She took her sunglasses off after five minutes
This is an interview with Patti Smith too good to keep to myself. I've highlighted my favorite parts.
Patti Smith on music, politics... and dental hygiene
By Charlotte Chambers
Camden New Journal, 25 October 2007
Grooves travelled to the Jack Daniels birthday bash in Tennessee for
an intimate chat with the punk rock legend.
Legendary punk rocker Patti Smith spoke to Grooves before her gig at
the Birthday JD Set, held at the Jack Daniels whiskey distillery in
Lynchberg, Tennessee. During that hour, she covered all bases: the
importance of dental care; how she was signed after Bob Dylan went to
watch her first gig; the evil of globalisation. (She took her
sunglasses off after five minutes.)
What made you want to take part in the JD set?
Well I thought it was an unusual request and I was really surprised
that they asked me, I thought why would they want me to come to this?
But I thought it would be great for my son Jackson, a really great
guitar player, so I more took it to have the pleasure of Jackson
coming here. And when I've done political rallies, I've played for 40
people in the middle of nowhere.
Why did you do the covers album?
I always wanted to do one. In the 70s, I didn't start singing, I'm not
a musician, I'm not a real singer or anything. When I sang Horses, I
had no track record of being a singer, I didn't want to have a band, I
grew up in a rural area where I never even saw a guitar for real, and
girls really didn't play guitars.
Weren't you a music journalist?
I saw the trajectory of music, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, The Animals,
and then the 60s, all the great music and I really felt empowered
being a skinny, pimply weirdo from New Jersey. I loved rock'n'roll so
much, and then in the early 70s it felt like it was going downhill,
politically and sexually, it was losing its strength, it was getting
glamorous and snotty, so I started writing and performing stuff. Just
hoping to agitate things. To remind people where rock'n'roll was
supposed to be. It was supposed to be grassroots and speak for the
people. In 73. But what really happened was Bob Dylan came to see me
in some shitty little club and he never did stuff like that. For me,
he was like Bob Dylan, you know, I loved him. It got so much media
attention that I got signed. His endorsement got me signed.
What health would you say rock'n'roll's in now?
It's in an interesting pivotal state, I don't think it's going down or
up, it's like imagine if it's like a war, the people are gathering
their forces, they're marshalling their energies so I find it
interesting. I feel like the new guard are experimenting and becoming
more independent. Record companies are in trouble and scrambling. Its
such a mess that its not owned by anybody. Its being redefined. It's
not a business, it's not supposed to be a business. It's a voice. It's
like it's rebirthing itself. I'd rather that than corporatised.
Where do you see your role in all of it? Are you still shaking things
I don't know. I never even expected to be alive at 60 but since I'm
here, I'm really happy, I hope I'm alive another 40 years. At this
point, I know I'm worse at what I do best. I like to perform, and I
like to communicate, and I think I can be trusted because I don't have
any ulterior motives. I like to make people laugh, I get angry about
things. I want to inspire people to get politically involved. But I'd
also like to inspire people to take good care of their teeth, don't
eat a lot of salt or fast food. I'm a mum, I can be very irreverent, I
can still put my foot through an amp but I can help you with first aid
or nutrition. I don't have an image or agenda, I've been here a long
time and sadly have outlived a lot of my friends, so if I can be of
help.. I will.
What's making you angry at the moment?
The illegal and immoral occupation of Iraq by the Bush administration
is the number one thing. All of the exploitation of young people by
corporations, and how young people are being moulded to be the
consumers of the future. This constant advertising that we have
everywhere is becoming people's education.
How does that sit with a corporate gig like this?
Well it's corporate, it's alcohol. I thought about this. I'm very
sensitive about alcohol issues, I've got friends who've died from
alcoholism, but I'm not anti alcohol, I just feel people have to be
educated that too much alcohol.. that alcohol's a bad drug. But
alcohol itself is not an evil thing. I always search myself when I
agree to do these things but I don't perceive it as evil, if it was a
pharmaceutical company I wouldn't be here, because they're evil. But
in the end.. my relatives drink Jack Daniel's, I wanted my son to meet
these musicians, so I was thinking about it in a different way. But
truthfully I didn't agonise too much over it. But I have turned down
the most money I've every been offered in my whole life because a
pharmaceutical company wanted to use one of my songs. It was a lot of
money I could have bought those houses. But we live in a modern
world, I'm not a purist. I just try and adapt.
