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'Fresh Air' Favorites: Patti Smith

This week, we're listening back to some favorite Fresh Air interviews from the past decade. The punk icon reflected on her career and her 22-year friendship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe in 2010.

22:30

Other segments from the episode on January 3, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 3, 2020: Interview with Patti Smith; Interview with Bruce Springsteen.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today we continue our series of staff picks of favorite interviews from the past decade. Coming up later in the show, Bruce Springsteen. But first, Patti Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORIA")

PATTI SMITH: (Singing) Oh, she was so good. Oh, she was so fine. And I'm going to tell the world that I just ah-ah made her mine. And I said, darling, tell me you name. She told me her name. She whispered to me. She told me her name. And her name is, and her name is, and her name is, and her name is G-L-O-R-I - G-L-O-R-I-A. Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A. Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A. Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A. Gloria.

BIANCULLI: That's Patti Smith in the opening track of her 1975 debut studio album "Horses." Known as the Godmother of Punk, she created a hybrid of poetry and rock and developed a high-energy performance style that was sometimes aggressive and sometimes ecstatic.

Terry Gross interviewed Patti Smith in 2010 after the publication of her memoir, "Just Kids," which won a National Book Award. It's about growing up in New Jersey, moving to New York in 1967 and slowly evolving into a poet, songwriter and performer. The book revolves around her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met just after she got to New York. They became soulmates and both aspired to be artists. She became famous first. The album that made her famous, "Horses," had an iconic photo of her taken by Mapplethorpe. He later became known for his erotic and sadomasochistic photos of gay men. He died of AIDS in 1989.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Patti Smith, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's in New York that you met Robert Mapplethorpe, and, you know, you changed the course of each other's lives. Would you tell the story of how you met Robert Mapplethorpe?

SMITH: Well, our - my first meeting was very simple. I had some friends at Pratt Institute, people that went to my high school that had the means to go to art school. And I - I was looking for them, hoping for a little shelter since I had nowhere to sleep that night.

But when I went to visit them, they had moved, and the boy that answered the door didn't know where my friends had moved and said, well, go in there and maybe my roommate will know where they are. And I went in a room and there was a boy sleeping, lying on a little iron bed and just with a mass of dark curls.

And as soon as I walked in, he awoke and looked at me and smiled. And then I talked, and he knew where my friends had lived. But the thing that I remember, the very first impression I have of Robert is waking up and smiling.

GROSS: At some point, you realize that Mapplethorpe was gay. At some point, he realized that he was gay. How did it affect his relationship with you? When he came to terms with being gay and had lovers and eventually had a long-time lover, were you able to stay as close, even though the relationship had changed?

SMITH: Oh, Robert and I always were just as close. I mean, we had to work out, obviously, the physical aspect of our relationship. And it was really me who, in the end, severed the physical aspect of our relationship. You know, and in the end, we worked that out. I mean, because we were so close and our love for each other was so deep that the absence of - and we were still physical with one another. He was always very affectionate. Till the day he died, we were still affectionate toward one another.

GROSS: In your book, you write about how Mapplethorpe's work started to change and become more sadomasochistic in its imagery, which he became quite famous for. And you write that that imagery was bewildering and frightening to you. You write, he couldn't share things with me because it was so outside our realm and that you couldn't comprehend the brutality of his images of self-inflicted pain. It was hard for you to match it with the boy you had met. Can you talk a little bit about - a little bit more about your reaction to his images and what you found disturbing and incomprehensible about it?

SMITH: Well, they were disturbing images.

GROSS: They're meant to be disturbing, yeah, right.

SMITH: I'm just - I mean, Robert - I mean, a lot of my reaction was out of, first of all, naietivity (ph). I didn't know anything about that world. I still know very little about that world. And my protective instincts for Robert - they frightened me. I worried that he would be hurt or something bad would happen to him.

But he was - always assured me that all of these situations were controlled, consensual situations. I mean, there were a few of these images that I thought were actually brilliant. And so we were able, after I processed the subject matter, to talk to - to talk about these images as art. But I was never really curious to talk about them in any other way. And he respected that.

GROSS: You say that until a friend suggested that you be in a rock 'n' roll band, it had never occurred to you. It was just, like, not part of your world.

SMITH: No, why would it? You know, I'm not a musician. You know, I didn't play any instrument. I didn't have any specific talents. I mean, I came from the South Jersey-Philadelphia area. And in early '60s, everybody sang. They sang on street corners, three-part harmonies, a cappella. Most of my friends were better singers than me.

