Patti Smith On Jamming With Jeff Buckley And Tom Verlaine: ‘It Was Beautiful’

Here’s another out-of-print magazine interview materializing online for the first time. This one’s with Patti Smith, who spoke with me primarily about her first-ever anthology, Land 1975-2002. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer also joked about “Because the Night”; shed light on Horses demos; went into detail about her cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry”; and revealed some back story about another one of her classics, “Redondo Beach.”

She also mentioned Robert Mapplethorpe; recently, Smith has been promoting her just-published memoir, “Just Kids,” which revolves around her relationship with the photographer.

Without further ado, here’s the interview, which was conducted on February 4, 2002.

For all of rock’s chart-toppers, platinum-sellers and household names, there remains, naturally, a class of underdog icons who have nevertheless had a resounding effect on the genre. Side by side with such masters as the Velvet Underground, Stooges and New York Dolls is Patti Smith, the Chicago-born, New Jersey-bred punk poet. Along with Tom Verlaine’s Television, she germinated New York’s CBGB club scene in the ’70s, which would play a critical role in the development of acts such as Blondie, the Ramones and Talking Heads.

Many of the aforementioned bands have seen their catalogs replenished in recent months. Universal just issued a three-CD Velvets concert set (The Velvet Underground Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes) and plans to revisit The Velvet Underground and Nico this spring. Rhino provided extensive Blondie and the Ramones reissue campaigns last year.

But Smith has not seen her due since 1996, when Arista remastered her first five albums with one or two bonus tracks each. Now the singer is heralded with a special career retrospective, Land 1975-2002, primed for a March 19 release. Remastered by Smith and longtime associate Greg Calby, the set contains one disc comprised mostly of album selections, and a second swelling with unreleased and rare tunes.

Smith was signed to Arista in 1975 and has remained with the label ever since. Her catalog is comprised of eight albums – including her debut Horses, a ubiquitous critic favorite, 1976’s Radio Ethiopia and 1978’s Easter – all of which are retapped for the Land double-disc.

Fresh out of the mastering studio in New York, Smith tells ICE, “In my contract, my last duty was to give them a greatest-hits package. Since I’m an artist who’s had only one legitimate hit, I jokingly said, ‘All right, we can loop “Because the Night” 15 times.’ ” “Because the Night” is Smith’s only charting single, a Top 20 pair-up with Bruce Springsteen that would gain even more recognition when Natalie Merchant and her 10,000 Maniacs covered it on their Unplugged disc.

Being an artist without many verifiable “hits,” Smith decided to approach her career overview project in a different light. In concert, via e-mail or postcard or through incidental run-ins, she reached out to her devout fan base and asked them to help select her most favored songs. “I’d petition people in the street, my own family, friends, workers, even people that didn’t really like the records that much but had an opinion. We got over 10,000 votes or lists, tallied them all and got a list of the Top 20 songs. We gleaned from that to make Disc One.”

Smith later concedes, “I used the people’s guidelines as much as I could, and when I strayed it was for good reason. The recording of one song might have been superior to another song, or had more reverb or something. We were trying to make it the best listening experience.” She cites a pair of specific tracks: “[The Grammy nominated] ‘Glitter in Their Eyes’ was about the 11th [fan choice], but the song is so new and has a certain kind of presence that it sat better toward the end of the album. It’s the same with ‘Ain’t It Strange,’ which was higher up [on the fan list].”

The first disc culls one or two numbers from each Smith album, with the exception of Easter; four songs were lifted from that effort. The full tune stack: “Dancing Bearfoot,” “Babelogue,” “Rock ’n’ Roll Nigger,” “Gloria,” “Pissing in a River,” “Free Money,” “People Have the Power,” “Because the Night,” “Frederick,” “Summer Cannibals,” “Ghost Dance,” “Ain’t It Strange,” “1959,” “Beneath the Southern Cross,” “Glitter in Their Eyes,” “Paths That Cross” and “When Doves Cry.”

