For an artist as personal as Patti Smith, who once told an interviewer that it wasn’t difficult to leave “the limelight and the applause” at the height of her popularity as a rock singer to become a full-time wife and mother, she certainly seems to derive a great deal of spiritual sustenance from direct contact with people.
“No, I’m not playing the Fuji Rock Festival this year,” she says over the phone from her home in New York, sounding disappointed. “I did it the last two years. I don’t know if they were going to invite us, anyway. After you do it two years in a row, maybe they don’t. It’s the best festival in the world. There’s a lot of excitement and craziness, but the people are just so cool. At most festivals you’re stuck in a tent somewhere. At Fuji I can walk around and talk to all the people. That really makes me happy.”
As a consolation, Smith will be coming to Japan with her band this summer to play a series of concerts in Tokyo and some cities she’s never visited before. “We’ll be in Japan for 10 days, and I think I can meet a lot of people in that time. It’s important to me.”
Even more importantly, she’ll be in Tokyo for the opening of an exhibition of her art work, which is coming to Japan from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Before Smith released the epoch-defining album “Horses” in 1975, even before she thought of becoming a singer and performer, she mostly drew and painted. Her poetry, in fact, grew out of her stark pictures, which were often augmented with writing.
“The earliest pieces are from 1967. That’s when I first came to New York and met Robert Mapplethorpe. The two of us did a lot of work, a lot of drawings together from ’67 to ’72.” Mapplethorpe, who was Smith’s companion during this period, eventually picked up a camera and became one of the most influential and controversial photographers of his generation. Though he and Smith remained friends until his death in 1989, they parted ways artistically around the time Smith found creative salvation in poetry and rock ‘n’ roll.
Smith famously retired in 1980, after she married former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and moved to a suburb of Detroit. Following Smith’s death in 1994, she returned full-time to performing, both poetry and the kind of incendiary, free-form rock she’s most famous for. She also returned to the easel.
“I didn’t do a lot of drawing in the ’80s because I was mostly studying and raising my children,” she says. “But I went back to it in the ’90s, and then started doing silk screens, especially after Sept. 11.” A portion of the work in the exhibition is about the terrorist attacks. Smith’s Greenwich Village house had an unobstructed view of the World Trade Center. She could see the ruins from her second-floor workroom.
“The aim was to distill emotion down to symbolic imagery. I couldn’t do paintings of people dying. I made this one image of the skeletal remains of a tower and chose that to symbolize the aftermath of any aspect of war. It could have been a human skeleton, but instead it’s the skeleton of a building. There’s no personality in the picture. That’s all gone.”
Though the image of the damaged facade should be loaded due to its ubiquity in the media, Smith has elided that meaning by printing the image in different colors and with different textual asides. As an image she treats it irreverently, stripping it of its morbidity and trying to get people to look at it anew. One rendering is titled “The Day I Blew My Top.”
“That was a version of the building as if it could speak,” she says with a slight laugh. “It’s angry: ‘This is what happened to me, I exploded, I blew my top. The people could not get along, the people could not communicate.’ The building itself is cynical, almost making fun of us. But none of my drawings judges anybody. If it judges anything, it’s all of humanity, people’s inability to get along and reach out to one another. It’s not against the terrorists, or in favor of anybody.”
Smith is especially interested in finding out how the Japanese will respond. “I also made paper airplanes with the names of the people who died in the jets that day,” she says. “I think [the Japanese] will understand the process. They understand that sort of talismanic work.”
But there’s another reason she wanted to bring the exhibit to Japan: “I was born right after World War II and learning about Japan was very important to my generation. We had to understand what had happened because our fathers had fought the Japanese and bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We had to find a way to make peace with ourselves. One way to do that is to understand how the Japanese people dealt with it. What happened on Sept. 11 was, in comparison, smaller. But I was very close to a lot of death on that day. When 3,000 people perish in such close proximity you can feel their spirits in the dust, in the air. It gave me a lot to contemplate, and that’s why I want to see how the Japanese people react.”
As a performer who believes that all art is inherently political, she plans to address some of these ideas on her next record. Smith hasn’t released an album of new material since 2000’s “Gung Ho,” whose title song was an ode to Ho Chi Minh. “After we get back from Japan, we’re going to start recording, and I’ll talk about a lot of things that have been happening, including the invasion of Iraq, which I think was a terrible thing.”
Hardly nonjudgmental stuff, and Smith agrees that the political content of pop music, something she took for granted while growing up, is sadly missing now. “That’s partly because artists seem to think that expressing a political ideology will be bad for their careers, but it also has a lot to do with what’s occurring in culture right now. Music has become almost completely image-oriented. It’s no longer revolutionary or poetic.”
She won’t comment on hip-hop, which many people believe has inherited the social confrontation role that rock once played (“I’m not qualified to talk about it,” she says). But she thinks rock ‘n’ roll remains a viable social tool and believes that she still has something to contribute. “For me, rock ‘n’ roll has always been the perfect vehicle for revolution, peaceful or not. It’s a means of communicating globally, and we’re wasting that opportunity. I believe I have to fight the present administration and inspire people to be more active.”
The serious tone might obscure the fact that Smith is an eternal optimist. It’s another quality that distinguishes her from most younger rock artists. If she weren’t optimistic, she wouldn’t still be taking her message directly to the people via concerts that celebrate the joys of group catharsis while exhorting her audiences to fight for a better present and a brighter future.
“I’ve seen so many things, and I agree it’s a lot harder to be optimistic than it is to be pessimistic. It takes more work,” she explains. “But I want things to be more interesting, more illuminating. There are things worth fighting for, and I’ll continue to fight for them in a positive way.”
Smith admits she’s experienced her fair share of loss, “but I don’t want to spend my life grieving. When I was a little girl I learned early what happens in war. I still think that was the greatest tragedy, but people rebuilt their lives. Whenever something really difficult happens, whether it’s losing a family member or my husband, I think, I’m still alive and it’s my duty to keep going and rebuild, and be a good example for other people, just like the Japanese were.”
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