A Love Supreme

The spiritual struggles and unerring faith of Patti Smith

Patti Smith is crying. There’s a room full of people, all awkwardly wondering how to react, as a sixty-five-year-old icon of rebellion gently wipes tears from her eyes while recounting a recent experience with a toothless three-year-old girl. It’s an unexpected emotional outpouring, to say the least, but if there’s one thing you should learn about Patti Smith, it’s that she wears her heart on her sleeve.

Clash is gathered with a select group of music journos and industry types for the very first playback of Patti’s new album, ‘Banga’. We are downstairs in the legendary Mayfair club The Scotch Of St. James, the site of Jimi Hendrix’s debut UK performance in 1966, and, awaiting the artist known as the high poetess of punk, we are suitably expecting another maelstrom of energy to emanate from the speakers. She has personally brought the only copy of the album’s final mixes over to London from the US, and sits in a dark corner listening along and watching our reactions as ‘Banga’ blasts out. It’s an album of potency, where a solid, stinging backdrop of graphic guitars (supplied by longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye and guest star Tom Verlaine) echo Patti’s sentiments of the difficulties involved with the salvation of planet Earth. Patti is visibly tender afterwards – sharing her new music was difficult yet necessary – and wells up at the memory of the children’s choir which appears on the final song. Clash is thrown off balance – here’s an impenetrable punk rebel, a known dissenter and paragon of defiance so moved by the innocence of youth that she willfully breaks down in front of strangers. If we’d been intimidated before (who wouldn’t be in her presence?) now we’re just downright confused.

The following day, as we sit precariously side-by-side, Clash admits to Patti the myriad feelings that came with the preparation of our interview. Firstly, the fear of encountering the woman who wrote the line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”, who penned the song ‘Pissing In A River’, and whose zealous eyes penetrate her audience from on stage. Then there was relief: YouTube interviews revealed a shy, humble interviewee, a self-deprecating introvert. She immediately sparkles into life with a reassuring explanation of herself: “When I was young I was quite an intense performer, and I still think I’m intense, but I’m a little more…I think I’m much more open. It’s just I was young and learning how to do it; very intense and focused. But I always like to joke around and to improvise. And I’ve never felt a big line between me and the people – I’ve never felt like I’m a ‘rock star’ or I’m this person… I don’t feel that at all. It’s just possibly also I’m not very social as a person – I’m sort of a loner, not much of a party person – so maybe I’m just naturally austere. But I’m not too bad,” she laughs. “Not too scary!”

Not at all, as we’d find out over the next hour, as Patti’s hand reaches reassuringly onto Clash’s knee, and a thousand smiles pepper the conversation. The self-confessed loner does, however, guard her private life fiercely, and makes great effort to keep the personal and professional worlds apart. “I keep a private life because I think all human beings have that right, but in terms of like walking down the street, if people come up and talk to me, you know, I’ll say hello to them, to a degree. I feel that I do all the duties I feel that I’m obligated to do; when I’m on stage I give the people all of my self, all of my time, all of my concentration, and if I’m with my family, I’m giving my family my time. I just conduct myself as a normal human being who should have normal rights and respect. I wouldn’t go up to a stranger on the street and start badgering them or talking to them and taking their picture. It’s just human stuff; we have to create space for one another.”

Duly put at ease, talk turns to ‘Banga’. Her eleventh album finds Patti in an anthropological frame of mind, where the survival of our planet is paramount, and man’s power to assert change is encouraged. It begins in ‘Amerigo’, an adaption on the story of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who traveled to a “new world” and eventually bestowed it his name. “The idea of a New World has alway been appealing – a new beginning, a fresh slate,” Patti explains. “And I always loved the stories of explorers, and they’re both exciting and so sad, because if you think what ‘Amerigo’ is about: he comes to the New World to see new things and has an idea he’s going to baptize all these natives – he’s going to make them all Catholics – and then he comes to this place where the people are freer than him, they’re purer than him, probably more spiritual, and that’s why…well, I sort of made it up; I was imagining that after finding all of this, Amerigo and all his men are baptized in the rain of the New World instead of taking the holy water and trying to baptize natives. Instead nature baptizes them, because nature has the purer water.”

She goes on to expand on the subject of the album’s theme: “In the wake of us destroying our planet, for me the New World would simply be new generations rising and taking… To me, the ultimate revolution would be our new guard and new generations banding together by the millions – even to the billions – through any way possible: through telepathy, through texting, through Twitter; using all of the new technology to bind together to make a new force. Because really, the only way that we’re going to change our world and make it a new world, a cleaner world, the only way we’re going to save the bumble bees, save several species of fish and birds and all kinds of animals, and to save our rivers and the waters, is to change. Otherwise, we’re just going to have to rely on science to make new chemicals and new things so that we can live in a completely polluted world. And I imagine new generations finding a way to connect globally through their technology and going on mass strikes to take down a lot of these corporations, to make governments and corporations understand that the people actually do rule. But the only way that the people can rule is if, by their sheer numbers, they overwhelm. Because what does governments and corporations need from us? Our money and our votes. If we say, ‘We’re not voting and we’re not buying’, and everyone goes on strike for like a week even, they would crumble.”

Wouldn’t that be rather messy, Clash asks? “Of course it would cause chaos, but something’s gotta happen,” Patti declares. “Revolution is never fun, but we need not a violent revolution – we don’t need people overturning cars and burning them – we need for people to simply en masse by the millions decide they’re going to reinvent our world. It would take so much effort, and probably the only way it can be done is guided by youth, because other people, they don’t want to lose their job, they don’t wanna lose their comfortable situation, they don’t wanna lose their material things, but meanwhile everyone is getting cancer, meanwhile whole species are collapsing… This is the thing that most concerns me. This is the thing that I think about every day. This is the underlying principle of the album: the New World is just our world cleaned up, turned around; a new consciousness. But that’s always scary; I’m sure that Amerigo was both excited and terrified to go across the sea to a place that no-one in human history on one side had ever seen before. It could mean death, it could be strange diseases, it could be monsters never imagined…but he did it. And the New World for us, the new frontier, is ourselves, changing. And yes, it’s scary – it means everything that we aspired to might have to shift – but everything’s changed anyway. On this record, I want to say everything that I have to say in a way that communicates with as many people as possible and hopefully plants a seed – which is another reoccurring theme.”

Phew. We both pause for thought. Patti apologises for her long answers. A plate of cookies sit before us, ignored by our conversation.

Continue reading this interview in the July 2012 issue of Clash magazine, out now.

Words by Simon Harper
Photo by Steven Sebring

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