Patti Smith: New York’s Poet Laureate
|The Punk Pits of New York City:|
|CBGBs, the Rights of Rock and The Cultural Voice with Patti Smith|
|Words by Martin Halo|
NYC is steadfast and hardened as authors, poets, actors, and musicians fill the ivy covered window sills. It was from these neighborhoods that Patti Smith watched the last thirty years of American music shuffle past her very eyes.
As excess fueled Studio 54, it was Smith and Hilly Crystal’s CGBG’s which brewed in the Bowery. It wasn’t a movement yet, it was simply an alternative scene of acceptance.
Patti Smith was showcasing her brand at the legendary club a few years before the iconic summer of ’77, which saw the birth of hip-hop, the Son of Sam and the eventual explosion of punk rock. She is a legend and a pioneer, earning her name on the bottom of a record contract before even the Ramones.
After being inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame alongside Van Halen, the Ronettes, and REM back in March, Smith is now working on a new album of original material as her legacy enters a new chapter. She sits in her apartment in New York City finally back stateside and weary from an extended weather filled European tour leg, which touched 47 cities in 75 days.
“I was in several countries and it rained constantly. The first half of the tour I think it rained everyday. From England, to Ireland, Scotland, and Paris, it was raining everywhere,” she says.
Smith has embarked on roadwork in support of her cover filled release, Twelve, which featured songs written by Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, U2, Bob Dylan, Nirvana, and the Allmans Brothers Band.
“Music is probably, whether it is classical or rock music, the art that hits us physically,” says Smith. “It is the art that draws the most physical response. I just think it draws such an immediate physical and emotional response,” she reiterates.
“The people that I listened to when I was young are the artists that I still listen to today — John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix. Rock n’ roll is just something that is part of my life, and well…” says Smith with a quiet sweet chuckle.
“When I was growing up rock n’ roll was just being born. In the early 50s what you would hear mostly would be standards, jazz, and classical music. Then rock n’ roll started permeating the culture. It was a normal thing for me to know just as much about jazz as rock music. Music is such a great backdrop,” she preaches. “It regulates the heartbeat.”
“When I was a kid I can remember the first time I heard Little Richard. It felt like something was happening then. The record was so high energy and you could feel how afraid of it the parents were. My father used to flip out whenever he heard the Rolling Stones. He was an educated man but just didn’t understand it at all,” she recounts.
“But it was the sound of experimental jazz with John Coltrane and Roland Kirk that really stirred the imagination. There is something that is continuously happening. Think about Stravinsky doing his first symphony and people rioting because the sound to them was so outrageous. They just couldn’t understand it. People are either thrilled with new forms of music or angered and frightened by it. I think that is what happened in the 70s. I know this to be true because some of friends were part of this energy of the 70s and CBGBs.”
“It was 1974 when Tom Verlaine and Television were playing alongside my band in the Bowery. That was a couple years before the Ramones and everyone erupted. For us there was no place to play for people like us. We were the maverick musicians who were blending rock n’ roll, with poetry, and political ideas. CBs gave us a house, a place where we could experiment and declare our existence.”
“We wanted to remind people that rock n’ roll was our cultural voice. It was something that belonged to us. It wasn’t just a thing for entertainment, or for stadiums, or for the music business to make a lot of money, or for rich rock stars to take lots of drugs and pick up young girls. It was more than that. It was a voice,” she says. “It was a way to make global noise and initiate change. It was the same thing the kids were trying to do in the 60s with the MC5 and the Who. They were trying to wake people up and remind them about things like, ‘The War is wrong,’ or that ‘The civil rights movement was important.’ It was about claiming the right to be free,” she says.
“I never expected to get signed to a record label,” says Smith, “it just happened. I wasn’t a good singer, nor was I a good musician. All I was trying to do was to create space for other people and to just express myself. Some people say, ‘there is no more CBGBs,’ and my only response to that is, yes there is! Look on the Internet, that is the new CBGBs. All of these thousands and thousands of people are out there producing their own music, while listening to other peoples. They don’t buy as much music, which totally fucks with the music business, and I think that is important.”
“These are the people that will have a strong cultural voice. They are going to be exchanging ideas about the environment or the Anti-War movement and it is all starting with music.”