When it comes to writing about loss, few are as well versed as Patti Smith. After funerals for close friends such as poet Allen Ginsberg, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and her beloved husband and collaborator Fred “Sonic” Smith, the Chicago-born singer-artist-poet-author has spent a great deal of her career sorting through ghosts and memories. Many of her finest works address a catalogue of legends that Smith has immortalized, from Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison to Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag. For her latest disc, Banga, Smith includes a tribute to Amy Winehouse’s life in This is the Girl.
“I didn’t really question my own motives and I didn’t think anyone would find offence to it,” Smith says in a recent interview from her home in New York City. The lyrics describe the late British soul singer as someone “who yearned to be heard.” The song is not a cautionary tale. “It was done really lovingly. As soon as I heard about when she died, I sat down and wrote her a little poem and my bass player wrote a piece of music that resonated the poem. It is a song I wish we never had to write.”
Often called the godmother of punk, Smith, who celebrates her 66th birthday in December, recalls composing a poem that lamented the 1970 death of Janis Joplin, another talented singer who died of a drug overdose at the age of 27.
“[Although] they were entirely different types of singers and people, Janis and Amy both had 100 per cent authenticity through and through,” she says. “Their [vocal] deliveries set them apart from anyone else. Amy really had a masterful grasp on R & B, jazz and the doo-wop style of song, and Janis had a rich blues vocabulary. They were so gifted.”
Hard-core Smith fans were hoping she would record another eulogy on Banga, a song about Jackie Kennedy called She Walked Home that Smith and her husband wrote before his death in 1994.
“I’m not ready to sing it yet,” Smith says with a forlorn tone in her voice. “That song makes me quite sad because it was the last one that my husband, Fred, and I worked on together.” It came from reading a few lines in a newspaper that mentioned Jackie was seen walking alone—without bodyguards—through Central Park, after finding out that she was dying of cancer. “She had been to the doctor and he gave her bad news and she just wanted to be by herself. I imagine her walking through the park—which she loved—thinking about life and the fact that hers was ending.”
Although Banga does include another tribute to a dead artist (Maria is about Last Tango in Paris actress Maria Schneider, who died of cancer last year), Smith was adamant that the album was mostly about living. She recorded Tarkovsky (The Second Stop is Jupiter), the album’s title track and a cover of Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush, with daughter Jesse on piano and son Jackson on guitar. Banga’s title track, named after Pontius Pilate’s loyal dog in the novel The Master and Margarita, also features Johnny Depp on guitar and drums, who Smith said is good enough to quit acting and join her band. Smith also wrote the ballad Nine as a 49th birthday gift to the actor. “I think at heart he is a musician,” she says. “I’ve never really seen him without a guitar. He keeps two or three guitars with him most of the time—sometimes on a long drive, he’ll have one in the car. That is how devoted to music he is. He writes as well, but he is very private about his writing so I can’t talk about his songs.”
Smith is not averse to talking about her dream candidate for the U.S. presidency. Although she has been known to write songs, essays and poems about politics, Smith has yet to put pen to paper when it comes to America’s current leader.
“I don’t have a grasp on Obama well enough to write a song about him,” she explains. “I voted for him and I’m certain that I’ll vote for him again—he is the better man. I’m still learning about him as a human being.” The crucial issue is the environment. “It should be the No. 1 issue on any table. I would vote for a pro-environmental president first, if we had one.”
Find excerpts from Elio’s interview with the musician right here.