Patti Smith’s records will be on the shelves of people who change the world. Maybe that defines my destiny in some way. Fact is, I almost puked before this interview. I ran to the bathroom gagging, which was weird. It’s hard to believe in things, and really to experience an honest moment of sweaty arm-pit truth. It’s like the time I watched Patti Smith eat a hamburger in Santa Monica a few years ago. It was a milestone—an awkward one—where I essentially could think of nothing else but this monumental hamburger. I felt like a child, just in the moment realizing I was alive and my whole world unfolded before my eyes, and I knew one day I would talk to this woman, and I wondered what I would say. All I could think was, ‘What’s it like to eat a hamburger? I mean, a really important one. I mean, have you … err, I, uh … hamburger. Hamburger. Hamburger.’ This interview by Daiana Feuer.
I thought I was going to puke a little bit before, to be honest.
Oh no no no—don’t do that. It’ll be easy. How can I help you?
Well, that’s a whole conversation we can’t accomplish in 15 minutes. But let’s start with the new album, Banga. There’s a lot of good stories on there. There’s a little bit of fiction, but some of it’s based on true things. How’s that bring you to a sense of truth?
Records are impressionistic. Even the story about Vespucci Amerigo coming to the new world is slanted a bit. It’s how I imagine things. They’re songs, ya know? There’s a song for Johnny Depp’s birthday—my impression of Johnny’s life, but there’s fact in there. He was born on the sabbath day, under a full moon and he was born at the Sister of Mercy hospital. Other lines are poetically encoding things about his life. Same as the song for Maria.
Do you feel that your writing needs a character in the center—something to cushion or revolve around?
Not usually, but this album is very character-driven. I didn’t realize until somebody pointed it out to me. There’s a song for Vespucci, then there’s ‘April Fool’ which was written for Gogol, who was born on April Fool’s Day. There’s the song for Maria Schneider, and a song for Amy Winehouse, and a song for Johnny, and Banga—the dog—my godson Seneca … so I guess there’s quite a cast of characters. It just turned out that way.
Do your songs exist in some place that has recurring landscapes?
Yeah. That’s an interesting question. All the people, like for instance, going all the way back to Horses—I’m still familiar with the landscape of Horses. I still sing those songs. This album doesn’t have the same … how can I say this? Let me change my tactic. Even though I’ve evolved as a human being and gone through many many things since Horses—I’ve seen the world, I’ve had some success, I left the public eye, I got married and had children, my beautiful husband, my best friend, died, my brother died, Robert Mapplethorpe, my parents … I’ve suffered a lot of loss. I’ve had two children who are grown. I’m still working. I’ve turned 65. A lot of things have happened since I recorded Horses, but I’m still familiar with that terrain. I’m still the same girl that wrote ‘Rock N Roll Nigger.’ I still feel that energy. I wrote ‘Banga,’ and it has a similar energy, a similar irreverence. There’s also the other side of it—new sights, new sounds, new studies, which this album reflects. I was immersed in modern Russian literature, the music of Taratovsky, the paintings of Francesca and the life of St. Francis. These are new themes and studies in my work. The first album I wrote ‘Break It Up’ for Jim Morrison, and this album I wrote ‘Maria’ for Maria Schneider, and ‘This Is The Girl’ for Amy Winehouse. I’m still writing songs for people that I care about who we’ve lost young. There’s a lot of similarities and a lot of new terrain.
Loss is not a new terrain for you, but it’s a motivation for art.
I can’t imagine losing more people than I lost in the 20th century. I will hope that for me that will be the roughest time of my life. Loss is part of life. We just lost Adam Yauch, who was such a great guy, such a great artist and a humanitarian. We can’t get around that. This album isn’t about loss. I mean, I saluted two women who we’ve lost. But this album is high-spirited and, I think, somewhat optimistic.
You address different notions of a new world—discovery—in ways that make it optimistic. Even the world Vespucci visits—it’s another time, but it’s a transcendence into a new world.