Fans might not recognize the final cut, at least not as a Smith original – it is, in fact, the Prince classic. The unreleased song is one of two recorded in 2001 that Smith added to the package; the other, “Higher Learning,” arrives toward the end of the second disc. When asked why “When Doves Cry” was not also appended instead to Disc Two, which encapsulates unheard and hard-to-find material, Smith replies, “Our version of ‘Doves Cry’ is pretty, and it just sonically fit. It was done as a studio song, with the same frame of mind as the album cuts. And a lot of things on Disc Two are more improvisational. ‘Doves Cry’ was done in a very focused, deliberate manner.”

Smith also makes note of Disc One’s circularity, as both “Dancing Bearfoot” and “When Doves Cry” deal with feminine issues. Another spherical effect can be found in San Francisco’s Electric Lady Studios: It’s where Smith recorded her first single, “Piss Factory”; her most recent songs, “When Doves Cry” and “Higher Learning”; and multiple albums in between.

In discussing the nugget-heavy second disc, Smith says that when she approached fans and others about the project, “The thing people asked for, consistently, was poetry, rarities [and] ‘Kiss Factory,’ our independent single.” She fulfills two of the three wishes on Land.

The additional disc is more than just a mixed bag of unused and found tracks, Smith asserts. “It’s got a strong range,” she says. “It’s really like another album, it isn’t just a bunch of stuff that we threw on.” The track list shapes up as follows: “Piss Factory,” Smith’s first song put to tape in 1974; 1975 demos of “Redondo Beach” and “Distance Fingers”; “25th Floor (Live)”; the 1996 studio outtake “Come Back Little Sheeba”; “Wander I Go,” an unreleased song from the same sessions; live renditions of “Dead City,” “Spell,” “Wing,” “Boy Cried Wolf” and “Birdland”; “Higher Learning”; a live “Notes to the Future”; and a secret track, a concert version of “Tommorrow.”

The much sought-after “Piss Factory” is Smith’s only studio song not released by Arista. “I get a lot of letters from people,” Smith says, “and that’s the one consistent thing they always ask: ‘Where can I get a copy of “Piss Factory?” other than on a fourth-generation tape?’ So now they will have it. Even though that was the only non-Arista-period project, it was one of the things that led us to being signed by Arista.”

Smith values especially the two pre-Horses demos that follow: “Redondo Beach” and “Distance Fingers.” She recorded both before even settling on a percussionist, and for that reason drums are absent. “They’ve never been heard because we did it in a little studio and we needed $85 to get [the demos], and we didn’t have [the money]. By the time we got the $85, they were lost. Somebody misplaced them. About a year ago, they were found. [Guitarist] Lenny Kaye got a hold of them.”

Smith elaborates first on “Redondo Beach,” one of the touchstone numbers on Horses: “I wrote the lyrics of ‘Redondo Beach’ in 1971, even though I recorded it in ’75; the demo reflects the older [ones]. I hadn’t heard it in so long, I had forgotten that there were different lyrics to the song!”

As for “Distance Fingers,” she remarks, “We wrote it early, but we didn’t record it. [With] CDs, you can have 70 minutes of material. But in those days, 18 minutes a side! It was always a big deal – you couldn’t have any more than that, or the record would skip. So poor little ‘Fingers’ was dropped.”

Another unreleased studio track, “Wander I Go,” may raise even more eyebrows. “It’s like a poem-song that [guitarist] Oliver Ray and I wrote,” Smith remembers, “and we all improvised it during the Gone Again sessions. Jeff Buckley was there because he was singing on another song [‘Fireflies,’ which did make the cut]. He picked up an acoustic guitar and played along, and Tom Verlaine also played. It was beautiful, but [the song] never surfaced.” As previously stated, “Higher Learning” is another unheard improvisational jam; on that track, Smith plays the clarinet.

Laid down during the Gone Again sessions, “Come Back Little Sheba” surfaced as a U.K. B-side, but has yet to appear across the pond. “It’s a pretty little song,” Smith says. “Just me and Lenny. Lenny’s playing autoharp, and I’m playing acoustic guitar. I have this one area of song that I like to write – some people call them my Appalachian songs – where I just write it on acoustic guitar. They don’t usually surface on record. I usually write them for myself.”

