Freelance writer James Nuttall has been lucky enough to interview Patti Smith an amazing four times in the space of just under three years. The latest occasion was on her recent tour of the UK on which she played her landmark album, Horses, in full. Such is the regard we hold Ms Smith in, we reviewed two dates on the tour Glasgow and Manchester, at the latter of which James conducted his interview with Patti which we’re thrilled to be able to reproduce in full here for you.
In the space of just under three years, I’ve spoken to Patti Smith four times. This has involved travelling all over the country and waiting outside four different venues for hours on end for the lady herself to arrive. Some might wonder (although I’m sure many don’t) why I have put so much effort into speaking to the same person time and time again. The answer is simple: not only is she the most interesting interviewee I’ve ever had the pleasure to speak to, and that is up against some pretty strong competition, she is also the most humble and accommodating lady you could ever hope to meet.
Surely, you would think, the woman who basically invented a genre of music, has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inspired thousands of people with her words, music, art and photography, won a National Book Award and was listed in the top 50 section of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists – just to mention a few of her countless accolades – would at least have a small creative ego. No. Not a trace of one. On stage, even at 68 years old, Patti Smith is a menacing, spitting, fist-pumping rocker. Off stage, she is mild-mannered, reverent and very, very funny.
My picture with her above was taken backstage at the Manchester Apollo on Monday prior to an electrifying show in which she performed her entire Horses album. This article documents our latest encounter, where we talked about a multitude of topics, but we jump in with Patti I thought it would be a good idea to paint a brief picture of the story so far…
It had been over two years since I last spoke to Patti. It feels like only yesterday since I was backstage with her at Burnley Mechanics; an intimate setting for 400 people, who watched a transcendent performance by the Godmother of Punk and her bassist Tony Shanahan, reading poetry and playing the gentler songs from her back catalogue.
I first interviewed Patti at the end of June 2012, backstage at the Wulfrun Hall in Wolverhampton. I’d travelled all the way from Yorkshire to Wolves in the hope of getting an interview with her. After waiting for seven hours for her to arrive, she very graciously gave me 15 minutes with her before she and the band soundchecked. It was this interview that earned me my first publishing in two large newspapers; the Manchester Evening News, and the Yorkshire Evening Post, which I still write for, prolifically.
My next encounter with her took place just over two months later in early September, when she returned to do her second leg of the Banga tour, an album which was released in 2012. I waited outside the Manchester Academy, ironically reading the interview I did with her in Wolverhampton, which was published in the MEN that same day, until around 5.30pm. Thankfully, she remembered me and granted me an interview the next day in Hebden Bridge, where she was due to play an acoustic show of poetry and music. After sourcing a poem for Patti to read at that night’s show, she added me to the guest list. Details of this day can be read on a previous article of mine – sufficed to say it was a truly magical day and performance – a day that will forever stay in my heart.
Seven months later in April 2013, Patti returned to the north of England to play three more intimate performances in Burnley, Haworth and Scarborough. This time, Patti was working a few little shows, or ‘jobs’ as she calls them, around a trip she was taking with her little sister Linda, who introduced her to the work of the Bronte’s. After waiting for around three hours outside the back of Burnley Mechanics, a black Range Rover with tinted windows pulled up and the by now unmistakable Tony Shanahan emerged from the drivers seat, trying to gain access to the venue. Patti remembered me for the favour I did for her in Hebden Bridge and whisked me into the venue with her for another interview. It was quite a surreal experience, getting to stand behind her on stage as she rehearsed Because the Night, holding the fruit and water she had very thoughtfully brought down for me from the dressing room. Much of this interview can be read here.
This year is the 40th anniversary of her legendary album, Horses; the prototype for ‘punk’ rock as we know it today. To mark this milestone, Patti and her band, featuring two musicians that played on the original album, are currently on tour playing the record in its entirety. Since this is no regular tour, she was booked into much larger venues than she played on her last UK tour; the O2 Apollo is almost twice the size of the Academy Patti played on the Banga tour.
Because of this factor, I decided that my best chance of getting an interview was to finally go down the ‘official’ route of emailing her management. You don’t see that many interviews with Patti popping up in the press; probably largely due to the fact that she is practically un-contactable. She gave me her assistant’s email address during our first meeting in Wolverhampton, presumably because she realised my objective for speaking to her was to discover, not sell, as is often the case with journalists.
Patti’s assistant Andi cc’d her tour manager Andrew into the conversation, who advised me to be at the venue for around 4pm, to wait around and find him, and he would try to get me 20 minutes to half an hour with Patti before the show.
When people say you have to suffer for your art, it is completely true. Thanks to my pre-booked taxi arriving 15 minutes late, I missed my intended 2.13pm train to Manchester, meaning that I found myself doing the journey to hell on the later train, packed with mid-afternoon incoherent alcoholics, each of whom got on and off at different stations and each having a different story to tell the whole carriage.
The Apollo theatre is well over a mile away from Manchester Victoria station, so speed-walking across the city centre, I called in at the W.H. Smith in Piccadilly station, which is en route to the venue, to purchase some lunch-come-breakfast. Naturally, my train was also held up at a signal, so when it finally did pull into Manchester, it was already after 3. Starving freelancers such as myself are often on the last minute due to unforeseen circumstances; so probably not for the last time and certainly not for the first, I walked as fast as I could with the blazing sun melting me in my wake as I crammed a £1.75 ham roll down my throat. After allowing myself an over-indulgent 30 seconds to stop and down a full bottle of Naked Smoothie, I was able to continue my brisk trek to the Apollo – by now accompanied by a wonderful abdominal pain.
By the time I arrived at the theatre, just before 4pm, a foreboding thunder cloud was hanging heavy in the sky. There were the usual fans milling around – some who had come in the hope of having a brief moment with their musical hero, some who had just come to collect a signature from a celebrity. And so began the wait (are you starting to see a pattern forming, here?)
Patti always arrives at venues around 5pm, but it’s always a good idea to get there early just in case. As was the case in Manchester and Wolerhampton, her band started to arrive at different times. Drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, who has been with the Patti Smith Group since the beginning, was the first to arrive, as usual, to soundcheck his drums before the rest of the band got there. As ever, he was very pleasant, signing autographs and greeting the waiting fans before entering through the stage door.
It’s always the same feeling when one waits by the stage door for an interview: there is a piercing silence in the air that creates an almost eerie atmosphere as every approaching car, taxi and van could contain ‘that’ person. Today was no exception. Eventually, around 4.45pm the rest of Patti’s band turned up, minus Patti. The legendary guitarist Lenny Kaye, another of Patti’s original musicians, received particular attention from the small milling of fans before he also ventured inside.
Patti’s manager Andrew had accompanied the band in the white splitter van that brought them to the Apollo, and before I was able to approach him, he was driven off in it once again, presumably this time to collect Patti from their hotel.
However, upon his return, Andrew was alone. I took this opportunity to introduce myself to him as he got out of the van. Thankfully, he remembered our correspondence via email and escorted me backstage into the legendary theatre, uttering to the venue staff those famous three words that have gained me access to so many mysterious and otherwise impenetrable places: “He’s with me.”
Initially being placed in Andrew’s office for the evening, he showed me the way to the front of house, where I watched Patti’s band soundcheck. After finally negotiating my way around the narrow and winding corridors of the backstage area, I found my way into the theatre itself, where the band were playing an instrumental version of Kimberly. A massive amount of their time was spent running through a Velvet Underground medley they would perform that evening – what a professional set of musicians.
Stood at the back of the 3,500 capacity venue, the band were something of a blur from so far away, but about half an hour into the soundcheck, the unmistakable figure of Patti Smith walked slowly onto the stage from the left hand side, apparently having only just arrived. Despite being a little slow in her movements, initially, she immediately surveyed her territory for the evening, dancing around the stage to the music playing in the background.
