March 9 will be a significant day for Patti Smith’s fans in Milwaukee — and for Smith herself.
The poet, author and rock legend will be playing her first concert in town in 38 years, at the Milwaukee Theatre. And she’ll be performing the Patti Smith Group’s landmark debut album, 1975’s “Horses,” in its entirety, a visceral tour-de-force that moved punk rock into the mainstream; influenced countless bands (from the Smiths to R.E.M. to Wisconsin’s own Garbage); and was preserved by the Library of Congress. By Smith’s side will be two musicians who recorded “Horses” with her in New York in 1975: guitarist Lenny Kaye, and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty.
The date has deep personal significance for Smith as well. It was on March 9, 1976, that Kaye introduced Smith to her future husband, the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, guitarist for the MC5.
“It’s nice we’ll be able to do a concert on that day, and as well as ‘Horses’ we’ll do songs that I wrote specifically for Fred, like ‘Because the Night,’ ‘Frederick,’ ‘Dancing Barefoot’,” Smith told the Journal Sentinel. “There were so many songs for Fred.”
Making this sentimental anniversary even sweeter: Their son Jackson will be playing guitar at Smith’s Milwaukee show. “He’s a great guitarist like his father,” Smith said.
Between recent live “Horses” retrospectives in honor of its 40th anniversary, and her acclaimed memoirs “Just Kids” in 2010 and “M Train” in 2015, the 70-year-old Smith has been doing a great deal of reminiscing.
But Smith says she is still striving to create her great work; currently she is planning an album and writing another book of nonfiction.
“I feel like that Bob Dylan song, ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece,’” Smith said. “That’s all I ever wanted to do when I was young, do something people love as much as ‘Pinocchio’ or ‘Peter Pan.’ … But I think in the end, an artist is the last to know if he’s done something great.”
Ahead of her overdue return to Milwaukee, the Journal Sentinel had a series of short phone conversations with Smith, including when she was en route to a publisher meeting, and traveling through a snowstorm to catch a flight to Paris.
The following is a condensed, edited transcript of those discussions.
Q. Based on your books and interviews, clearly you hold memories really dearly. Are they especially significant on a day like March 9?
A. Oh of course. I remember everything about that day. A writer relies on memory. When I wrote the book “Just Kids” about my relationship with (the late photographer) Robert Mapplethorpe and about working in the ‘70s and my childhood, 70% I relied on memory. The rest of it was materials: letters that he sent me, diaries, journals.
My first time I ever played in Milwaukee was March of ’76, just a couple of days before I met Fred, so I have a very strong memory of that particular swing. One of the things I remember was the Oriental Theatre. I had never seen a theater like that. It was like being inside Ali Baba’s palace or something. It was amazing.
And it was a really, really great concert, really fantastic. We were touring America for the first time, and I wasn’t even sure if anybody would have heard of us. I remember the people were crazy. We derived a lot of confidence from that tour.
Q. What goes through your mind as you revisit “Horses” at this stage in your career?
A. For me it is revisiting not just an album and the lyrics within the album, but a period of my life that was pivotal to my evolution as a performer. I wrote (the opening line, for opening track “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo”) “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” as a poem in 1970. It was a very long, organic process to get to where “Horses” was, and it really sort of encapsulates my process from writing poetry and performing poetry to evolving within a rock and roll band.
Sometimes doing the songs makes me a little sad. “Break It Up” was in memory of Jim Morrison. “Land” was in memory of Jimi Hendrix. My pianist (Richard Sohl) who I really loved and who was a founding member (of the Patti Smith Group) passed away, so I think of him. But it’s also very celebratory, because we’re still here. I’ve lost many friends. We’ve lost many people and many great musicians that we all loved. But we’re still here, and we’re still doing our work, and it feels like a privilege.
Q. What about “Horses” are you most proud of?
A. That people are still responding. That makes me very happy, that it communicates something, whether it speaks to the disenfranchised, or people respond to a political or poetic element of it.
And I have to say when we perform it, it has a very fresh energy because new people come, a lot of our audiences have been very young people, and it’s such a fantastic thing to be able to connect with new generations with this material. And the nice thing is a couple of the songs have improvisational sections, so every night there’s always a different improvisation which reflects the people, the city we’re in, the political climate and the energy of the night.
Q. Certainly the poetry of it resonates to this day. I was speaking to a local rapper who suggested poetry is not really found in music anymore. Do you have any thoughts or concerns about that?
A. Only poetry is poetry. A song can have poetic elements, but a poem is sort of a different animal. Poetry is not often written to communicate with the masses. It’s so often obscure because there is so much encoded in a poem. But lyrics of a song are meant to communicate with many people. And certain people have been masters of merging poetry and song, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan of course, John Lennon. Michael Stipe, one of the greatest lyricists really I think in the 21st century, and part of the 20th, his lyrics come as close to pure poetry as you can. In terms of whether anybody is doing it now, I’m sure somebody is, in their basement or sitting on a street corner. I never use the word never, except I just did. Let’s say I try to avoid using never, because there’s always a mystical exception to the rule.
Q. You mentioned Michael Stipe. I read an interview with him where he said what he took away from “Horses” was this sense of gender fluidity from the album’s lyrics and certainly Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo of you for the album art. In 2017 there has been so much discussion and progressive thought around the idea of gender fluidity. Do you have any thoughts on whether the album had some ripple effect?
A. Well I can’t say that. I don’t analyze my work, that would be your job. But when I was a young girl, people had to hide as much as they could their persuasions. In the ‘50s, you could be institutionalized for being a homosexual, you could be arrested for being a transvestite. We have made great, great strides, and that is because the community is so strong, and have protested and lobbied, and worked so hard for gay rights, and now with transgender rights they never stop working toward equality. But I know there are always strides that have to be made. We have so much racism in our country, yet we elected a black president. We take steps up and steps back. But we keep fighting.
Q. What are your perceptions of where are we at now politically, and what role can music play?
A. We need citizen activism more than ever. Of course having artists and musicians who write inspiring songs that incite and inspire people are important. But I think even more important is when I see a million people on the streets, thousands of people in front of the Trump building, thousands and thousands at the airport, thousands of people that went in the cold to protest the pipeline. The people are really rising across America, and I think that is the most important thing. And I’m not saying artists aren’t helpful and aren’t inspiring, but its really the people united that make change.
Q. Looking back at your life, what have you learned?
A. When I was younger, everything was about the future. But I turned 70 and I have to go backwards in order to think about my husband, my brother, Robert Mapplethorpe, my mother, my father, many of my friends. In order to have my people with me, it’s important to look back at people we’ve loved and lost.
But I have energy to go both ways. I am happy to fast forward and happy to look back. I can reflect on myself and think, “I was an (expletive) here,” or, “Thank God I’ve evolved here,” or “I fall short here.”
But you know, what I spend the most time doing is working. I’m writing a book, let’s say, a sister to “Just Kids.” It will have a lot more about performing and music and the songs that we wrote. My last book took me about two years, because I learned so much writing that one.
I’m always learning, learning about performance, learning about people, learning about motherhood. And what I have learned about myself is I still have the ability to learn. I think that’s really important. We have to keep our enthusiasm. I may have a few gray hairs, and I may have some aches and pains. But I’m as curious as ever.
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