Patti Smith could retire if she wanted to. Her service record to the artistic community was cemented long ago. There are no accolades left to chase, no accomplishments to reaffirm, no career goals to conquer, no creative stones left unturned. Not that she cared about those things, anyway.
As a singer, writer, poet, painter, photographer and performer, she's proven herself time and again during a storied, four-decade career. So, why does the 65-year-old, recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee keep producing art at such a breakneck pace?
Because she can.
"It's sort of a non-stop situation," Smith tells CityBeat, speaking by phone from her Copenhagen hotel room on the last night of a European tour. "I'm always working on something. I'm a worker. And I feel very privileged that I can communicate in so many different ways."
In recent years, that's what she's been doing. That is, in every manner but musically. Once the face of high-brow rock 'n' roll, she seemingly abandoned songwriting after an extended absence from music, choosing instead to explore the art and literary worlds. But that all changed this summer.
Released in June, her new Columbia album, Banga, offers up her first original material since 2004's Trampin'. Tempered by motherhood and the decades of distance from the punk jams that made her a household name in the 1970s, her solo material is far mellower these days—her latest album is a meditative, guitar-driven affair. But it's no less challenging. Smith explores themes of forgiveness, loyalty and environmental apocalypse—all gleaned from personal experiences during her time away from the studio.
The title track comes from an obsession with Mikhail Bulgakov's 1937 novel, The Master and Margarita, a book she read four years ago. She wrote the rocking rambler "Fuji-san" in response to the tsunami in Japan. Late-album opus "Constantine's Dream" works through the deaths of the venerable St. Francis and early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, ending with images of Columbus dreaming of the world in flames.
Smith recorded the album at New York's famed Electric Lady studios, working with longtime bandmates Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty—just as the threesome did on her 1975 debut, Horses.
"It's nice to have the collaboration of my band and crew," Smith says. "It's so energizing and such a great way to expand our cultural voice. But if I desire solitude, I do have that option. I can always take a photograph or work on a poem."
Much has been made of Smith's eight-year hiatus from making music—she's been quoted as saying she needed to "evolve"—but the time wasn't exactly ill-spent. She helmed the 2006 closing performance at New York's CBGB nightclub. She had high-profile exhibitions of her visual art and photography, like last year's Camera Solo show at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. She acted in the 2010 Jean-Luc Godard feature, Film Socialism. And she spent time with her two children.
Perhaps most importantly, the break gave Smith the opportunity to really focus on her lifelong passion.
"Of all the disciplines I've pursued, I identify most with writing," she says. "I've written all my life. I started when I was 10 or 12 years old, and I've never stopped. So, even if I'm not writing for the public or having something published, I keep hundreds and hundreds of notebooks. I write every single day."
During the downtime, she penned the starkly honest and beautifully written Just Kids, her memoir about coming of age in New York City with artist and lover Robert Mapplethorpe. A New York Times bestseller, it was translated into 30 languages and picked up the prestigious National Book Award for nonfiction in 2010.
"I was thrilled," Smith says. "You know, for a girl who worked in a bookstore for almost eight years, I really had to grasp what a wonderful thing it was. And what a privilege it is to have a National Book Award. It's something I never even dreamed of."
A true labor of love, Just Kids started as a promise to Mapplethorpe the day before he died. Despite never having written a single piece of extended nonfiction, Smith was determined to see it through.
"It took a really long time," she says. "I started it, shelved it for a couple of years and started it again. And then I'd re-write it, and that was almost like the process of writing the first draft. I had the story I wanted to tell, I just had to get the confidence and take the time to write it."
And she had help—not from another writer, but from highly detailed journals that she kept since childhood.
"I mean, I knew exactly what day I chopped up my hair like Keith Richards," she says. "I knew what day I met Janis Joplin. I knew where the moon was in the sky on a night in 1972. I kept such good notes that I could draw from them and really picture everything."
Smith will be in San Diego this week for a special two-date run, unlike any others she'll play in the U.S. As she does occasionally in Europe, she'll play two distinct shows. At Downtown's Spreckels Theatre, she'll do some reading, be the subject of an interview, participate in a Q&A and perform acoustic songs. The next night at House of Blues, she'll play a rock show with her full band.
"It's been a long time since I played San Diego," she says. "And we're not doing a whole lot of dates. But I promise you one thing—each show will be different. I have a lot of freedom in the way that I can communicate. That's part of the beautiful challenge of performing every night—the way it unfolds in front of you."
Patti Smith performs at Spreckels Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 13, and at House of Blues on Sunday, Oct. 14. pattismith.net
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