There was nothing in what I did that would give a sense that I should be in a rock 'n' roll band. Also, girls weren't in rock 'n' roll bands. I mean, they sang, but, you know, the closest thing to a rock singer, a real rock singer that we had was Grace Slick, and I certainly didn't have Grace Slick's voice.

GROSS: You were saying that you didn't have - you know, you didn't think of yourself as a singer, per se, that your friends had better voices than you did. But you created this new style, really, that was a combination of poetry and music. It wasn't about having, like, a perfect singer's voice. It was the style that you performed and the personality that you put into it - the kind of defiance that you had in some songs, the energy. Would you talk about what you felt you were doing early on that was different from what you'd seen other people do?

SMITH: I think my perception of myself was really as a performer and a communicator. I had a mission when we recorded "Horses." My mission was...

GROSS: It was your first album.

SMITH: My first album "Horses," my mission and the collective band mission was really, on one level, to merge poetry and rock 'n' roll but more humanistically, to reach out to other disenfranchised people.

In 1975, the, you know, young homosexual kids were, you know, being disowned by their families. The kids were, you know, kids like me, who were a little weird or a little different, were often persecuted in their small towns. And it wasn't just, you know, because of sexual persuasion. It was for any reason - for being an artist, for being different, for having political views, for just wanting to be free. And I really recorded the record to connect with these people, you know, and also in terms of our place in rock 'n' roll, just to create some bridge between our great artists that we had just lost - Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison among them - and to create space for what I felt would be the new guard, which I didn't really include myself.

I was really anticipating people or bands like The Clash and The Ramones. I was anticipating in my mind that a new breed would come - Television - a new breed would come and they would be less materialistic, more bonded with the people and not so glamorous. I wasn't thinking so much of music. I wasn't thinking so much of perfection or stardom or any of that stuff. I was thinking - I had this mission, and I thought I would do this record and then go back to my writing and my drawing, and, you know, return to my, you know, my somewhat abnormal normal life. But "Horses" took me on a whole different path.

GROSS: Is there a track from "Horses" that particularly illustrates what you were describing as what your mission was?

SMITH: "Birdland."

GROSS: OK.

SMITH: I think "Birdland" because - for various reasons. "Birdland" was an improvisation built on an improvisation. It so much exemplifies the communication of my band, especially between Richard, Lenny and I. And it speaks of this new breed, you know, the new generations who will be dreaming in animation, you know, the new generations that will race across the fields no longer presidents, but prophets. That - it's - that was my - it was like my telegram to the new breed.

GROSS: Oh, let's hear it. This is "Birdland" from Patti Smith's first album "Horses."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIRDLAND")

SMITH: (Singing) I'll give you my eyes, take me up, oh yeah, please take me up. I'm helium raven waiting for you, please take me up. Don't leave me here. The son, the sign, the cross, like the shape of a tortured woman, the true shape of a tortured woman, the mother standing in the doorway letting her sons no longer presidents but prophets.

They're all dreaming they're going to bear the prophet. He's going to run through the fields dreaming in animation. It's all going to split his skull. It's going to come out like a black bouquet shining like a fist that's going to shoot them up like light, like Mohammed Boxer. Take them up, up, up, up, up, up. Oh, let's go up, up, take me up, I'll go up, I'm going up, I'm going up. Take me up, I'm going up, I'll go up there. Go up, go up, go up, go up, up, up, up, up, up, up. Up, up to the belly of a ship.

BIANCULLI: That's Patti Smith from her 1975 debut studio album "Horses." We'll hear more of her interview with Terry Gross after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with poet, songwriter and performer Patti Smith, one of our staff picks for favorite interviews of the past decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Robert Mapplethorpe did the very iconic photograph for the cover of "Horses." Would you briefly describe the photo?

SMITH: Well, it's very classic photograph by Robert, very simple. I'm standing against a white wall with a triangular shadow, dressed in the clothes typical of myself then. And just an old white shirt - a clean old white shirt - sort of a black ribbon that symbolizes a tie or a cravat, black pants, jacket's slung over my shoulder, looking directly at Robert. It's - has a little bit of Baudelaire, a little bit of Catholic boy, a little bit of Frank Sinatra and a lot of Robert.

GROSS: (Laughter) What impact do you think that photo had on how people perceived you?

SMITH: Well, I - you know, I don't know. I (laughter), I know people really liked it. I know the record company didn't.

GROSS: They didn't? That's such a great photo. Why didn't the record company like it?

SMITH: 'Cause my hair was messy, because you know, it just - it was a little incomprehensible to them at the time. But I fought for it, and they did try to airbrush my hair, but I made sure that was fixed.