Exactly. Even the Neil Young song, it’s always looking for new ideas and new territories. For me the idea is for us to join together as a people and clean up this world, and make our present—our old world—our new world. And the only way we can do that is globally cleaning up our environment.
Do you think that’s really possible? I don’t know, I sometimes wonder if the world is so big and powerful, then the things we do are just a little dent in what’s truly going on—like microscopic germs trying to prolong our life on the earth’s body before it bathes and washes us off. It’s operating on a whole other scale of existence.
You’re right in one sense. But think of it this way. If you live by a river, and there’s fish in the river and you like to fish and eat the fish, and you like to swim, and the children like to swim, and it’s just a tiny river, a tiny blip in the whole earth—but it’s your river. And a factory dumped all these horrible chemicals in the river. The fish died, the children got cancer. That little ripple becomes very important. If everyone took care of their ripple or fought for their ripple or globally started striking—new generations can do this with the present technology, through cell phones and tweeting and Facebook. I mean, I don’t even know how any of this stuff works that much because I’m a little out of touch, but I know it exists. Fact of the matter is, new generations can band together in a way that no one in human history could. New generations could decide, ‘Fuck it, we’re going to globally strike against all these corporations in the same week. We’re not going to buy their shit to make their life hell.’ That’s the only thing that governments and corporations are afraid of. They’re afraid of our numbers. You’re exactly right—what you said is totally true. Everything is bigger than us. The earth and Mother Nature, how she moves in her own way—corporations and governments are so powerful. But the one thing we have is our numbers. I’m not talking about thousands or a hundred thousand people on a peace march. I’m talking about millions of people saying, ‘That’s it!’ Take the Gandhi route. ‘That’s it! We’re not doing it anymore! We’re not buying your shit, we’re going to sacrifice, we’re going to do without certain things because we want clean water.’ Our world is just … everybody’s getting cancer. Every day! When I was a kid, cancer was a rare disease. Now every single day, I learn that another friend has cancer or their child has cancer. It’s incredible. And no one talks about it. No one talks about, well, where does it come from? ‘Oh, it’s not really the environment, it’s not really the chemicals in the water, it’s not really the DDT on all the fields …’ But it is. The bumblebee hives are collapsing, we’re losing species, we’re losing fish and birds …
But maybe that’s the only way that the earth can renew itself. Maybe these things are just symptoms of that renewal.
What you’re saying is right. You have a pessimistic view but you have a very practical view of things—but I still think that we can make a difference, at least to make our life happier. Respecting Mother Nature. Wouldn’t you rather, no matter what the earth needs to do or whatever corporations need to do, live near the clean river?
Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I know so. Of course. I love life.
Right. It’s something to think about. We can fatalistically say, ‘It’s all for shit’ and we can just ride with the shit, or we can see how we can turn the tides. I think of turning the tides. I think of new generations. Young people are capable—they have awesome power. Young generations feel like everything is fucked for them. They can’t get jobs, things are expensive, they’re living in a corporate world dominated by the cult of celebrity and bullshit. But they still have power that no one else before them has had. I think that’s the key to everything. You know, it’s been really good to talk to you, and you didn’t puke.
Oh that was earlier. I just wanted to be myself right now, but I also wanted to be my best. And how do you resolve that without puking?
You’re an interesting person.
I have a million questions …
I like talking to you. Don’t ever doubt yourself again. Let me tell you something: A good journalist is really important, politically, artistically. Why am I talking to you? It’s valuable to me to know someone like you. Your role is important. I’m not talking to you because the record company made me. I’m 65 years old—nobody tells me what to do. I am talking to you because I want to. I need your help, if you want to give it to me. If you hated the record, that would be fine too. Never doubt yourself. Your view is solid, but allow yourself to have a little optimism.
What was that?
Oh, nothing. Thank you.
PATTI SMITH’S BANGA IS OUT NOW ON COLUMBIA. PATTISMITH.NET.