Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, July 31, 2001

As a rock 'n' roller who influenced a generation of musicians,
Patti Smith now keeps an eye on her kids' influences without
trying to be the cool mom.

By Gary Chun

Patti Smith dares to be a dreamer.

And she's made it a point to go to places she hasn't been before, like right here tomorrow night at World Cafe.

It's not often that we get the pleasure of experiencing such an iconic figure, whose music in the mid-to-late '70s showed what a firebrand of impassioned artistry she was (and still is). In the past four years she's made a concerted effort to bring her musical and poetic vision back into the public consciousness after a period of privacy and, at times, tragic loss.

But this tour has been an invigorating one for her. While in Europe, she visited monasteries, saw the early stages of Italy's Mt. Etna eruption, and in Japan, made an effort to meet her young Japanese fans at the Mt. Fuji rock festival she and the band just did.

In a brief phone interview done from her hotel room here yesterday, she said in a low, quiet voice, that she appreciates and acknowledges Hawaii as "a very special place."

"Not just because it's a beautiful place naturally, but also for the spiritual part. In some ways, I know, this is usually thought of in the abstract, but even with all the development done, I can still feel that the spirit of the soil is very much strong. So, in concert, I'll improvise at times and try and tune into the space I'm performing in."

It's an understatement to say that Smith has a history. She was active in the New York City underground art and literary scene of the mid-'70s, distinguishing herself as a poet and occasional rock critic for music magazines like Creem and Rolling Stone. Beginning with the formative musical inspiration of rockers like the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, Smith found her creative voice in words, following the line that starts with 19th century French poet and provocateur Arthur Rimbaud, through American Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, to rock 'n' roll poets Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison.

Patti Smith: "Young people are being exploited,
fattened and set up to be the consumers of the
future, and that didn't happen to me when I was 14."

She found further inspiration through her contemporaries and close friends, the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and playwright/actor Sam Shepard, in those early years.

While she was a fixture on the city's then-burgeoning punk music scene, and a later inspiration for younger generation female punkers, Patti Smith's music is very much rock 'n' roll. Her ambitious declaration of freedom from her New Jersey blue-collar roots, "Piss Factory," was her opening salvo in 1974. Her stage presence was riveting, to say the least.

"Against a backdrop of riotous guitar riffing," wrote Sandy Carter for Z Magazine, "Smith prowled the stage like a possessed, androgynous shaman, pouring forth intensely personal, partially improvised recitations risking erotic fantasies, primal wounds and glorious blasphemy. Rock and roll, made by a woman, had never been so frenzied and extreme before."

After a year or so of honing that declatory sound in the now-legendary Bowery club CBGB's, "Horses," her debut for Arista Records in 1975, put Smith on the map. But two years later, after a sophomore release, "Radio Ethiopia," a record that sacrificed urgency for a more mainstream band sound, she fell 12 feet off a Tampa, Fla., stage in mid-performance, and had to spend three months in a neck brace.

An Evening with
Patti Smith

World Cafe, 1130 N. Nimitz Higway
8 p.m. tomorrow (doors open at 7; no opening act)
$20 / 599-4450

She returned to music undaunted, and 1978's "Easter" became her one career highlight, made popular by its hit single co-written by some guy named Bruce Springsteen. "Because the Night" was a radio hit, if only shadowed by a bigger hit single that Smith covered that year in concert with all due sincerity, moved by its message of hope. It was Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life."

The following year's "Wave" was a relative disappointment, however, even though it contained a couple of memorable songs in "Dancing Barefoot" and "Frederick." The latter was a love song to her soon-to-be-husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, himself an important figure in the Detroit/Ann Arbor, Mich., revolution 'n' rock scene.

From her marriage in late '79 to 1988's release of "Dream of Life," she stayed away from the spotlight and opted for a more tranquil, domestic life in suburban Detroit with her husband and two children.

In the meantime, her reputation based on her past work grew, causing other rockers like R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe and U2's Bono to name her as an influence and cover some of her songs.

While "People Have the Power" is the lone anthemic song that's a standout from "Dream of Life," her next album's theme was personal loss and grief. "Gone Again" was a meditative work, filled with the spirit and memory of her husband, who passed away in 1995, his death soon followed by those of her brother Todd and her friends Ginsberg and Mapplethorpe. Ginsberg, before his own passing, urged Smith to work out her grief by diving back into her music, allowing herself to honor Bob Dylan's request to open for his Australia and Far East tour that year.

Smith may not have that furious spark that drove her earlier work, but as she's matured, her art is still infused with idealistic passion and concern.

Sharing a respected status like Neil Young and others of their generation, Smith understands her influence on younger musicians, but it doesn't necessarily mean she's actually heard them. When asked what she thought of her upcoming Seattle festival gig with the popular female punk trio Sleater-Kinney, Smith said, "I've never seen them and I've not heard their music, but I hear they're good. I usually listen to older music like classical, opera and jazz."

Her now-19-year-old son contributed some guitar on her latest album, and even while on the road, she -- like any conscientious parent -- stays in touch with her 14-year-old daughter, trying to keep up with the things that may influence her.

"It's impossible to filter the tremendous power of the media on her and her generation," Smith said. "So I stay in communication with her every day, reminding her of what's to be truly valued in life. Young people are being exploited, fattened and set up to be the consumers of the future, and that didn't happen to me when I was 14.

"So we stay in touch, giving her guidance and discipline. I'm a parent, not a pal, someone who tries to dress up like them to be thought of as hip and cool. Kids dislike that approach anyway.

"I was raised in a lower middle-class family, parents with a hard work ethic. I left for New York City to seek illumination, not to make a lot of money, but to gain knowledge."

Smith's last two albums, "Peace and Noise" (which reunited her band in '97) and "Gung Ho," are her most socially and spiritualized charged to date. She's still very much a revolutionary at heart. "To be a revolutionary, to live life in flux, can be just as much a state of mind," she said. "It can be spiritual as well as just a political thing. But I always believe in things working out."

And, through it all, her own parents have always been in her corner, particularly her late father Grant. His World War II military photo graces the front of "Gung Ho," and, coincidentally, Smith quietly celebrated his birthday Sunday when she and the band arrived here.

"The reason I used that photo is that, first, we had just finished the album, and I titled it 'Gung Ho,' not only because of the song I did about Ho Chi Minh, but it's a Chinese-based phrase that means having a communal spirit and working together. My dad died just before its completion, and my mother and I were looking at that picture on her mantelpiece, and she said, 'Look at your father, he was so gung ho!'

"I thought it was fitting that I use that picture for the cover," she said. "And my father has always been supportive of the band. So, that's my daddy!," she said with a small, affectionate laugh.

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin