Patti Smith Interview: Return of Live Music, Meeting Bob Dylan

Patti Smith isn’t one to get cabin fever, but this past year has been the exception, as the pandemic left her grounded in her home city. “I haven’t left New York in over a year, which is the longest I’ve been rooted since my children have grown,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I’m not used to being rooted in one place. But I’ve spent most of my time writing.”

Now that the world is in the process of reopening, the globe-trotting artist and musician is ready to get back onstage. Having played a handful of NYC shows in recent months, Smith is prepping for a pair of performances on May 22nd and 23rd at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park’s outdoor Spring Festival in Tivoli, New York. The shows will serve, in part, as a celebration of Bob Dylan’s upcoming 80th birthday on May 24th.

The fest also features sculpture, culinary arts, and dance — including two premieres from American Ballet Theatre and performances by the Martha Graham Dance Company — as well as sets from Yo La Tengo and Steve Gunn. “[The festival] was formed quite a long time ago for dance,” Smith says. “And they’re broadening their scope this year, which is exciting.”

Smith took time out from prepping for the show — and writing her new Substack — to discuss the last show she played before lockdown, the return of live music, and the first time she met Dylan in person.

Take me back — what was the last show you played before everything started locking down?
The last three shows we played, one was a big show in L.A. and it was part of Herbie Hancock’s [Power to the People! festival in early March 2020]. And it had a very positive political edge. And then we went to San Francisco and played in one of my favorite places [the Fillmore West]. And of course, it’s historic. I’ve played there many times; everyone’s played there. You go up these long metal steps, and you can imagine Jerry Garcia and all kinds of people going up to the steps of the Fillmore West. That was a really raucous couple of days.

And then we were set for a world tour. I had my bags packed for Australia. We were supposed to do one more job in Seattle and it was canceled the day we were in Seattle. And then we came home and expected to be in quarantine and to go through whatever we had to go through. But, of course, none of us anticipated we would be out of work for maybe up to two years or more.

What did you channel your energy into during that time?
I’m very lucky because I write wherever I go. I’m just not used to writing [at home] … I’m a traveler. And the thing that was most difficult for me wasn’t even not performing; it was being rooted in one city. … It’s the lack of physical engagement that has been difficult. I’m not a person who goes to the gym and stuff. I mean, I’ll be 75 — I do three or four concerts a week. That’s really my physical release and my exercise. So I really miss that quite a bit.

But I’m lucky — I have other disciplines. I’ve been able to write and take photographs and mentally engage myself. But I know it’s been very, very hard for my people, for all musicians, for people that really depend on performance and touring, not only for their income but for the way they creatively engage. So I can’t really complain because I have plenty of work to do.

Having been in New York for so long, and seen the city bounce back from everything from 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy, how do you see NYC returning to music post-Covid?
I’m not concerned about New York; I’m concerned globally. New York will find its way back. This is a global situation. … This is unprecedented, because it’s about the whole world, everywhere in the world, people are suffering in the same manner. … New York is a city of constant rebuilding itself, reinventing itself, and surviving.

I’m always optimistic. I think it’s important to stay optimistic and I also think it’s important to be able to adjust. We have to adjust; things are not going to just magically be the same. We have to be patient, creative, and see how we can redesign our world.

You recently started playing live again. What has that been like for you?
Well, I’ve only done two [runs of shows]. I did something at the Brooklyn Museum for workers [as part of NY PopsUp]. And then I’ve done two shows at the City Winery, very small with my son [Jackson] and my pianist, Tony Shanahan. I have to say it’s challenging. I mean, it’s challenging, because, one, you have to shake off the dust. And I’m such a visceral performer, and I’m used to having people really close up to the stage and interacting with them physically and even just shaking their hand. I think it’s important we do these small steps and find our way. But it’s like everything else, you need to strengthen that performing muscle.

We have to do these things in increments. But I’m just of another time. I’m a pretty irreverent performer. I love my people, but I like things to be somewhat … not dangerous, but rowdy. And even when I do a book event, there’s a certain amount of engagement, and even physical engagement. Even just standing up reading out of a book can be engaging.

[Performing now] requires a certain amount of understanding and compassion and discipline in terms of the new rules. For instance, I’m the kind of person that likes to just move around the people, hang out with people that may be outside of the venue, sign stuff. I’m a person that when I sing, I get a lot of spit in my mouth. And ever since the Seventies, I spit. People used to think it was because I was being tough. But it’s because when I’m singing, I get water in my mouth and I just spit it out. It’s the kind of person I am. I can’t do that. And I found it really challenging.

That’s what I’m saying, these are all things where it’s what it is in our new world. And I still have to find out how I can best serve these new times we’re living in.

“I’m a pretty irreverent performer. I love my people, but I like things to be somewhat … not dangerous, but rowdy.”

So you have this festival coming up. Tell me a bit about that.
I’m excited about that because that’s going to be the first outdoor thing [I’ll do] and I like playing outdoors. I love a beautiful opera house, but I also like the energy of playing outdoors. And this place is really wonderful. I’ve been up in Tivoli and it’s a very historic piece of land. It’s big, it’s beautiful up there. It’s a beautiful time of the year. I don’t know if you know this, but it was once Eleanor Roosevelt’s grandparents’ horse farm.

I wanted to do something there, something small, but I wanted to do something special. And I realized that we’re playing just two days before Bob Dylan’s birthday. And Bob Dylan will be 80 on the 24th. And so I thought it would be really nice to do a special thing for Bob. So, we’re going to do, I don’t know, five or six Bob Dylan songs and songs of my own and some poems and things like that. I wrote a couple of poems to Bob when I was young. I’ll figure out something special.

Can you tell me about the first time you met Dylan?
The first time I met him was 1974, I think, and he came to see us. I think it was at the Bitter End [in New York]. We didn’t have a record contract, or anything. We were just playing and he came to see us. And then he came backstage. I mean, I loved Bob Dylan since I was 16 years old and suddenly there he was. He comes in and says, “Hey, any poets back here?” And I went, “I don’t like poetry.”

It’s just like a kid in high school being mean to a girl because he really likes her. That’s what I was acting like. He had a good sense of humor and we became quite friendly, in the end. And I think that his support of our band really helped us get signed because everyone took note of it.

What message would you give to your fellow performers who are also reemerging from lockdown?
I just want to say … I really feel for people, for our dancers and actresses and theater, people at the theater. I’m sure going back to the stage will be wonderful for our opera singers and everyone and very emotional. But it’s challenging. It’s challenging in this social-distancing situation and challenging just to get your footing back. But no more challenging than having not ridden a horse for a while and maybe the first one time is a rocky ride. And then the second or third time you’re flying across the desert.

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