Interview by Mick Gold
The interview took place on May 10, 1976 inside the Portobello Hotel in London. Mick was in the room with a few other journalists–those are some of the other voices you hear. “Patti was friendly and weird and talkative,” Mick told us.
“Her appearance is as unlikely as you expect,” Mick wrote of Patti Smith back in ’76. “Hair like a black mop falls across an almost Mongolian face. … A grin like a split. A nose like a moon.”
The Animated Transcript
Mick Gold is a writer, photographer and film maker. He won an Emmy for the TV history Watergate (1995). He is currently finishing a series Inside Obama’s White House (2016) for the BBC and other broadcasters.
I hear that our single’s been released here with bleeps in it.
It certainly has.
You want to write something in your paper?
You tell the kids that I say not to buy it. You tell them that’s against my wishes and I fought and fought for the song not to be censored.
Let me just say by the way that the single that Patti is talking about is the B side of the new single, My Generation. The old Pete Townshend song.
Yeah. It has this line, “I don’t need no fuckin’ shit, hope I die because of it.” ‘Cause it was live, and they bleeped it and that’s not how it’s supposed to be. There are two very important American slang terms. They’re nothing but slang. They’ve been abstracted from the physical act. When people say ‘fuckin’ shit’ they don’t think of a big turd, or two people making it anymore, it’s just words, you know. Rock n’ roll, or whatever it’s called, is like my art. Government doesn’t know shit, you know, whether it’s art or not. That’s the whole thing, rock ‘n roll is still warfare, total warfare all the time. You’re always fightin’, always fightin’.
People got very upset what they thought I moved in to rock n roll and stopped being a poet and started being a rock ‘n roller but they forget the first time I ever performed poetry I was with Lenny and he was playing guitar. The second time was with Sam Shephard, he was playing drums. I’ve actually never really experienced poetry without something behind it. It just grew, it flowered, it transcended.
What about the point of contact, Patti, with Rimbaud’s work?
Well, my first meeting with Rimbaud was when I was sixteen. So I went to this bookstore. I saw this book, it was Illuminations, the one with Rimbaud’s picture on the cover. You know the famous one? I looked at that guy and he was so cool looking, sort of reminded me of my father, looked a little like Dylan. In fact a lot like Dylan, and I thought, “God is he cool.” He had long hair. I always hated when guys wore short hair, I hated that. I didn’t know nothing about poetry, I thought poets were weirdos.
I’m walking along the river, Woodbury Creek. It was sort of a nice day, swans and stuff. I had this book and I sat down and looked at it and there was just something about the language. I even remember the poem that got me: Antique. Gracious son of pan. I remember it had this line that really sprung something in me, that move softly that leg, that left leg, that thigh. Roll those emerald eyes, those balls, I mean it had this really sensual language. It was like graphite glittered and it just did something to me, and it gave me solace. So, anyway I wrote my first serious poem. It wasn’t the first time I ever wrote poetry, but it was the first time I really had some model.
I mean to me poetry is like one of the highest, most abstract most fulfilling forms of communication. We’ve always needed poets whether it was Dylan, or Hendrix, Morrison. I mean a lot of people talk about what Dylan did for me. We got our picture taken together, did that accelerate my career, well fuck that, I was fine without him. I mean he was a person that inspired me, and that I admired for years and he came to me equally inspired by what we were doing.
I think the thing that Dylan most admires about me, because he’s told me so and talked to other people about it, is that what I’ve worked on or trained myself to do is dip in my subconsciousness. Dip in, dip in to the sea, the sea of possibilities. When I was a real young girl I had incredible dreams, incredible hallucinations, and I started training myself, instead of waking up disoriented or feeling totally alien, to memorize them, write them down. Now it’s gotten to the point, because I’m so familiar and unafraid of it, that I can dream on stage, or dream when I’m writing. I can do it alone but having people that are there with you is sort of like body guards on your soul, keeps you from going too far. Like often I feel like I’m going to go to far and my soul’s going to go right up back to Mars where it came from.
