Here's a sentence I never would have imagined writing: Patti Smith is utterly normal.
I base that opinion on listening to her talk when she met with TV critics in July, interviewing her afterward and watching her in Patti Smith: Dream of Life.
In Steven Sebring's two-hour documentary, we see Smith, who turns 63 the night the film debuts, doing utterly normal things. There's Patti visiting with her parents. Hanging with her kids. Reminiscing about going to Coney Island with Robert Mapplethorpe to get a Nathan's hot dog. As political spokesperson/peace activist. Returning to performing after 16 years in retirement that she devoted to being a wife and mother. Smiling and laughing and playing guitar with Sam Shepard.
Smith's records — collections of ethereal, mystical, increasingly desperate songs/poems that made her a rock icon — would lead you to believe she might be perpetually angry and maybe a bit crazy. But the only time she seems abnormal is when she's creating art or performing the music that landed her in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
Here's our conversation. See what you think.
NUVO: When you put out Horses and achieved so much acclaim so young and so quickly, how much pressure was there to come out with a great second record?
Smith: I never felt that. We had critical acclaim, but we didn't get that big. We got a tremendous amount of recognition, but not a lot of financial gains. So we didn't become rich rock stars overnight. The level of response we got felt like people response, and I really wasn't interested in the rest of it. I was nominated for a Grammy for best new artist. I didn't want it because I felt that was for mainstream people. Natalie Cole got it, and I thought she should have. I wasn't interested in career moves. I was interested in doing good work.
I learned very early on you can't begin to worry about pleasing people. I did Radio Ethiopia with the same focus and intensity and heart that I did Horses. And it was critically hated. It was a critical and financial failure. But I loved the record. I do all my records the same. I just want to communicate with people. I'm not interested in the traditional needs of the record company because I don't really care. I was really happy when "Because the Night" was successful; that was exciting. It's still exciting.
If I could write a song the whole world loved, I'd be really happy. But my main job is just to do the best that I can.
NUVO: So you didn't shoot for a hit.
Smith: I didn't know how. I'm not Smokey Robinson. Every time I did a record, I thought everybody would love it. So I didn't know anything about what made a hit. I just did my work.
NUVO: Of your contemporaries in New York, who did you think would make it really big?
Smith: I thought Television would — and I'm still very close with Tom Verlaine. The band I saw before they came into public consciousness that I thought would be the biggest band was The Clash. I saw them very early on and I actually went to Clive (Davis, president of Arista Records) and suggested that he sign them. But he wasn't interested in them.
Then I talked to (CBS Records head) Walter Yetnikoff, who was interested. And I think he sent Sandy Pearlman to see them. He signed them. The Clash were the ones. Even though they weren't part of our camp, I thought they were really great.
But to see Television do "Marquee Moon" and "Kingdom Come" live at CBGBs in the mid-'70s was a great privilege.
NUVO: You were the last performer at CBGBs. Was that nostalgic? You were a little angry, as I recall.
Smith: I was always angry. CBGBs was always a tough room. The sound was always terrible. It was hot, crowded, the stage was small. So hot, the guitars always go out of tune. And as soon as we started, I thought, "Wow, why does this night suck?" And I thought, "Oh, because we're back at CBGBs, where the sound is always horrible." Yet it's a people's venue, and the people loved it.
But if I had any anger, it's about the way the city is shifting. CBGBs is symptomatic from the whole shift of New York being a city that's artist-friendly to consumer-friendly. The fact that CBGBs became a high-end clothes store makes perfect sense in the current New York state of mind. I'm sad to see New York go from a gritty city of opportunity and communal energy to the neo vision of (New York Mayor Michael) Bloomberg. But that's a whole other story.
NUVO: Where do you live now?
Smith: In the Soho area.
Nuvo: The city's really become Disney-fied, hasn't it?
Smith: Well, it's not that. It's that they've let people like Donald Trump, for instance, build this huge, horrible blight in the Village. He's built like a 40-story tower and stated in the paper that he wanted to bring a new level of luxury into the Village. Why? That's not what the Village is about. There's luxury all over the place in New York. Why do you have to put luxury everywhere?
I think he's evil, in any event, and what he does, I think, is wrong. Everywhere I go in the world on tour, somebody will show me a blight on their city where some old, famous building was leveled or some beautiful place was destroyed and some Trump tower came up that, in the end, sits half empty. There's no sense of history, no sense of city planning, no sense of what the real needs of the people are.
America is such a young country. To destroy the small bit of history we have is, to me, criminal. But it's happening globally.
NUVO: You seem phenomenally grounded. Have you always been like this?
Smith: I've always been. I was the oldest of four children, so I've always been pretty responsible. When I lived with Robert Mapplethorpe in the late '60s and early '70s, I was the breadwinner. I was the one who took care of the practical aspects of our existence. That's just part of who I am. That's why rock and roll is so great. I can smash a guitar, put my amp on 10. I can create a field of feedback and have my own little battleground. But in life, I keep balanced.
Hopefully, I've improved with age. I could be sort of a raucous asshole when I was younger. But I wasn't that bad. I had a lot of energy. I still have a lot of energy, but I focus it more into the work that I do.