After putting the band through their paces and giving them a run-down of what she expected from them that evening, she once again slowly walked away and left the rest of the group to continue rehearsing their medley. It was quite surreal standing that the back of the room, listening to an instrumental version of Break It Up and singing along where no one could hear me. Does this mean I was the Patti Smith Group’s lead singer for half a song?
In any event, Andrew appeared at the door next to the stage and beckoned me over. It was time. Back we went up the staircases, two floors to the band’s dressing room. The artist area is separated into two rooms at the Apollo: the green room, a dark space with leather sofas and chairs where the artists can unwind and relax before the show; furnished with a television, wine, snacks and various drinks, and the small dressing room itself – basic white painted walls, three mirrors and standard blue office-styled chairs, which was the room I was led into.
Patti was stood on the other side of the green room when I arrived, signing merchandise for the evening’s gig. “Patti, James is here”, announced Andrew. As I walked into the room next door I heard her say she would be right there. Andrew told me he’d be back in 15 minutes so the band could go and have dinner.
A few short seconds later, Patti entered the dressing room carrying her reading glasses and a marker pen. I was greeted with a handshake and a very sunny “Hello, James, nice to see you, again.” When I jokingly asked if she remembered me she replied “Yes, of course – my rescuer!”
And so we slid right into the interview. The obvious place to begin was with Horses. Pointing out that it is ‘obviously’ one of the 100 greatest albums of all time, referencing Rolling Stone’s feature, she laughed “Not so obviously, but thank you.”
Smith is always keen to play down her influence or success, seeming almost confused as to why her work has had such an impact. Obviously, she had no idea just how influential Horses would go on to become, but can she remember when she realised the impact it has had? “That’s something that you never totally realise”, she began. “People tell you, and it’s not something that I really think about. One hopes that a work they do will resonate; it’s still hard for me to comprehend that, but I just feel that if it’s inspired people to do their own work, or gave them some kind of energy or helped them feel they’re not alone… if it’s done any good and continues to do any good, I’m really happy.
“But I don’t really think about it that way, because in terms of sales and everything, it never got a gold record, it never was a commercial success; so the Horses success has been word of mouth, or just in the way that people speak of it, which to me is a greater success, anyway. It’s more enduring.”
One of her most famous tracks is Land of a Thousand Dances, which opens with a poem about a boy called Johnny, who is in a hallway drinking a glass of tea. In the proceeding 40 years, Johnny has been in about a thousand different hallways as Patti performs free-form poetry at the start of this song during every live performance, and she told me that the original version of the poem on the album was just as spontaneous as the versions that followed. “That song and the way that we presented morphed. We started doing that in like ’73, and it was originally with a whole different poem in front of it. I forget what the poem was called, but it began: ‘Look at this land where we am, Night falls like a final curtain. How Shakespearian.’ It was like some poem I wrote in the 70’s and because it kept referencing ‘land’, it was really a poem about New York City, then we’d move into Land of a Thousand Dances.
“But then I would try different poems with it, and then I was reading The Wild Boys by William Burroughs, and Johnny in The Wild Boys sort of found his way into Land. It was just organic, I was reading a lot of books by Moroccan writers. The only way I could explain the references in it is to think of The Wild Boys, stories by Muhammed Mrabet, because ‘the boy was in the hallway drinking a glass of tea’, it’s like a glass of mint tea. A glass of tea is more Moroccan. They don’t really drink glasses of tea in America. I was seeing a lot of Burroughs at the time, and it has that kind of resonance. It resonates the books I was reading that the poetry, it’s just all the different thoughts and things that went through my mind.
“The one on the album was just what we improvised that particular night, because it never had a script. They’re still not finite, that’s just one version and sometimes the versions are quite simple, some nights they’re more complicated, it depends on the political situation; the mood, the energy of the night.”
