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Patti Smith in Montreal

by Archives October 9, 2007

It was an articulate, passionate and fight-ready Patti Smith that showed up to converse with long-time fan and The Nation editor John Nichols during Pop & Policy last Friday. The 60 year-old artist spoke to an audience of around 70 people about the need for communication, her political engagement, and of the hope instilled in her by global Internet communities.
Famous for her music’s politically charged messages, Smith said her mission is to inform people of truths, with little regard to how the information reaches its audience.
“I think of the people as the mass minority, and those need as much information as possible,” Smith said, adding that the greatness of rock’n’roll in lies in it’s accessibility to the people. Sitting with one foot resting on her knee, gesticulating enthusiastically with her slender arms, she said music’s beauty lies in its unifying force. “It’s like the lowest of the low delivering the highest of the high.”
In spite of relatively limited commercial success, Smith enjoys one of the most revered places in rock history, with her induction in the Rock and Roll hall of fame last March testifying her importance to the punk movement. Long time friend and The Clash, Blue Oyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman, who joined Smith on stage to help moderate the conversation, opined her enduring appeal lies in her empathic ability to communicate other people’s emotions. While Smith coyly hid behind her hands in embarrassment, Pearlman said her integrity is absolute, exactly because she understands the things she writes about “on the deepest possible level.”
Her extraordinary compassionate ability was portrayed in Smith’s recollection of writing Radio Baghdad, a protest song against the war in Iraq. Set as an Iraqi mother’s lullaby to her children, sung as bombs are falling around them, Smith said she used her own motherhood to put herself in that woman’s place, trying to soothe her children, the family victims of a power game they had no part in.
She didn’t want to rehearse the song before recording in order to preserve the raw emotions of “all the horror and all the rage” the imagined mother felt, and after the recording was done, she went home ill with emotional exhaustion due to a setting conjured in her mind of a place she has never been.
Although Smith herself still nurtures the burning flame of defiance that embodied the punk movement in the 70’s, she touched upon the complacency she sees in mainstream culture several times, most notably when asked about her unwavering support of 2000 and 2004 US Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
“I love Ralph Nader,” she replied, likening him to Johnny Appleseed, casting political seeds that will one day blossom into fully fledged trees from which future generations will be able to harvest political apples, to be used for reclaiming the power Smith feels politicians have taken away from the people. To those who attribute Nader with the Democratic Party’s loss in the 2000 presidential election she had nothing but disdain, saying that laziness on the part of a lot of people was at fault, not one man’s fight against a two-party system. “[George Bush won] because a lot of people sat on their ass!” she stated, adding that she thought Nader would be recognized in the future for the work he is doing today “as the beautiful and loving revolutionary that he is.”
Involvement and communication was the thread for the conversation throughout, and when the topic turned towards the Internet and the way it has revolutionized the music industry Smith said she saw great promise in on-line communities such as MySpace, which she called this generation’s CBGB’s. As a young woman, she always tried to encourage people to start their own bands, to find their own voice with which they could protest the injustices they saw around them. Through the Internet it is now possible for her to see that young people today are indeed forming their own bands, finding their own creative voices.
Even though Smith claimed she is like a dinosaur on the Internet, she said she sometimes checks out her MySpace friends’ pages to see what kind of music they create.
“It doesn’t even matter if it’s good or not, the important thing is that they communicate,” she said, adding her “great hope is that they will comprehend [their communication’s power] and perhaps create a [political] party,” toppling the US political system much like they have toppled the music industry through downloading.
That times has indeed changed was apparent by Pearlman’s recollection of the Babelogue lyrics, Smith interrupting him reciting the pivotal line; “I am an American artist and I feel no guilt.”
“But now I’m an American artist, and I feel guilty about everything.”

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