Talks music, writing, the environment and change
It was hard for a person to turn around or walk without saying excuse me and maybe bumping a shoulder last Tuesday evening at the JP Art Market. Recently announced inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artist Patti Smith signed and sold a collection of her photography prints and poetry books for a fund-raiser.
One hundred percent of the proceeds from photos, and a portion of those from the books will benefit the Mission Hill-based non-profit Building Materials Resource Center and the JP Art Market on South Street. There is also a silent auction. The two groups will split the money.
Smith was at the JP Art Market because Patti Hudson, who operates the JP Art Market, used to work for Smith on the road. The two have remained friends through the years. Smith was in Boston because she was speaking at the Institute of Contemporary Art Feb. 21.
Some of the pictures pre-date 1975, the year of the release of her acclaimed album “Horses.” They include photos of places like the grave of 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, one of Smith’s heroes. The exhibit runs through March 11.
Smith has been designated with many labels including “punk’s female pioneer” and the “punk rock poetess laureate.” She has been described as a mix of Rimbaud and Keith Richards and the Velvet Underground and Janis Joplin.
Now a mom, she has always been an evolving artist and human. Her new album, “Twelve,” slated for an April 19 release, is a collection of cover songs with lyrics she says she hopes will cause people to think.
March 12 she will officially be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She said before her mom died she asked Patti to play a specific song if her daughter was ever voted into the hall of fame. That is the song Patti will play.
Before opening her exhibit Feb. 20, Smith sat cross-legged in the dim-lit back room of the JP Art Market, darkened by hanging red-Christmas lights.
She was dressed in brown cowboy boots that rose just shy of her calf muscles. Her worn blue jeans were tucked into the boots. She wore a flannel shirt. Her hair hung frazzled over a narrow face and steel-rimmed glasses.
Smith talked about writing and today’s young artists. She said the Internet holds the potential for change and unification like never before in human history.
Smith began her performance career as a poet. In 1971 she gave her first poetry reading at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City.
She also appeared in the one time performance of the play “Cowboy Mouth” at the American Palace Theatre in the same year. Smith coauthored the play with Sam Shepard. Shepard won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his play “Buried Child.”
“I was trying different things like using electric guitar. It wasn’t really accepted,” she said, “except for people like Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.”
Burroughs’ 1959 novel “Naked Lunch” was banned by Boston courts in 1962 for obscenity. A 1966 hearing by the Massachusetts state Senate about the book’s content tested the legitimacy of the nation’s First Amendment. The court decided the book did not violate obscenity statutes. It was the last major literary censorship debate in the United States.
Ginsberg, author of the famous 1955 poem “Howl,” and an icon of the beat movement, defended the work.
Corso was a poet also associated with the early beat movement.
“That era was truly great because the people were really great,” she said, referring to what later came to be known as the early punk movement in New York City in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
“I’m really lucky to have hung out with Burroughs and Corso. It was great because the people were great and their goal wasn’t to become celebrities with their pictures in magazines.
“People wanted to do something cool,” said Smith. “They wanted to revolutionize poetry or rock and roll. But I’m not nostalgic about it. I’m still working.”
Smith said she always tells people the famous punk club CBGB was just a room.
She said she thinks the scene is different now, but admits she is not so plugged in, so she could not really comment.
“Kids are sitting on the computer and sharing. They all know what each other is doing,” she said. “They have a community that’s unprecedented.
“In an ideal world I’d like to see them unite and do something huge and nutty like create the biggest environmental movement in history. New generations have more tools for unification than anytime in human history,” Smith said.
She said she hopes people will move past a perhaps initial stage of isolation the Internet could breed, and realize the potential for real change. “They can be a force that the human race has never seen before,” she said.
“There’s a whole new revolution and they don’t even know it. I’d like to tell them, ‘You are the revolution.’”
Smith acknowledged history has produced poor governments for all of time, but said we are in a bad moment now.
“The Democrats are near the center. They are weak… We need a new party with people who are both idealistic and have guts, but are also pragmatic and unified,” she said.
“If people don’t get hip to things like global warming, fear of extinction of the honeybee… what would the environment be without the honeybee to pollinate?” she said.
Smith said she understands we are moving through evolution, but she does not think destruction of the environment is part of evolution. “China’s factories have polluted the air so bad their rivers are black. It’s frightening,” she said.
But, she said, if people look at this as a challenge and unite they could do something great. “Something is gonna happen,” she said. “It just can’t stay like this.”
Smith was quick to say she is not in the streets fighting every day. “But I have a voice,” she said. “And I’ll use my voice and I’ll keep being a thorn in the Bush administration as long as I can. If you are a thorn that keeps poking someone, eventually they will bleed,” she said.
The rocker also talked about what she thinks makes successful art.
“Just do good work,” she said. “Not work on your outfit or your marketing technique. In the end, content is the real trial. Then you can look good and have a good outfit. But in the end, you gotta back it up.”
She talked about meeting legend Jimi Hendrix. “He was beautiful, shy, humble, spiritual, sexual and a cool dresser. But he had the content to back it up,” Smith said.
She said playing onstage with Bob Dylan was one of the greatest moments of her life.
Smith also said there is no lack of good lyrics in today’s music. “I think there is a lot of whiny and self-serving lyrics…but still there is a lot of poetic power.
“I don’t think we’re lacking people with good ideas, artistry or musicianship. I think we’re lacking responsibility for the state of the world,” she said.
“I don’t know if I’m relevant at all,” Smith said. “But being an artist I am never satisfied… I still feel like I haven’t done my best work yet.
“This keeps me curious, agitated and working. I don’t have the adolescent power and sexuality I did when I was younger and that’s a fact,” she said. “But I’m more self-confident and intelligent. I don’t feel like I’m a shadow of my former self.”
“I feel like I’m an evolving person,” Smith said. “But sometimes, I’m in the middle of something and I don’t feel any different than I did in 1971.”
Smith said though she was against the creation of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the time, she is proud to be recognized with names like Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan. “It’s an honor,” she said.
“The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an institution. Rock and roll is art. Rock and roll will always belong to the people,” Smith said.