"The line, 'Awake from your slumber and get ’em with the numbers,' of course resonates with Gandhi’s life, but I was thinking of it in terms of our election."

POETRY IN MOTION

An exclusive HITS dialogue with Patti Smith by Harvey Kubernik
Patti Smith has just released her ninth album, and her first one for Columbia Records, trampin’, marking a reunion with label boss Don Ienner after they worked together at Arista. Smith joined Columbia on October 20, 2002, the 148th anniversary of the birth of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, a longtime inspiration and influence on her writing and music. The new collection was produced by Smith and her band, with the title track a cover of a spiritual from the repertoire of American contralto and gospel singer Marian Anderson. Now out on a U.S. tour after an extensive trek through Europe, Smith has established www.pattismith.net. Updated frequently by Smith herself, the site presents exclusive live recordings, messages, comments and eulogies to people whom Smith wants to acknowledge on the anniversaries of their births and deaths. She believes in buying records, and doesn’t even know how to download from the Internet. Smith is actively stumping for presidential candidate Ralph Nader, and her new album contains songs about Gandhi, and stirring political-themed observations in "Radio Baghdad" and "Peaceable Kingdom." This fall, expect her to be on the nomination ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Smith’s band includes longtime collaborators Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, as well as newer members Oliver Ray and Tony Shanahan.

How do you sequence your albums in general? Like Alfred Hitchcock, you pretty much only record material you utilize for an album.
I’ve never been a person to over-record. Like Hitchcock, yeah... The one thing I do sometimes is improvise. "Radio Baghdad" is pure lyrically, totally improvised. So I’ll have four of them and I’ll chose one. Regarding sequencing, because I’m always writing set lists for the band night after night, I get a sense of how things fit together. I think of things in two ways. A set list is sorta like a movie, ya know? It’s abstract, and these songs seemed to dictate where they went. Because some of them were so specific. "Jubilee" is such an entrance type of song, an opener.

Is trampin’ a summation of where you’ve been and where you’re going?
Exactly. But a song like "Radio Baghdad" needs time for contemplation. These songs seem to dictate where they would go.

I noticed all five band members share a co-write on "Gandhi." What attracted you to writing about him?
The fact one individual could produce so much positive change. When an individual has a vision and, no matter what derision comes their way, they hold on to it. Gandhi was in prison several times. When one reads about his life, it’s breathtaking. When one sees how he began, it’s remarkable how he could even evolve into a person with so much vision and so much stamina. And it’s a beautiful example on how change can be made by the unification of the people. I was really thinking about that in terms of this election year. That we can make tremendous change if the people motivate themselves and unite. If they register and vote, they can overturn the Bush administration. The line, "Awake from your slumber and get ’em with the numbers," of course resonates with Gandhi’s life, but I was thinking of it in terms of our election… That the only way we’re gonna do anything is for people to come out in great numbers.

In an earlier interview in Rolling Stone, you said, "I am not soliciting you to vote for Nader. I am soliciting you to listen to him." Your father supported Nader.
Yes. My father always wrote Ralph in when he voted. And that’s how I learned about him. My father always said to me, "Here is an honest man." Because I was working for Robert Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and whenever I was trying to find someone to believe in, my father would say, "If you want someone to believe in, you should look into Ralph Nader." :

Tell me how "Radio Baghdad" came about. It’s written from the point of view of an Iraqi mother to her child commenting about the American troops bombing their neighborhood.
Oliver Ray had written the chords and had the guitar riff; the band had worked on it without me, and I sat and listened to it. I wanted to speak out against the war in Iraq, but I didn’t know what point of view I was going to take. I studied everything that happened. I, of course, watched the news and read everything I could. I also studied the history of Baghdad, and I had all of this material moving around in my head. And then one night we went in, I played clarinet, and we just started improvising it. I didn’t know when we went in the studio I’d take the mother’s point of view. I just knew I was just going to comment how I felt.

Is there something that informs the improvisational impulse?
I really don’t know. For me, it is very mysterious and different. Sometimes it’s a matter of what is already within us. I mean, I’m a mother. I studied Baghdad, I’ve studied the Bible, I’ve studied the Koran… so I know how I feel about it. One can say the lyrics, though improvised, are a synthesis of what I know. But I’ve also had experiences where I really felt I was accessing or channeling someone else. So it’s always different. And I don’t really know where it all comes from.

But it is a very exhausting experience and not something you can do over and over again. We did three versions of "Radio Baghdad" and I couldn’t do another. The one on the record is the third version. When we do it live, it’s different. One night, it turned into an emotional examination of the photographs from the prison; another night might be about the burning of the library, or what happened in the museum, the loss of their artifacts, or it might have a more historical perspective. It still resonates. The title, "Radio Baghdad," allows me to go channel to channel. And that’s how I look at the song. The one on the album is one channel, but this song has many channels. Each night, we discover where it will take us. Sometimes it’s all music and very little language.

I know recently you and the band did a performance at a radio conference in Louisville KY, home of the Derby, and only did songs from the albums Horses and trampin’.
Yeah. That was one of the first times we had done any of the songs live, the new ones, from the new album. And it was instructive for me because I did find they did work very well with some of the older songs. And I felt comfortable with both. I moved back and forth between Horses and trampin’ without any trouble. When we perform live now, I tend to take from more from those two albums than the others.

What is the difference in making a record, and then doing those same songs live?
There are different responsibilities. Doing a record, one is doing something that hopefully will endure. And one is doing it in a very intimate situation. Just with one’s band members and a few technicians. And so it is very intimate, but one is mentally projecting toward the future and the people who’ll listen to it.

Playing live, you are right there with the people. I don’t think of live performance as enduring. It’s for the moment. Somebody might bootleg it or tape it, but basically, I think of performance for the moment and it’s often more raucous, flawed and you know, totally done for those that are there.

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