I mean when I was younger all I cared about was being cool. I was very very into cool. You know if you worry about being cool all the time you’re going to cut yourself off from a whole new level of experience. Sure it’s painful sometimes. Sometimes I really blow it, and I really feel like an asshole you know. I get up. You have to get up again. Like Muhammad Ali or if a fighter makes a wrong move, do they sit down on the floor and say, “Oh well I give up?” You can’t. There’s always people watching you, you got to keep it going, the show must go on and all that kind of stuff.
Some things are within public domain. The only time I’ve felt ripped off in my life is like when people have snooped around in my personal, really, really personal life and exploited it. That’s the only thing that hurts me. Finding things about my past that could hurt my family and, you know, exploiting them. To me that has nothing to do with the spirit and the heart of rock ‘n’ roll.
I try to expose myself, as much as possible. I talk about controversial things, masturbation and things like that. Not for shock value. I don’t do anything for shock value. I think it’s a bore. I don’t say “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” to shock the Catholic church. We form our own lives, you know. When I do evil or something, I know I’m doing it. I do it by my own free will. I talk a lot. I try to relate to people and there are only a few things in my life that I prefer to remain private, very few things, mostly because out of respect to other people. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask.
Hear The Full Interview
Patti at The Agora, 1976
Smith’s cover of The Who’s “My Generation” was recorded during a legendary show at The Cleveland Agora in 1976. Smith had released her debut album Horses the year before, and the show featured the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, who produced the album, on bass. It was a raucous, reckless performance that instantly went down in rock history.
Law and Order‘s Best Guest Star
Just when we thought we couldn’t love Patti any more, she went and guest-starred on Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Smith spoke to Ethan Hawke at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, and recounted how she became addicted to the long-running series while on tour in Europe (Stars! They’re just like us!):
“Night after night, if we’re in a hotel, you have all this agitated energy and all this adrenaline and you can’t sleep. So I’m not much of a TV watcher, but I started watching TV, and the thing that I got really attracted to was this Law & Order: Criminal Intent show, which I had never seen because I hadn’t owned a TV.”
Smith added that she got so hooked that she brought her newfound detective show addiction back home with her to the states after her tours were over.
“Finally, I just went and bought a f—ing TV and started watching it at home and seeing it in English,” Smith said. “And I fell in love with it.”
Patti and Bob
“My whole most wonderful memory of Dylan was that I was sitting there, and I was trying to be cool ’cause I knew he was there. He came in the room and he said, ‘Hi Patti’. I just thought that was the neatest thing, that’s all he said. I said hi and then we didn’t know what to say to each other and we’re both like really shy, it was real teenager.”
“It was like when you have a crush on a guy in high school, you know, and you’re waiting for him to talk to you and you stand in front of your locker during class change. All of a sudden he comes up and talks to you and you don’t have nothing to say, and you both stand there. After waiting a year from him to come up and talk to you, he finally comes up and then you’re both like just acting totally creepy and stupid. It was so adolescent, it was really sexy, it was like we were both sixteen.”
Dream of Life
Rock’s Resident Poet Laureate
“My most precious writings and then the most direct like bang into the heart, into the cerebellum are all in my notebooks. That is the stuff I totally get off on because it’s there. It’s raw. It’s the skeleton, I remember what state of mind it was in. It’s impure yet, it’s like the uncut gem. That’s one stage, then often the notebooks are transformed into very dense prose, which I like to see printed because you know to me dense prose is very sexy.
But then there’s another kind of poem that I write that isn’t even in notebooks…I’ll all of a sudden get an inspiration and I’ll write a very linear poem, which is how I sort of got that tag in my early days as a rock poet because I’d write these very long linear things with very primitive, like almost 3 chord rhythms.” More.
Patti published The Coral Sea in 1996, a collection of poems inspired by her grief over Mapplethorpe’s death. He died in 1989 from an AIDS-related illness.
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