Do you think musicians have a responsibility to speak out on issues of
I believe everybody has a responsibility, everybody has to. But
artists are in a unique position to inspire. They can't make huge
change but they can inspire people to make change, I wish more artists
would come forward. But the Iraq war, trying to get people to speak
out on that.. and the few people that did, we were marginalised. It
wasn't reported in the media. I came to Europe to march. Couldn't
march in America. I know they were afraid because of what happened on
September 11th, but still, you can't forget who you are.
Why is liberal such a dirty word?
The left have been extremely weak. September 11th is one of the worst
things to have happened to my country, and not because of the tragedy
yes it's a tragedy, but when you look at the tsunami that killed
100,00 people... a lot of it wasn't the amount of people that died, it
was the American pride. It's as if we have this magic shield around us
and all of Europe can experience tragedies but not us. It seemed to,
it struck a pall over the country and the Bush administration crafted
everything, so that anything that you said that opposed what he said
was unpatriotic. People got very weak, they completely lost what
patriotism is what they really meant was you are not nationalistic.
The Bush administration are nationalistic and imperialistic, and most
of the American people do not have the sophistication to understand
the difference. The word should be humanist.
Does it feel like a success to be on the bill with diverse and strong
I'm really happy about it, I'm happy to be included. I think it's very
interesting to have this idea, of three diverse females with a male
band of session musicians, we're all different mix, we're all
different ages and different sensibilities. I think it's going to be a
What new acts do you like?
I don't know anybody or anything that's going on! The way I find out
what's going on is through MySpace. My daughter made me a MySpace and
I felt like an intruder: 'They don't want me on the MySpace thing,
that's like a secret club'. And then 200,000 people came to visit. For
a person like me, who sells 40,000 records in America, to see 200,000
people listening to your music is really exciting.
I like Wagner, Maria Callis, Coldtrain and Jimmy Hendrix. I'm not
really up on who's doing what.
Do you think when it becomes so egalitarian it's difficult to pick out
what you like?
That's how things are right now. In the 60s we had all of these gods
of the period, you look at the Rennaisance and you have Michaelangelo
and Da Vinci, well every generation doesn't necessarily put out these
olympian people. I think we're just in a cycle where it is more
equalised. But people will rise, someone who will be extra special,
have extra charisma or a special gift and they will capture a wider
imagination. Right now the playing field is more people orientated.
Maybe not as mystically exciting, but I think for the individual it's
a good thing. Everyone is learning they can express themselves, yes I
can vote, yes I can make change, I can do something for the
I think of it like in sports. I always hated sports but my late
husband, who is a great musician and a genius, but he also loved
sports and he forced me to learn about sports including golf.
He was from Detroit and he loved his basketball team, the Detroit
Pistons. This was in the 80s, which was a period we'd had so many
great players, like Michael Jordan, he was like the god of basketball.
But then you had the Pistons, who had no god. You had a bunch of
scrappy players, each with their own personality.
You had Vinnie, the microwave, who was like 5'8 and he's a basketball
player. They had Buddha, who was tall and skinny and very meditative,
who would just quietly let everybody else do their thing and then all
of a sudden he would just 'poomf', put it in. And then you had Joe
Dumar, the good guy, the work horse, and you had Rodman, the worm, who
was one of the great defence players.
But none of them were iconic. They were just all of these guys, and
they wound up winning three championships, because they were such a
collective force. Some might have the great one-god guy that sold all
of the t-shirts, and all of America was wearing their sneakers, and
nobody gave as much thought to the Pistons.
But the Pistons won three championships. And I thought there's
something so metaphorically beautiful about this, and it was out of
this atmosphere that my husband and I wrote the song, People Have The
Power, really secretly inspired by the Detroit Pistons. I like to
think that right now, music is in its Detroit Pistons place. We'll see
Do you still watch basketball?
My husband before he passed away said to me, because he loved golf, he
was seeing a decline in golf, in the way that almost we're seeing a
decline in music, because all the players were getting too old and it
seemed like the playing field was getting too wide, and too cluttered
and it was getting boring.. And right before my husband passed away he
said 'Tricia we need a young black golfer with a the ability of Jack
Nicklaus' and he said I predict a young black golfer is going to come
and change the whole course of golf history, and then he said, 'and
you're going to have something to do with it.'
