Patti Smith: Legendary rocker talks Jimi Hendrix, cat litter, lockdown
Patti Smith has been an important part of the soundtrack of my life for decades. So I was thrilled when the opportunity to interview this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer finally came my way.
We spent the better part of an hour on the phone, chatting about everything from the Jerry Garcia and Michael Stipe to mopping the floor and other household chores.
In other words, it was basically everything I had hoped it would be.
Q: Hi, Patti. I thought you might like to know that you've been the answer to a personal trivia question for me this year. And that question is ... "What was the last live show I saw before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the concert industry?" I saw you and your band at the Fillmore in San Francisco back in March, and then a few days later I was sheltering in place.
Smith: Yup. That's my trivia question for me too — "What's the last concert you did?" And that was my last concert — March 9 (at the Fillmore). For our next concert, we flew to Seattle the next day, and that one was canceled, and then we went home.
But I think I was thinking, "If that was it, what a great place. If I had to end my concert life at the Fillmore — that would be a pretty awesome place to end."
Q: You spoke from the stage that night about the coronavirus situation — recommending that people "stay off cruise ships and things like that" — but, in general, seemed very upbeat. When did it really dawn on you how dire the situation actually would become, impacting basically everything?
Smith: The next day. I mean, I knew something was happening very early because I was writing about the Year of the Rat. So I was waiting for the Year of the Rat celebration, which happens in February, and I noticed in the newspapers that China was shutting down all of the festivities. So I knew something was happening in China, but I really didn't grasp the global aspect of it until we went to Seattle.
Because Seattle was sort of a hot spot, everyone was evacuating the hotel we were in. Then our concert was canceled, and we had to go into quarantine back in New York. I said goodbye to my son (Jackson Smith, who plays guitar in her band) and goodbye to my band and still thought, you know, this might take a few months, but never dreamed that we might be talking about a year, possibly two years.
I didn't really grasp that we were in a dangerous situation, or else I would have never put anybody in jeopardy at the Fillmore.
I've been in lockdown ever since. I haven't been anywhere.
Q: How have you been spending your socially distanced days?
Smith: Pretty much alone. I do some writing. I was supposed to go on a world tour. My little bag is packed — and it's still packed. I was going to tour Australia, going to Mexico, going to Europe. Then I was coming back to do a book tour for "Year of the Monkey." Then we were ending at the Royal Albert Hall in November. So I had quite the year of public work. I had to really shift my mindset from that projection into solitary life, (which) was somewhat challenging.
I've just tried to stay healthy. I've been doing all my own cooking, doing my laundry, doing whatever tasks I can do and trying to write and study new things.
I'm trying to stay optimistic and do what I can actively, in terms of using my voice whether it's for voter registration or climate change — whatever I can do remotely. But it's a challenge.
Q: You mentioned you are writing. Any chance we could see a new album soon? It's been over eight years since your last record, 2012's "Banga," came out?
Smith: I've been mostly writing another book. But I did write a couple of songs. I really like covering songs. So I was making a list of songs that I could possibly cover.
You know, I don't see anyone. I'm not really a musician myself. So I work best in collaboration. I'm not one that sits home and writes a bunch of songs. Every once a while, a special little song will come to me — like "Grateful" or "Wing" or "Blakean year." But it's really a handful of them. I really work best in a collaborative mode.
Q: Can you give me a sneak peek of some of the songs you're thinking of covering?
Smith: I might tell and then they might all change. I also have to find my key — because I don't know how to do that myself. Our bass player, Tony Shanahan, is the one who always finds my key.
I really would like to do "Burning of the Midnight Lamp," the Jimi Hendrix song.
Q: Referencing the coronavirus during that Fillmore show, you recommended that "stay as stress free — as emotionally stress free — as possible" since "stress weakens your immune system." What do you do try and remain stress free? And how successful are you at it?
Smith: I'm usually pretty good at that. Lately, I felt a little more stress. I feel a lot of stress from the news. The fires on the West Coast — even though I am across the country — I go to sleep thinking about the loss of life and the loss of lands and people's homes and our trees and our animals. All this strife in the world — it's just so daunting.
When I find that my mind is sort of looping, I try to immerse myself in domestic tasks, which I don't really like doing. Things like just mopping the floor, vacuuming, doing my laundry.
I allow myself to feel good about small things — making a good meal, taking care of my cat, washing out her litter box.
I would rather say, "Well, I am writing 20 pages a day or a bunch of new songs." But when I can't seem to do that, I do something else. I try to stay engaged in something or find something new to study.
I guess I am saying the small things are very important right now.
Q: That's so true.
Smith: I think we have to get up (in the morning), and the first thing should be a positive thing. Drink water. I don't even drink my coffee until I drink water.
And just think of it as a new day. I always turn to the line of Jimi Hendrix — "Hooray, I awake from yesterday."
I say that to myself every morning. Awake from yesterday — I'm here. I have another day to accomplish something or do read a new book or see how my kids are doing or maybe look at the moon. Another chance at adventure or another chance to do something good.