People were very upset constantly about my appearance when I was young. I don't know what it was. You know, they just - it was very hard for them to factor. But I've always had that problem, even as a child. You know, I used to go to the beach when I was a little kid and just want to wear my dungarees and my flannel shirt. And the whole time, people would be, why are you wearing that? Why don't you get a bathing suit, you know, why are - it's like, leave me alone. (Laughter). It's just like, I'm not bothering you. Why are you worried about, you know, what I look like, you know? It's just - I'm not trying to bother anybody.

But people loved the photograph. The people on the streets loved the photograph. And it gave Robert some instant attention. I think it was his, you know, the - where he - it really helped, you know, launch his work into the public consciousness. And so we were both very happy about that. And the funniest thing and sort of the sweetest thing was, when I started performing after the record came out, I would go to clubs anywhere - it could be Denmark, it could be in Youngstown, Ohio - and I would come on stage and at least half of the kids had white shirts and black ties on.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SMITH: It was kind of cool. We were all - we all had suddenly turned Catholic.

GROSS: You write that, you know, when Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in March of '89, the morning that he died, you describe your feelings. And you say that you were shuddering, overwhelmed by a sense of excitement, acceleration, as if because of the closeness that you experienced with Robert, you were to be privy to his new adventure - the miracle of his death. You say this wild sensation stayed with you for some days. Could you describe that? Did you know he was dying when you - did - had you gotten the phone call when you felt this, or were you just feeling this, you know, without even...

SMITH: No, I felt that after he died.

GROSS: After he died.

SMITH: I had already received the call that he had died. I mean, we knew that he was dying. We knew that he was dying the last couple of weeks of his life. I talked to him. I talked to Robert in the last hour that he could still speak, and I listened to his breathing before I went to sleep. His brother called me and let me listen to his breathing, and he died that morning. So that sensation that I felt was his, you know, acceleration into his next place after death. I could really feel that.

I've experienced a lot of death since Robert. I sat with Allen Ginsberg when he died. I was with my husband when he died, my parents. But Robert - the acceleration in energy I felt after Robert's death was unique, and it did stay with me for quite a while. And I think that each of us - you know, our energy leaves in a different way according to the person - you know, according to the energy of the person, the way the spirit manifests. Each of us die differently. And we have - you know, I believe that - I believe we all have a unique journey, whether it's a journey of pure energy, if there's any intelligence within the journey. But I think each of us have our own way of dissipating or entering a new field.

GROSS: You say that one of the people who you were with when he died was Allen Ginsberg, and in your memoir, you mention some advice that Ginsberg had given you after your husband died. He said, let go of the spirit of the departed and continue your life's celebration. Having experienced as much death as you have, is that good advice, do you think?

SMITH: Yes. I mean, I think that, you know, there - the idea that time heals all wounds is not really true. Our wounds aren't really ever healed. We just learn to walk with them. We learn that some days, we're going to feel intense pain all over again. And we just have to say, OK, I know you; you can come along with me today, in the same way that, sometimes, we start laughing at - in the middle of nowhere remembering something that happened with someone we've lost.

And, you know, life is the best thing that we have. We each have a life. We have to negotiate it, navigate it. And I think it's very important that we enjoy our life, that we get everything we can out of it. And it doesn't take away from our love of the departed. I mean, I take Fred along with me in the things that I do or Robert or my father or my mother. You know, whoever wants to come along, they can be with me, and - you know, and if I want them, I can sense them. You know, we have our own life, but we can still walk with the people that we miss or that we lose. And I think it's very important to not be afraid to experience joy in the middle of sorrow because, you know, that's what our life is. You know, our art, it's the fearful symmetry of Blake - you know, joy and sorrow. You don't want to just feel one of them. They're both valuable to the spirit.

GROSS: Patti Smith, thank you so much for talking with us.

SMITH: Oh, you're welcome. Nice to talk to you, too.

BIANCULLI: Poet, songwriter and performer Patti Smith speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. Their talk was one of our staff picks for favorite interviews of the past decade. After a break, another favorite staff pick - Terry's interview with Bruce Springsteen. This is his version of "Because The Night," a song that he and Patti Smith wrote together. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BECAUSE THE NIGHT")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Take me now, baby, here as I am. Pull me close. Try and understand. Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe. Love is a banquet on which we feed. Come on, now. Try and understand the way I feel when I'm in your hands. Take my hand. Come undercover. They can't hurt you now. They can't hurt you now. They can't hurt you now because the night belongs to lovers, because the night belongs to lust, because the night belongs to lovers, because the night belongs to us. Have I doubt when I'm alone, love is a ring, the telephone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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