IF 2002 was a year for Patti Smith retrospectives, 2003 looks to be a year for new beginnings. After 27 years and eight albums for Arista, Smith has just signed with Columbia Records, a deal that will include not only new studio work but live albums and poetry collections.
The Arista contract ended with the May release of "Land," a career-spanning double CD, one disc of favorites decided by fan poll, the other an amalgam of unreleased demos, studio and live recordings chosen by Smith. The Arista contract originally called for a greatest hits package, but that would have meant not an album, merely a single (1978's Bruce Springsteen co-write "Because the Night"). As a result, "Land" ends up being a Patti Smith primer, from 1974's long unavailable, privately pressed 45 of "Piss Factory," an autobiographical poem with musical backing that presaged her subsequent work, to "Notes to the Future," recorded at the St. Mark's Poetry Project on Jan. 1, 2002.
St. Mark's Church in the East Village is the same place where Smith's urgently incantatory poetry -- what she called Rock 'n' Rimbaud -- first captured people's attention 31 years before. Four years later, the Patti Smith Group released "Horses," a work as seminal in sound -- it's the root of Smith's appellation as "the godmother of punk" -- as it was iconic in image (thanks to roommate Robert Mapplethorpe's cover portrait).
"When I first did 'Horses,' I knew so little about the music business," Smith recalled from her SoHo home a few days before Christmas. "I never even thought I'd do a record and that when I did 'Horses,' that was my record. I didn't know that I was going to be asked to do more records. I accomplished my mission and so to still be recording at this time of my life is such a joy, you know. I never take it for granted because it came as such a surprise in my life. I had other ambitions."
"I studied art and I thought I would be a writer or a painter, or a teacher because I liked being in front of people, talking," Smith says. "There was even a little space where I thought I would be Johnny Carson -- maybe I could do monologues! But I never imagined I would be performing rock 'n' roll, because I came up in a time where I never considered I could have my own electric guitar and amplifiers and things. It all seemed so abstract for me."
In truth, Smith has realized most of her options. There are a dozen books of poetry, including 1999's "Patti Smith Complete: Lyrics, Notes and Reflections." Fans who know her work is in New York's Museum of Modern Art and Paris's Pompidou Museum may want to hurry up to Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum for "Strange Messenger: The Art of Patti Smith," a 30-year retrospective that runs through Sunday.
Or they can just stay in Washington, where Smith is camping out for the next three days in three very different venues -- the 9:30 club, the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage and Georgetown University's Gaston Hall. Friday, Smith performs at the 9:30 club "with the full band and highly developed visuals," she promises. "We have new songs and we've learned all the songs on the retrospective and it'll be rock 'n' roll.
"The Kennedy Center will be a lot of poetry and some acoustic songs, a totally different performance," Smith says of the free Saturday show, sponsored by the third annual Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit. On Sunday, she'll participate in the summit's artists roundtable at Gaston Hall; the panel, which runs from 4:30 to 6 p.m., also includes Ian MacKaye, Bob Mould, Vernon Reid and Joan Jett.
In "Piss Factory," Smith recounted the dreary factory job she'd started in high school and the rock 'n' roll/R&B-fueled dreams of escape. "I'm gonna get on that train and go to New York City and I'm gonna be somebody," Smith brashly insisted, and in the mid-'60s, she left New Jersey and did just that, infiltrating a downtown cultural community that was post-Beat, pre-punk and plentifully populated with mavericks. Smith had studied art at Glassboro State College but her greater inspiration came from Mapplethorpe, long before he ever picked up a camera. Prior to her becoming a performance poet and rocker, words were bursting onto Smith's canvases. As she puts it, "all the things I do pretty much entwine."
Smith had always been enthralled with the work of William Blake, Marcel Duchamp and other artists "who incorporate language with image," she explains. "When I lived with Robert Mapplethorpe, I started incorporating poetry in the drawings. And then, as I was improvising poetry on the drawings, I started speaking them out loud. And then they got very 'rhythmatic.' Robert used to say 'Why don't you read your poetry like Jim Carroll and other people do?' and I'd say 'I don't know anything about that.'
"But Robert kept pushing me to do it and finally I did it. And trying to make it a strong statement, I asked Lenny Kaye to play some electric guitar behind some of the pieces. Robert thought it was great because he thought it was new. It might not seem like much now but back in 1970, reading poetry with an electric guitar doing interpretive sonicscapes was not done."