Patti laughed when I brought up an interview I had read with her from last year, when a journalist said she went 20 years without working, and Smith came back at them explaining how she has worked all her life, but not necessarily as a musician. “I was writing, I was cooking, cleaning, washing the floors… I always think it’s funny people think you’re not doing anything if you’re not on their radar, you know? And not only was I doing a plethora of domestic duties and raising children, but writing every day. I’m very disciplined and I like to work, and if I’m not publishing for 15 years it doesn’t mean I’m not writing, I was writing every day. I think, for me, process is a lot more intoxicating than product. I do finish things and put them out in the world, but in terms of my writing, maybe about a fifth of what I’ve written is out in the world, most of it is piles”, she laughs.
In her award-winning documentary, Dream of Life, named after Smith’s 1988 album, and filmed by Steven Sebring, Patti explains that she had to go back to work after her husband, the late great Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of the MC5, passed away in 1994. Since 1996, Patti has released six solo albums, but to my surprise, she told me that had Fred not passed away, she never would have gone back out on the road. “I think that we would have done things in our own manner, but unfortunately, one of the things that would have made me want to perform in some kind of configuration was working with my pianist, Richard Sohl, and he died suddenly of heart failure in ’91 and then I really thought that I’d never perform again. I couldn’t imagine performing without him, I did my greatest work with him, and I really learned how to improvise and sing and so many things, even though he was much younger, he was a wonderful accompanist.
“But I mean Fred was a musician and we wrote songs at home, but I didn’t have any real ambition to return to the road. I had ambition to write books and publish books. But if Fred would had lived, my life would have been much different. My life would have revolved around our life; I lived my life and before, I lived within ‘our’ life.”
Even at the age of 68, Patti is still out touring the world. Most people 10 years younger than her aren’t able to do even half as much as she still can. Where does her energy come from? “I’m just a worker, you know, that’s what I do. I have to monitor myself, I mean I’m not out partying. I mean, my biggest problem isn’t energy, it’s allergies; I’m borderline asthmatic, I have a lot of bronchiolar problems, but I was born with them. And they were quite challenging to me in the 70’s when I toured; I had bronchitis quite a bit on the road, so it’s nothing new it’s just as you get older, these childhood afflictions sometimes reverberate, but I do my best, I take care of myself as best I can.”
Up until that evening, I had seen Patti play three times: once with a full band and twice playing acoustic sets in small venues in the North. Does she ever think she will return to play those intimate evenings of poetry and music again? “Oh, definitely, I mean I think I’ll be doing more and more of that in the future. In fact, my next album, I think a lot of it will be acoustic. When I say acoustic, that’s sort of a broad term, because it could be with some strings, it could be with a violin or six acoustic guitars. I’m not foreseeing that it’ll be a rock and roll record, but you never know, I’m not saying there won’t be rock and roll songs on it,
“But I’ve written a lot of acoustic songs that we’ve never recorded, and on the records a lot of the little songs; Grateful, Libby’s Song, Wing, Blakean Year – these are all little songs I’ve written myself and they’re all simple acoustic songs, but I like them. Those songs get steam rolled”, she laughs.
The 28th of June will see Patti make a return to the UK’s biggest festival, Glastonbury. “It’s the end of the first leg of the tour, actually, and that’s the 28th of June. We’re not doing Horses, we’re just playing, in the afternoon; it’s going to, probably, be some kind of afternoon blow out, it should be fun. I like the fact it’s one of these really early slots, but it seems like it’s going to be fun because it seems to me it’s sort of a ragtag slot, so I’m looking forward to it, I like Glastonbury.”
Great news for fans of Patti’s books such as Just Kids and The Choral Sea is that she will be releasing a brand new memoir later on in the year. “I don’t think of this one as a memoir, although I don’t know what else to call it. It’s called M Train and it’s M for ‘mind’, sort of a mental train of thought. I started writing it in a cafe and just decided to write whatever came to my mind; I had no idea where it was going, I just started writing and was curious to see what would happen if I started writing a book with no… it wasn’t even improvised, because when you improvise you usually have some place you’re looking toward.
