Under The Covers:
Patti Smith Returns with a Tribute Album

by Tony Phillips

“That’s all I wanted,” the lanky figure hanging from the mic stand like Spanish moss begins, “something special something sacred in your eyes.” My date and I exchange a look. It’s one that says, oh no she didn’t. But it’s too late, rock ‘n’ roll legend Patti Smith is tearing into George Michael’s “Father Figure” and it’s all we can do not to fling ourselves over the Roseland balcony to preserve this perfect moment from a perfect show forever.

The former punk who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year is barreling into her sixth decade. She must have had similar thoughts about preservation during that Roseland show because she's just released an album of newly interpreted covers of classic songs. Unfortunately, George Michael didn’t make the cut, but there are other really inspired choices like Jimi Hendrix and Tears for Fears. There’s even a Nirvana cover.

“Sorry I’m late,” Smith grins as she sweeps into a conference room at her record label. “I had a couple of meetings.” She’s decked in classic Smith, or what she describes as “some old wranglers, a pair of motorcycle boots and a gold cross.” Lest one mistake classic Smith for thrift, the beat-up black jacket is by Flemish designer Anne Demulemiester, as is the T-shirt underneath, which reads, simply “holy.” It would be hard to argue that.

“I’m a real tri-state area girl,” Smith says, jumping from fashion house to childhood home. “The Camden, Philly and Wilmington area, that’s my beat. My parents moved to Philadelphia when I was about three. I was raised there until I was about nine and then we moved to South Jersey and lived there until I was about 19.” She pauses for a moment, and then adds, “That’s where my roots are.”

“I was brought up in a rural, racially mixed area,” Smith continues. “I went to public schools that were predominantly minority so I became a pretty good dancer for one thing. Because of when I was born, I pretty much saw the whole history of rock ‘n’ roll unfold. When I was younger the really important records to me were songs that I could daydream to or dance to, those were R&B records.”

Other early musical inspirations include John Coltrane (“He was a big influence on my attitudes about art, performance and improvisation”), Jim Morrison (“The way he merged poetry and rock ‘n’ roll”) and Jimi Hendrix (“He made me really fall in love with the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar”).

Like her influences, Smith is not without her demons. “Writer’s block,” she begins, “I have it all the time. I have it right now. I’ve been writing a book about Robert Mapplethorpe and I’ve been having some difficulty. It’s a really important subject and I’m trying to write it not only from the perspective of a friend, but a fellow artist.”

She gets into her history with Mapplethorpe by explaining, “When I first met him in the ’60s, he was very shy — impish — he liked to tease. He was one of six children and he could be a real prankster, but he was funny and he was very supportive.”

And when he pointed his camera at her? “He was my friend,” she replies. “Basically we worked on mutual trust. I didn’t even think about it, like shooting the Horses cover, I got up, got my clothes off the floor, put ’em on and met him on the street. We went up to a friend’s apartment that had a whitewashed wall and just did it. He’d say, stand there and he’d take the picture. We believed in each other and we worked pretty quickly.”

And did unearthing that work 30 years later and performing Horses live leave her hankering to take on some other classics? Or perhaps it was the lineup change in her band. When she launches the record back in April, she performs a gig in the basement of the Chelsea Hotel, where she used to live with Mapplethorpe.

Her guitarist and lover Oliver Ray split the band. She thinks he might be somewhere in Mexico. She’s replaced him with her son Jackson. This cycle of loss and renewal is one that Smith is all too familiar with by now. Her husband Fred Smith of the Detroit band MC5 died in 1994 of a heart attack. Mapplethorpe, who despite his homosexuality, was Smith's lover, died in 1989 of AIDS.

This is the woman they tapped to play the night CBGB died. So why did the author of probably one of the most covered songs of all time — 1978’s “Because The Night” from the album Easter — decide to turn the tables? “Well, don’t forget,” Smith laughs, “I had some help writing that one.”

Indeed, she shares a writing credit on the song with none other than Bruce Springsteen. “I have been able to do records that I’m really proud of,” she reflects, “without any tampering. I have no Behind the Music story to tell. My story is that I was given an opportunity to do my records. And I’m proud of them.”

She wraps things up by talking about her survival instinct, why she’s still here and most of her influences are not. “For one thing, I’ve never been involved in drugs and alcohol,” she says. I balk visibly, and she smiles again.

“You know, I’ve smoked pot,” she hedges. “And a few shots of tequila here and there, but I’ve never had a dependency problem, ever. It’s just, again, not my beat. I wasn’t part of the drug culture of my generation because I always looked at drugs as a very special God-given thing to use for certain purposes: illumination, not for social interaction.”