There'd been a long history of jazz-backed poetry, but Smith says she was trying "to merge Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane and poetry. It was more of an energy thing and some people loved it, and others seemed highly insulted that I would do that. But I didn't do it to draw a reaction, I did it because I wanted to do something new.'
After her breakthrough reading at St. Mark's in February of 1971, "people kept asking me to do more performances, or suggesting I record, but I wasn't really ready for anything like that," Smith recalls. "I was still working on my writing and drawings."
While the readings gradually transformed into raucous rock 'n' roll, it would be four years before "Horses" appeared, inspired both by the need for personal expression and a sense of generational loss.
"The thing about that particular time is, I was living at the Chelsea Hotel and there were people like William Burroughs and Gregory Corso and Sam Shepard and Andy Warhol, a big concentration of artists in all different disciplines. But as I was developing my poetry and performance, some of those important people died -- Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison -- and it seemed rock 'n' roll at that time was dying as a political or poetical revolutionary force. Seemed to me it was getting like a glamorous business and that's what we were reacting to."
"We" were Television and the Patti Smith Group and the community that sprang up around a failing Bowery bar called CBGB's. Thanks to what Smith called "three chords merged with the power of the word," the American side of the punk/new wave movement sprouted in the mid-'70s and the Patti Smith Group was the first such act signed to a major label, the then-brand new Arista Records.
Smith would record eight albums for Arista, half in the '70s. There might have been more had Smith not withdrawn in the '80s to raise a family with her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, guitarist for seminal Detroit rockers the MC5. There was an eight-year silence, during which Smith continued to work on music, poetry and art; 1988's "Dream of Life," replaced the urgent poetic ramblings of the past with more reflective musings, but Smith remained off the road and out of the public eye, particularly as Fred Smith became increasingly ill; he died of heart failure in November 1994. A year later, Patti Smith began performing again and resumed recording with 1996's "Gone Again."
Asked about any major differences in her '70s and '90s work, Smith recognizes "themes that keep coming up over and over again, but as one evolves, one becomes less self-oriented. I would say that the earlier albums were more of the self-oriented bravado of late adolescence, but thematically, I'm still working on certain things: a person's relationship with God; trying to inspire people to take stands, to use their voice, to realize they have power.
"In the '70s I was trying to remind people that rock 'n' roll was theirs, that it didn't belong to business, or to stars, but to the people -- it's a grass-roots art," she says. "Now I try to encourage people to remember that they have power as a voter, that they have power as a human being. One evolves and one evolves their message but there are certain things that are consistent."
Including the improvisatory nature of her live performances.
"To me, it's all improvisation because our band never does the same show twice," she says. "We spar with the audience, we interact and we often improvise whole songs or poetry on stage. Some nights are subdued, some seem electric and a lot of it has to do with the frame of mind of the people, the energy of the city, things people are concerned about, what the mood of the country is."
The mood of a country on the verge of war in Iraq brought Smith to Washington for the Oct. 26 peace rally on the Mall, where she joined such speakers as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Susan Sarandon at Washington's largest anti-war demonstration since the Vietnam era. Smith returns to the Mall as part of a national mobilization on the weekend of Jan. 18-19, timed to coincide with the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and the 12th anniversary of the start of the 1991 Gulf War.
"I travel a lot in Europe, and people over there don't know what to think," Smith says. "It's like when I traveled there in my twenties during Vietnam -- we're really getting a dark reputation globally.
"I have two children and I was raised in the '50s when the threat of the bomb was always hanging over us," she adds. "But if we're going to be guardians of the world, then we have to be more open and compassionate, have a better global understanding of how the things we do affect other countries."
Tonight's 9:30 show marks the first concert Smith has done since the passing of her mother, to whom she was particularly close. Beverly Smith, says her daughter, "loved the fans. She answered my fan mail for 25 years and she answered every single letter. Even Michael Stipe has a letter from my mother. These are the first rock 'n' roll performances I'm doing without her encouraging words, but I know she'll be with me and I feel really optimistic about my own future."
PATTI SMITH -- Appearing Friday at the 9:30 club; Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage and Sunday at 4:30 p.m. on the Artists Panel at the Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Patti Smith, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)