“I just started and kept on going until it was time to stop. So, there’s a lot of things I didn’t expect to write about; memories of Fred; there’s a lot of coffee in it, a lot about books, so I’m well looking forward to seeing how the people like it. It’s not connected with Just Kids at all, it’s really very present tense. It’s present tense that goes back, mostly, into the 80’s with Fred.”
Something I have always wanted to know but that I never get around to asking is the meaning behind the song 1959, which appears on one of my favourite Patti Smith albums, Peace and Noise. It was this album I listened to while walking around Hebden Bridge on that sunny September day as I waited for Patti to arrive at the Trades.
The lyrics are very ambiguous and cinematic, which is probably the reason why I was so intrigued. I took his chance to find out exactly what it was written about. “Tony wrote that, my bass player, he wrote the music. In 1959 I was like 12 years old and I loved Tibet. I was doing a current events story about Tibet in school; more specifically, everyone chose a country and then you had to cut out all the newspaper articles about your country. I chose Tibet and the teacher said ‘well, you can’t choose Tibet, there’s never any articles about Tibet’, and that was in 1958. So, I was obstinate and I wanted to have Tibet, and every week when we showed our scrapbook to show newspaper articles I didn’t have anything. And the teacher said you me ‘you’re going to fail the whole year because you don’t have anything.’
“So, I just was steadfast and then one Sunday my father said to me ‘Patricia, your country is in the newspaper.’ And I looked and it was the cover of the newspaper that China had invaded, it was in March of ’59. I was horrified, of course, it wasn’t the kind of news that I wanted to report, but I’d studied so much about it that I knew all about his holiness, and it was a terrible thing, but my scrapbook got filled up and I had quite a bit of news to tell about my country.
“So, the song reflects that; the song 1959, it’s ‘Listen to my story, got two tales to tell’, it’s like the Dickens thing, The Tale of Two Cities: there was the 1959 American dream happening with the big cars and the beatniks… everything. Thinking of what America was up to in 1959 and then on the other side of the world, the horror of what was happening in Tibet. It just came into my head. When I heard the music I really liked it, and Tony was born in 1959.
“It was well received, it didn’t win one but it got nominated for a Grammy, and I was happy for Tony because he’s quite a good songwriter. I wrote this song for Amy Winehouse (This is the Girl), with Tony, as well.”
My intention was to head off to the Box Office as soon as the interview was over, so I couldn’t let her go without finding out what we were in store for that evening. “Well, we’re doing Horses, the whole album, in sequence, which is challenging because when you sequence an album you’re not thinking to play them in that… that means you have to open with Gloria. There’s a certain challenge, but we’re gonna do that, and then lots of whatever we feel like”, she laughs. “Just songs that are fun, this is like a big club, it’s a nice venue. So we’ll do Horses, which is a little more formal, and then celebrate.”
Interview over, the signing session began. Patti is always very generous with signing her work, and I always bring a handful of items for her to sign. This time I’d taken along CD copies of Radio Ethiopia and Gung Ho, two photographs, my ticket to her show at Burnley Mechanics, and my copy of her memoir, Woolgathering.
Patti happily set to signing these items, disappearing midway through into the green room, and returning with a signed copy of her new live acoustic EP, which was recorded in Berlin in 2014. “We’re selling this to raise money for the earthquake in Nepal, but I’ll give you one because they’re hot off the press!”, she said.
This acoustic live album is available at Patti’s concerts. The money goes towards the Nepal earthquake appeal.
Sitting back down to resume signing my things, she took my Woolgathering book and said “Just let me get a real pen for this”. Reaching into my pocket, I produced the fine liner I wrote my questions out with that morning. Patti opened the title page of the book, checked that my name was spelled the conventional way, and wrote a personal message in there before handing it back to me.
