And after a drought of some 16 years, Philadelphia will be treated to a veritable bumper crop of appearances over the holiday season.
"It gives me a chance," Smith explains from her home in Detroit, "to say 'Hello' to the people in the Philadelphia area who have always been really supportive."
On Nov. 25, Smith -- a published poet with many books to her credit -- will appear at the Theatre of the Living Arts for a rare series of spoken word performances. On Dec. 15, 16 and 17, she will open with a full band for Bob Dylan at the Electric Factory.
Smith's mixture of poetry and rock -- on such seminal albums as Horses and Easter -- is perhaps the purest synthesis of those two forms. As a writer, she had a rhythmic quality as pronounced at times as a backbeat. It was only a matter of time before she started working with music.
"I think that was just part of my nature that I didn't understand," she reflects. 'The rhythmic aspect of my writing was pointed out to me by [actor and playwright] Sam Shepard. I met Sam Shepard in late 1970, and we wrote together and wrote a play together. And he started reading my writings and it was him who really encouraged me. I mean, he deeply encouraged me to continue my writing. He said the music was already there.
"It had never occurred to me to sing. And Sam really encouraged me. You know, he asked me to write song lyrics to one of his plays -- Mad Dog Blues. And I said, 'I don't know how to write song lyrics.' And he said, 'You write them all the time!'" Smith laughs.
"And a lot of it, I think, just came from my own being. I mean, my life coincided with the life of rock 'n' roll. I practically saw it born. I was a little girl with Little Richard started singing, and I really saw the whole evolution of rock 'n' roll in my lifetime -- from Elvis Presley on through Motown, and then the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and then all the great '60s work.
"And when I was merging poetry and music I had all of that within me. I had great role models like Jim Morrison to Mick Jagger to Jimi Hendrix. Basically male role models. But none of it was premeditated because it never occurred to me that I would be doing anything like that myself. First of all, girls really didn't do that." She chuckles again.
Smith was more than capable of competing in the male-dominated rock world. The Patti Smith Group, led by rock critic Lenny Kaye on lead guitar, was a blistering unit. Displaying the influence of proto-punkers like the Stooges and the MC5, they were the perfect complement for their frontwoman's freeform verbal excursions.
As a performer, Smith owed much to the incantory chants of Allen Ginsberg and the jazz recitations of Jack Kerouac, but her real antecedent was the ancient tradition of the shaman -- the tribal sorcerer who acted as a medium for extrasensory worlds. With her hypnotic torrent of images, Smith could truly transport an audience outside itself. While Jim Morrison might have defined the other side, it was Smith who actually broke on through.
"I have a sort of interactive approach to performance," she explains. "I feel really comfortable onstage. I don't get too nervous. I mean, if I get nervous, I just tell everybody, 'Well, I'm nervous. We're all going to have to be nervous for a while.'
"I feel in my element, I suppose. I just view however the night is as partially directed by the energy of the people. You know, if the people are real low-key perhaps the night will be low-key. If there's a charged atmosphere, we'll have a charged night. And I really think it's partially the people's responsibility to decide what kind of night they want.
"I mean, I played in San Francisco. We had two shows. And the first show was, I could say, conservatively structured. It was upbeat but more of a typical poetry reading with some music. And the second show, just an hour later, was kind of wild. The people were more energetic and more interactive, and the show sort of lost its structure and it's like we were having a little party together with poetry and music.
"So when we do it in Philly, I'll just come onstage, and we'll start talking and we'll see where we go."
In 1979, the flow led Smith out of the music business altogether. Her retirement took most people by surprise. The year before she had enjoyed a hit single with the Bruce Springsteen collaboration "Because the Night," which 10,000 Maniacs recently covered. She had just reached a new level of popularity.
"I didn't even think of it as retiring," she said. "It's a very stable thing, which I tried to explain to people, but sometimes they found it unacceptable. I mean, I've read everything -- that I burned out, that I was on drugs -- which was totally untrue.
"I was actually at the top of my game. In Europe, the last show we did was without an opening act. We played before 70,000 people in Florence. And we were very successful in Europe. And that was the last job I did -- for 70,000 people and it was just our show.
"But the reason I left was because I had met a man who I deeply loved. Who had been through all of that. Who wanted a quiet life, to raise a family."
That man was former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith.
"I found it really unbearable to be parted from him. And everything lost its meaning. When I began to perform, I did my work with my group with all my heart. It took all of my energy. I put it before everything. And I could no longer do that. And so when I worked, I felt -- not like a phony -- but I just felt like I wasn't giving what the people deserved to have. And I just didn't want to be parted from Fred.
"I felt good when I left because I felt my initial reason for being involved in that world was hopefully to create space and inspire others. I was intentionally trying to create space for some kind of idealistic minority. You know, if you felt like an alien, whether that was a black homosexual, a thief, a female. You know, whatever.
"I feel that my group achieved that goal. And we didn't start work to achieve fame and fortune. That wasn't supposed to be our goal. And that was where it was heading. So I felt it was an honorable leave taking."
Smith's return to active duty, sadly, was prompted by the sudden death of her husband last fall.
"Fred was a great man," his wife sighs. "I'm trying to still do work on his behalf.
"I really just started working for a few reasons. Fred and I had planned to record this summer -- not only as a means of self-expression -- but as our livelihood, to take care of our family. So I took on the duty. We had a lot of plans to do things. And so I had to go and do them myself. But also I find the most positive way for me to restructure my life is to work. It also involves me with other people -- reinvolves me with my friends -- and that's comforting. A lot of it's the camaraderie."
This week's shows at the TLA -- what Smith called "my little guerrilla warfare" -- should have a special poignancy.
"I just decided to do these dates because I'm going to be in New Jersey for the holidays. My brother also passed away last year. We were very, very close. And the last time I saw him as Thanksgiving holiday, and we had a great talk. He felt really that the best way to pull my life together was to get back to work. And my brother was teh head of my crew when I had the Patti Smith Group.
"And so I really looked forward, despite my grieving, to the idea of being able to work with my brother again, which really made me happy. But then my brother passed away. So I thought it would be nice, being as I'm going to be in the area a year later, to do a couple of little shows in memory of my brother. 'Cause he loved when I performed. Also, I'll be raising money for a musician in New York who fell on bad times. He's extremely ill and he has no medial insurance. It's a nice thing to do on Thanksgiving."
The shows with Dylan -- part of a handful of dates in New England and Pennsylvania -- will reunite Smith with Lenny Kaye and original Patti Smith Group drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. Rounding out the band will be Tony Shanahan on bass, who will also accompany Smith on acoustic guitar at the TLA. Anything could happen at the concerts. "We did a lot of improvisation," Smith said of the old days. "A lot, I'd say 70, 80 percent of the poetry. 'Cause I don't have a good memory for long streams of poetry."
Yet even with all this musical activity, Smith still considers herself "basically a writer." Indeed, her most recent projects -- Woolgathering, a collection of new pieces, and Early Work, a compilation of pre-stardom writing -- have been books.
"I've had times," Smith said of the creative process, "when I was euphoric because something beautiful had come to me from someplace else, that I was a mouthpiece for some energy force.
"But then I've also had dry spells, where I felt completely abandoned, where I felt the muse had left me or I felt like, 'I'm going to write on my own. I don't need the muse.' It's a continuous struggle, but I think that's part of the beauty of it. When you cease to struggle, usually you stop working."
Copyright © Ramsay Pennbacker 1995