So anyway, Fred passed away and never got to see the rise of Tiger
Woods, who of course, did change the course of golf history. But I
always wondered what I had to do with Tiger Woods, until about two
weeks ago. I happened to see in some newspaper, a little article about
him and his birthday, December 30, the same as mine. So my husband was
While we're looking at my camera I will also give you my dental pitch.
As a parting gift, my dental pitch is, I'm telling you something I was
never told because my generation being born right after world war two,
dental care was not a big issue and my generation have terrible teeth.
I'm telling you, please, save your money, and get your teeth
professionally cleaned once twice a year if you can afford it, because
when you get older its such a pain in the ass, its so important. I
never had the money, but it wasn't even the money, I just didn't know.
It will save you a lot of heartache. You wouldn't think that teeth
things were such a big deal but it is such a big pain in the ass.
I worry about people, I do, I want people to come to our concerts and
have fun, I want people to have as much information about things, even
a little thing because if the revolution comes, you don't want to be
with a nerve exposed in your tooth that's so painful that you aren't
ready for the revolution.
You played at the closing of CBGBs last year. Did that feel like the
end of an era or is it just a place?
CBGBs, to me, is symptomatic of one of the tragedies of our modern
world and that is the affluence and the corporatisation of our cities
and advertising, money, condominiums... I'm sure you see it where you
all live. NY city was always such a great city when I was younger,
because it was so cheap, a little dangerous, not so dangerous, but you
could come, get a little bookstore job, live in the east village, meet
a whole bunch of other artists and poets, create a scene and exchange
ideas, and get political ideas and poetic ideas and feel like you were
doing something.(CW sez: Sounds like Buffalo.)
Now its become so affluent and expensive, and they just have come in
really, at such a speed, I can't believe it, right in front of my
eyes, and taken over all our neighbourhoods. Not just some of them,
all of them. And these developers and these really evil people like
Donald Trump, who's like another evil king, and just buy up all these
areas and make condos so expensive so that none of us can live there.
So yes, CBGBs, I feel emotionally sad about losing it physically, but
its not just CBGBs, its the whole thing. And it's not just the whole
thing in NY, its everywhere I go this is happening, everywhere in the
world I go. I was just in Istanbul and kids are saying yeah this is a
cool area but the developers are moving in. It doesn't matter where it
is, it's the globalisation of our world.
To me globalisation should mean everyone can afford health care, Aids
drugs are available to everyone, that no one is starving. That should
be globalisation. But globalisation is not that at all. It's becoming
that the world is just one big playground for people with new
affluence, and a lot of this affluence is made up, because it's built
on credit cards. It's not really built on a real working-class
sensibility where people work hard, it's more to do with how clever an
entrepreneurial you are. And I think that this. I can live with the
equal exploration of the arts, but this equalisation of the world for
the middle classes, the upper middle classes, its such a class
conscious thing. In NY city, I don't have any place left to play any
more, all my band have moved out except for me. Every single place
we've ever practised, they're finished, they're condos, galleries, I
don't know where we're going...
Me myself I'm looking for somewhere to move because it doesn't
represent me any more. I'm giving up. It doesn't matter any more. I
could hold out on my little street, but for what reason? I have no
community. I don't want to be around these people who are basically..
I mean we never had anything, nowadays they've got these stretch
hummers and they're dressed up with cell phones hanging out of their
ears C'mon you know, do something, do something else.
You hit a sensitive nerve, but despite all of that, and despite the
fact that to me, our world seems really fucked up at the moment, and
my country seems in a really bad place, spiritually, socially,
economically, I still believe, and I tell my kids this, we get one
life, one specific life, and we have the right to navigate the dark
sea of the world as well as we can, and be happy and have some kind of
joy and I don't think that we need to be depressed, angry and feel
defeated every day.
I know things are very bad, I know the Bush administration in some
ways has defeated me, but I'm not going to crawl into hole, I'm going
to be myself and I'll be a living thorn, and I'll poke him and poke
him and poke him until hopefully he bleeds. And maybe that's all I can
do, but in the meantime I'm also gonna be happy, and enjoy my kids,
enjoy arts, enjoy nature, enjoy this moment. So for a person who's
maybe the oldest in this room, I'm just telling you that life, even in
its worst, is worth living. There's always something wonderful to wake
up to everyday. It really is worth it. I have seen the bottom, and
even seeing the bottom, I still wanted to come back up. Its great to
I don't believe that we all deserve to have a car, or all the
different things that are dangled in front of us, but I do believe we
have the right to be happy. So even if you feel guilty, don't be
afraid to be happy.