Patti then took me into the green room, where the rest of her band were now sat, having completed their soundcheck. She first introduced me to Tony, who remembered me from our previous encounters at Patti’s acoustic shows. Patti had Tony sign my ticket from the Burnley gig, which featured his name as a headliner, joking “This was when it was the Tony Shanahan band.” She then introduced me to her band, one by one: “James, this is Lenny Kaye, Jack Petruzzelli, JayDee Daugherty. And this is James, who helped us out when we did a benefit in Hebden Bridge… I wrote about that place, too, it’s in the book, you’ll see.”
At that moment, Andrew returned to get the band and bring them downstairs for dinner. He happily obliged in taking a photo of Patti and myself on my mobile. “James, do you need anything? Anything to drink?”, asked Patti, but I still had the water that Andrew handed me earlier so I left the band to dine in peace.
With an affectionate pat on my left arm, Patti and her band disappeared into another room as I gathered my artefacts from the dressing room. Andrew took me into his office to add my name to the guest list before escorting me back through the dark backstage area behind the stage and out of the stage door.
All at once, it was all over. It was 10 minutes before the doors were due to open and the queues were literally going down the street and around the corner – from both sides of the venue. Collecting my free ticket from the Box Office, I made my way into the venue. The stalls are the only place you can watch a Patti Smith gig, and I found myself on the second row, directly across from Patti’s microphone.
A Bob Marley compilation CD was played over the PA before the group strolled onto the stage a little after 8 pm. Patti was true to her word – the entire Horses album was played, to a staggering reception. Break It Up moved several people around me to tears; Land got the audience more than a little rowdy – so much so that security had to intervene, thankfully. Finally, my personal favourite from the record, Elegy, was played. It was incredibly moving to hear this track, which I’d never heard live before, especially the pitch-perfect howl in the middle of the song – goosebumps galore.
Several times, security patrolled the front row, handing out half-full plastic cups filled with water for the audience, which was greatly appreciated. The ‘hits’ section of the show was kicked off with another favourite I’d not heard before, Privilege, from my favourite Patti Smith Group record, Easter. This was followed by the Velvet Underground medley, during which Patti walked along the front barrier, greeting audience members. From then on, it was Dancing Barefoot, a hilarious exerpt from her first ever recording, Piss Factory, her big hit Because the Night and finally, People Have the Power.
Returning for a single song encore, My Generation ended the electrifying night. The 3,500-strong crowd of spectators of all ages and ethnic groups poured out of the theatre at around 10 pm. A large horde waited outside the stage door after the show for Patti to come out.
A rowdy group of teenagers kept shouting for her, each promising to take each other’s ‘selfie’s’. I quietly chuckled, knowing they had no chance. Around 10:20 pm, Patti and the band emerged. The barrier separated the audience to two different sides of the pavement, as Patti smiled and said she was too tired to sign for everyone as she had an early train to catch the next day, but waved and gave the crowd a lasting final memory of an incredible evening.
As the band was driven off in the white van, I made my way back to the train station on foot. The stars lit my way as I walked through Manchester’s deserted streets, a spring breeze gently blowing. I suddenly felt very nostalgic about my first meeting with Patti, almost three years ago. The atmosphere was exactly the same as I walked out of the Wulfrun Hall in Wolverhampton, and once again, it was all over.
On my train home, just after 11:20 pm, I was sat behind two people who had also attended the concert. As they marvelled over their merchandise – souvenir tote bags and t-shirts, discussing the concert, I took this quiet moment to finally try to decipher the message Patti wrote in my book. After a careful study of her elaborate handwriting, I finally made out the message in its entirety:
“June 2015: To James, Wonderful to work with you. As Always. Patti.”
My thanks also to Melanie Smith for allowing me to use her fabulous photographs for this article. Check her out on Twitter and on her website.
Thanks to Patti Smith’s band for their hospitality, and my particular thanks to Patti for her endless generosity with her time and for allowing me to discover. Until we meet again…
All words by James Nuttall. More writing by James can be found at his blog, All things music…
Photos by Melanie Smith. More work by Mel on Louder Than War can be found at her author’s archive. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter. Photography portfolio can be found here