Of the eight live cuts – most derived from DAT recordings – that populate the disc, Smith remarks, “We have like 40 bootlegs out there, so there’s plenty of sonically crappy stuff already. We really searched the bootlegs so that people weren’t just getting stuff they already could get.” Smith adds that she sought live songs that weighed heavy on improvisation.

Five of the live tunes were recorded last year: “Dead City” (Denmark, from the Roskilde festival), “Spell” (Portland, Oregon), “Wing” (Paris), “Boy Cried Wolf” (Paris) and “Birdland” (Los Angeles). Also included is a 1978 recording of “25th Floor” in Eugene, Oregon; a poem titled “Notes to the Future” that Smith read New Year’s Day 2002 at New York’s St. Mark’s Church; and the hidden “Tomorrow,” a live-in-Philadelphia segment that clocks in at a brief 2:07.

Of Land’s many fresh offerings, the abbreviated “Tomorrow” may carry the most emotional weight. The song references the two people Smith has dedicated the set to: her original keyboard player Richard Sohl and her mother, who turns 82 the day the album is released. Sohl worked with Smith through Dream of Life and passed away in 1991 at the age of 37. Around the same time, Smith also lost her husband and co-writer, Fred “Sonic” Smith (who cofounded the MC5) as well as photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she had known since the late ’60s.

Talking about Sohl, Smith says, “He was classically trained, but had the gift and humility to work with someone like me, who had no training. He, Lenny Kaye and I developed most of the work that’s on Horses together. [‘Tomorrow’] is me and Richard, and in the middle of it I say, ‘C’mon, Richard Sohl!’… it’s kind of stupid, but just a friendly, loving thought for Richard.”

Smith forgot about the other remark she made during the “Tomorrow” rendition: “I say, ‘This is for my mom!’ cause it was Mother’s Day. I didn’t even realize until today when we were mastering that I say ‘hello’ to my Mom on it.”

As for the Land title, it references a triage of songs from Horses (“Land: Horses/Land Of A Thousand Dances/La Mer [De]”), on which Smith tells the fictional (albeit slightly ambiguous) story of a boy being either mugged or raped. “Before Horses came out, I spent a lot of hours agonizing over whether to call the album Land or Horses,” Smith says. When Arista requested a title for her new album, “I started pacing the floor and thought, ‘Ah! I’ve already paced the floor over titles. And I have one left over.’ I thought, ‘Well, 27 years ago I decided to hold the title Land, and now I think it’s time to put it out there.’”

The compendium comes with a unique 36-page booklet, which Smith describes: “There are little flyers, original lyrics and photographs no one has seen. I worked on the booklet as hard as the album.” She highlights in particular six recent concert photographs taken by a fan named Laura Lakeway. “She really took great pictures, and they’re right in there,” says Smith. “They stand strong beside Allen Ginsberg, Annie Liebowitz, Robert Mapplethorpe and Steven Sebring.”

Obviously, Land does not collate all of Smith’s unreleased and rare material; she plans to use her forthcoming Web site, http://www.pattismithland.com, as an outlet to share more. The site will launch the day her anthology hits stores, and she is toying with the idea of posting a “Song of the Week” series, poems, photos and/or memorabilia. She also encourages fans to write in with questions or even request full song lyrics (the Land booklet does not include any).

Smith was slated to perform at the 12th annual Tibet House concert in New York (headlined by David Bowie) as of press time, and to embark on a national tour with current bandmates Lenny Kaye, Oliver Ray, Tony Shanahan and Jay Dee Daugherty. “All of them put a tremendous amount of effort into [Land],” she adds. “This was a labor-of-love project.”

Originally published as the cover story of ICE magazine #180, March 2002.

If you liked this interview, you might want to poke around here:

• “Iggy Pop: ‘I Didn’t Want To Sell Out’ The Stooges
• “The Who’s Pete Townshend: Every Young Rocker Should ‘Mark A ‘W’ On Their Arm In Blood’
• “David Bowie Faces Reality
• “The Magic Wanda Jackson

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