By the time you read this, Patti Smith will have been in Japan for nearly a week. The iconic poet, author, painter and “Godmother of Punk” hasn’t yet played a gig with her band; that will come later. First, Smith is reconnecting with a country with which her affinity runs deep.
“I’ve always loved Japan ever since I was a little girl,” Smith begins. “I think it is because I was born right after World War II, and my father was stationed in the Philippines and the Solomon Islands during the war. He was very heartbroken when the Americans dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and he told me about that when I was very small. And I remember being such a little child, not quite understanding but being so sad about that and wanting to learn more about the country. So I have done a lot of studying about Japan since I was young and I wanted to come earlier on this time to speak to the people.”
Uppermost in Smith’s thoughts are not Japan’s “special charms” or the culture she “loves,” although the enthusiastic way she talks about author Haruki Murakami suggests that is never far from her mind. Instead, Smith’s first visit to the country since the Great East Japan Earthquake that occurred on March 11, 2011, is to be dominated by “helping the people in any small way possible.” A charity concert is already arranged, while her gigs will become highly emotive when she sings “Fuji-san,” a track written in response to the disasters and the highlight of last year’s “Banga” album.
“I think it’s going to be quite moving to perform that song there,” she proposes tentatively. “After the earthquake, I wanted to write something for the Japanese people, but I didn’t want to write about the earthquake, I wanted to take a different approach. So the song is prayer to nature, praying to the great mountain to watch over the people. I think it is going to be moving. I haven’t been since the earthquake, so I didn’t want to write about something that I hadn’t experienced, but I wanted to write for the people.
“I wanted to go to the area where people suffered, visit the people and see if there is any small way in which we can contribute. I want to see what is happening and how people’s frames of mind are. It’s important to understand what the people are going through.”
A hugely dominant figure in the mid-1970’s American punk movement that centered around the infamous New York club CBGB’s, Smith’s blend of poetic narrative and spirited rock made her an empowering female icon, influencing a generation of musicians from Michael Stipe to Madonna. Her 1975 debut, “Horses,” is rightly considered a classic.
But at 66, Smith is no longer the singular, uncompromising, bohemian trailblazer whose belief in her art was so entrenched that she moved from New Jersey to New York at age 20, sleeping on park benches in order to fulfill her ambitions (the story of which, alongside her relationship with muse and former lover Robert Mapplethorpe, is brilliantly documented in her award-winning book “Just Kids”).
Speaking jet-lagged from an Italian hotel room, her voice has a mesmeric serenity and many of her words are spoken through the prism of a lifetime of experience: When she talks of her guitarist husband Fred Smith, whose death in 1994 precipitated the end of a 14-year exile from public life, Smith’s voice cracks with emotion. “I am happy to be able to be back performing and recording,” she says, “but my life now is certainly no replacement for the one I had then. My life, though very simple and not necessarily an easy one, was a wonderful life. I loved my husband. He was a great man. If I had my choice I would have my husband here.”
Given all she has seen, can Smith recognize the girl who shot to fame?
“We contain all of ourselves,” she answers. “I am 66 but I still recognize the girl who walked her dog when aged 11. I can access the different times of my life, the different feelings of my life. I’ve been through a lot since I recorded ‘Horses.’ But I still feel a great excitement and happiness and joy when I go to record, or a certain amount of trepidation or agitation, all kinds of emotions. Anger, even. I know who I am.”
Recorded at Electric Lady (where Smith created “Horses” and has worked sporadically ever since) Smith was quoted as saying the “same sense of idealism” runs through “Banga” as did “Horses.”
“All of my records, I go in to create a world. I have a certain goal and I do them all in the same way. When I said that, I meant that I go into the studio with the idea to communicate with people and do the best job that I can. Of course, when I made ‘Horses’ I was in my 20s and I had different concerns, but that doesn’t mean I have less energy or enthusiasm or less of a desire to communicate. I see that as my job.”
Does songwriting give her the outlet of communication in a manner her other disciplines fail to?
“Yes. Most of my disciplines are very solitary experiences. But if you write a song you can very, very quickly present it to the people and receive a response, receive the energy from the people — and that makes it unique, and it makes your motivation unique. When I’m writing a poem, I don’t necessarily think about how anyone is going to respond or whether it connects with anyone. With a song, that is the aim.”
Curious, I ask why reflection is a recurring theme for Smith, who constantly refers to her childhood as a reference point (as she did when first asked about Japan). What specifically does that time evoke?
“It was a happy time,” she recalls immediately. “I really loved being a kid. I was a very Peter Pan kind of kid. I didn’t really want to grow up and join the adult world. I was creative, I loved my siblings, and it was a magical time. I liked being free. My parents had little money and had their great struggles but we were well loved. I learned to read and there was nothing I loved more than books, just the magic and the world of books. It’s a place that I often find myself returning to.”
It seems Smith is still enchanted by that sense of youthful exuberance, wide-eyed at the possibilities that the world can offer.
“I think as a human being, certainly as an artist, every day is a new day. I love that line from Jimi Hendrix, ‘Hooray, I wake from yesterday.’ Every day, I feel like that when I wake up. This is a new day with a new adventure. Maybe it will be a difficult adventure. But something is going to happen. And it might be something wonderful. A new book, something that makes me laugh, the opera, the clouds, writing a new poem.”
Does the thought of adding something wonderful drive her to continue working, even at 66? “Many things drive me. That is one. Responsibility drives me. Even though my son and daughter are grown, they are still my children and I want to set a good example. I am driven to create new things or to write something that will inspire and move people. I am driven to make the world a better place.
“Last year ended with a lot to think about, with so much destruction. I’m hoping 2013 will be a year of rebuilding. So to start the year in Japan, where they have felt so much destruction, seems so apt.”
Patti Smith and Her Band will play several shows across Japan, for details see Advance Booking below. For more information, visit www.pattismith.net.