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by Dan Grunebaum

Positive punk mom

With an art exhibition at Parco and a five-date Japan concert tour, it's Patti Smith month. Metropolis gets the lowdown.

Her gravelly voice sounds remarkably like Marge Simpson's. And in some ways, she is. Despite her punk pedigree and status as a counterculture icon, Patti Smith is also a regular mom raising two kids. On the phone from New York, Smith says these are all aspects of her that fit together. "I think of myself as a human being. I'm a hard worker, and I just do whatever each hour requires," she says. "If what seems important is to work on a drawing all day, then that's what I'll do. If I think I should do laundry all day, then I'll do that. And I don't regret either decision. Whether it's art or activism or domestic tasks, I do them all. They're all part of life."

And a busy life it's been. Since rolling into New York in the early '70s, hooking up with characters like controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and edgy guitarist Tom Verlaine, and becoming part of the heady punk scene emerging at Lower East Side biker bar CBGBs, Smith has been a Top 20 hit-maker ("Because the Night"), poet, painter, and in her '80s incarnation, a Detroit housewife.

She's also had a long association with Japan, where all her books have been published, and a country from which, she says, she's received "literally thousands of letters." Despite the appeal in Japan of Smith's odd combination of bra-burning feminism with a sense of exposed vulnerability, however, it took until 1996 for her to tour the country. But since then, she's been a regular visitor, appearing repeatedly at the Fuji Rock Festival, an event she rates "the best of all the festivals I've done" where she "feels really in contact with the people."

 

Art seen
Interestingly, the current tour came about not because of her music, but because of her less well-known art. "I had a show at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and met this fellow from Parco," she explains. "He really seemed to understand the work and offered me a show at the Parco Museum. I thought it would be nice to find some other work in Japan, because I wanted to see more of Japan, and they got us about five dates in Tokyo and other cities I've never been."

The tour finds the 56-year-old Smith in a positive frame of mind. Her 1995 "comeback" has been cemented by the release last year of a landmark retrospective, LAND 1975-2002, she's just signed a new contract with Columbia, and her art is being recognized with significant exhibitions, including the current one at Parco, which will feature about 150 pieces.

"I've seen a lot of rough things in my life. I've had a lot of loss, loved ones and family members who died," Smith says in explaining the background to her optimism (her husband's heart gave out in 1988 and Robert Mapplethorpe died the same year of AIDS).

"I've seen a lot of difficult times in our world," she continues. "But I love life... I want things to always be better-not just for my kids, but for all people... I like life and I like to work, and to me there's no point in being pessimistic or negative. What's the point of it? We all know that things are fucked up. I know that my government is fucked up, the environment, there's so much wrong, there's so much corruption, there's so much greed, but we know that. In the face of that, I think it's important to always do one's work, to try to set an example, to show that there are other ways... I think sometimes people forget how much power they have, but I haven't, and that's one of the things that keeps me going."

 

Saying no
Despite Smith's fame, her counterculture status, she says, condemns her, relatively speaking, to the life of a struggling artist who must balance her principles against the need to support her family. This phone call, in fact, finds her just having refused a lucrative offer from a pharmaceutical company to use one of her songs in a TV commercial.

"It's funny you should ask because just the other day I was offered the biggest amount of money ever," she relates. "I'm a single widow, I have two kids, and because I'm such a controversial artist in America, I'm not one who makes a whole lot of money. I often go through periods of struggle, but not a big enough struggle that I'm going to sell out to a pharmaceutical company. But occasionally I will allow a song to be used for something if I think I can live with it... I need to balance my moral responsibility with my need to make a living for my family."

Despite a contemporary consumer culture that, Smith believes, values packaging over content, and the lack of "a Bob Dylan, a Jimi Hendrix, a Janis Joplin, a Jim Morrison," she remains hopeful about the power of rock 'n' roll to effect change.

"What I would like to see is people using that opportunity for greater things: to reinforce the revolutionary and spiritual and political power of rock 'n' roll as a voice, as a medium. We'll have to build that back in. That has dissipated and been disenfranchised because of music television and because of the present situation [in which] people are geared towards selling records, selling [an] image, selling sex, connecting to a demographic instead of doing great work."
She concludes: "I believe things will turn, the tide will turn."

Patti Smith plays Akasaka Blitz on July 16-17. See concert listings for details. "Strange Messenger & Cross Section: The Work of Patti Smith" takes place at the Parco Museum, July 18 to August 18. Tel: 03-3477-5873. www.parco-art.com

credit: Smash

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