Patti Smith, 49, rock musician and poet, released her acclaimed debut album, Horses, in 1975. In 1979 she retired and moved to a Detroit suburb to raise a family. Since the death of her husband, guitarist Fred 'Sonic' Smith, in 1994, she has been touring and recording again. She has recently published a book of poetry, The Coral Sea, and released her sixth album, Gone Again
John Cale: I first spoke to Patti on the phone from London, which is kind of when the energy started working. I got a call from her manager, Jane Friedman, who explained that Patti wanted me to produce her first album. She put Patti on, and this voice jumped down the phone at me. It was as if the conversation couldn't be contained in a phone call, it had to be done face to face.
When I got to meet her properly it was like boxing, quite combative in a playful way. I'd seen her perform at the poetry centre near University Place in New York, and my first question as a producer was, how do I contain this energy? How do I capture it on a record? I had to take her physical presence into account, it's like putting Iggy Pop on record. There was a lot of power in Patti's use of language, in the way images collided with one another.
She struck me as someone with an incredibly volatile mouth who could handle any situation. She could also turn any situation around from a lethargic to an energetic one. But I think it was a very different experience for her going from being a band on-stage to working in the studio. It immediately throws you back on yourself. All her strength and instinct was there already, and I was trying to provide a context for it.
It wasn't easy. It was confrontational and a lot like an immutable force meeting an immovable object. Still, something creative came out of it. There was push and pull. She has a certain animal magnetism, but we were never sexually involved. I had more respect for her as an artist. It would have been difficult to enter the tight-knit circle of the band itself without undermining my position as a producer.
I didn't get on with Allen Lanier (a guitarist on Horses), her boyfriend at the time. He was a member of the band the Blue Oyster Cult and came in for the project as this great guitarist. He obviously thought that he was due a certain kind of treatment, and didn't feel I was granting him the space. It escalated and escalated until it got a little frightening. Confrontation with her was indirect, but with Allen it was sheer testosterone.
We toured a lot and went out on the road together after the album. I'd open the show with a few songs and play "My Generation" with her at the end of the set. Then we lost contact for a long time. Our lives went in different directions. We're both similar in that we do what we want to do. So, for example, she made a clear-cut decision to become a mother. She left rock'n'roll for a while and just went and did it. I think that's really strong.
When I heard that Fred, her husband, had died, I knew that it would be a real blow for her. But when I heard that her brother died also, that was a shock. I don't know how she could have dealt with that.
I met up with her again eight months ago when I did my piano part on "Southern Cross", a song on her new album, and I wanted her to come and read on a record I was doing with the Nouvelle Polyphonic Corsican Choir. I'd built a little section for her to read on a track called "Desiree", and invited her over. It was the dead of winter and she came and had dinner one night with her family. She seemed a much sadder person. It was obviously a time when she was unravelling certain things in her mind. I felt I had to reassure her, make her feel at home, because there was a certain nervousness about how much of the past was really present. The old Patti was not going to come at you in the same way it did, yet I wasn't worried about her because I felt there was this inner strength that was never going to go away. The spirit was there.
Now we have a lot of fun. My daughter Eden, who's 11, has spent time with Patti's daughter, who's 10. Patti and I have a shared passion for doing things and not thinking about them. The pure instinct of just doing. She was a poet who wanted to be a rock'n'roller, and I helped her in both fields. I'm glad she's back on the road now, showing her strength. From here, it can only expand.
Patti Smith: I met John when he was going to produce my Horses album in 1975. Truthfully, I had lined up another producer first. I didn't know anything about producers and just picked Tom Dowd because I admired him. But he was on Atlantic, and Ahmet Ertegun [former head of Atlantic Records] was really against me. At the time I was deeply into John's records and did everything to try to find him. Finally we wound up on the phone. There was a time difference and it was four in the morning for him, he was half asleep. It was the start of an unfolding nightmare for him.
I knew nothing about recording or being in the studio. We'd already done a single, but I didn't know anything. I was very, very suspicious, very guarded and hard to work with, because I was so conscious of how I perceived rock'n'roll. It was becoming over-produced, over-merchandised and too glamorous. I was trying to fight against all of that. We had a big, hard battle. John did everything he could to fight our fight for us, even in his sleep. But I made it difficult for him to do some of the things he had to do.
I had all these ideas, and no one before or since has ever been as patient about them as John. I'd have seven different poems I'd want to put on different tracks, sometimes I only wanted three words from one, or two lines from another. I was creating a sort of William Burroughs cut-up. Instead of throwing his hands up or being pissed at me, John got even crazier and more obsessive. It was like having two crazy poets dealing with showers of words. It was a great experience. I drove us all crazy but I think we can look at it and say, we did this body of work together, it's intact, there's no compromises in it. There's a certain beauty in it that wouldn't have happened without John.
Other things. I didn't know how to sing, I don't know about pitch. But the band's adolescent and honest flaws - I wouldn't say weaknesses - John always left them in. But if he could subtly teach us to enhance what we were doing, he did that. He saw that we were improvising and sometimes maybe we hit strange notes or hit a very explosive place, but he let us fly. It was a very beautiful, tortuous excursion. Sometimes we'd be all excited, John and I would have a really happy moment together hugging, then at other times we'd have tears streaming down. One time we drove John so crazy that he was falling asleep at the control board and banging his head on it trying to stay awake.
When I first met him I thought he had the most beautiful voice, the most beautiful Welsh accent. He was kind and very warm. We didn't always communicate, but instead of fights, his struggle was in always trying to figure out how to understand me. I was pretty young and volatile. I don't really remember conflict between him and my boyfriend at the time, but I know there was some jealousy. Truthfully though, I have so many memories, I try to remember the most positive aspects. I'll cherish even the tragic things - like the death of my husband and my brother two years ago - but I won't hold on to a sticky situation. I don't hold grudges. I only have time for comedy and tragedy in my life, I don't have time for the middle ground.
When we met I knew instantly that we would be friends. It was a new time, a struggling time, a discovering time and he helped us in the birth of ourselves. I'd never thought of doing an album or being involved in rock and roll. I wanted to be a painter or a writer, so it was all completely foreign territory to me. I didn't have any sense of the music business, I didn't want to know about it. I just wanted to do my work. John was too young to be a father figure, but he was like a brother to me, a brother who gave me a helping hand. !Reuse content