BARRY: Does it surprise you looking back to see that whole ’70s
CBGBs era is so celebrated now? The period has become as mythologized
as The Beatles Hamburg era, or California in the late 1960s,
considered a milestone in the history of American popular music.
SMITH: Well, I don’t know if it’s that mythologized.
I just think of CBGBs as being symbolic of something that was
happening globally. I mean, I look at it different, when I think
of CBGBs I don’t just think of CBGB’s, I think of
when I was touring during that period and all the new young
bands and kids I met all over Europe and America that wanted
to do something different. So I think of it as a time, more
a sort of consciousness to me than a place. But when I think
of what came out of CBGB’s then, Television, the Dead
Boys, the Ramones, the list goes on and on, all these people
were doing new things when, in New York, at least, it was overall
a very confining period of time. I think any period which seems
to breathe new life and freedom into the arts is often cherished
by people. And it was one of those periods so I suppose that’s
why it’s cherished now. At the time we never thought about
anything like that, we were just grateful to play. We were still
just figuring out new places to play, and new ideas and how
to pay our rent and have enough money to eat. Even when we were
recording we weren’t making so much money that we didn’t
have to think about those things. In some ways, that period
had an innocence, and even after people were doing well, it
didn’t lose it’s innocence.
Was it difficult for you to leave rock and roll after Wave and
live a domesticated life? Were you secure financially? Was it
weird to be in that role all of a sudden?
SMITH: The thing is that I didn’t think of it as a domesticated
life. I went to Detroit to be with the person that I loved,
you know? Fred Smith. And we were not, either one of us, traditional
people. I didn’t have a whole lot of money. We just saved
what we could and lived very simply. It was more a, you know,
bohemian life than domesticated. We lived simply, we did all
of our own work, scrubbed our own floors, took care of our children.
But we were always committing art. We were always studying,
or writing, or playing music together, it was an intensely creative
period, and though I had all of the traditional, and sometimes
difficult domestic duties, it was never devoid of creative expression.
Really, I think the main thing that I missed was NYC. I missed
the mobility cuz I’m not a driver, I don’t drive,
and you know, in Detroit and the Detroit area, people depend
on cars, and I like to walk. I missed the café’s,
I missed my friends, but I didn’t really miss the, uh
. . . For me it was a new adventure and a new way of being,
I didn’t feel a sense of loss or sacrifice. I was a leader
so I missed the camaraderie of my people, you know, my band,
but I never regretted my choice. I didn’t feel like all
of a sudden I was plunged into a domestic vortex. I come from
a working class family, I’m no stranger to hard work and
we were just, you know, living our life.
I thought at the time that it was an admirable move on your
part. Kissing all that music business stuff away.
SMITH: Well, I loved my husband. For me, to be with him was
a beautiful thing. And to be apart from him, touring, and be
far away from him, was painful. There’s always sacrifice
in choice. Whenever one makes a choice there’s a certain
amount of sacrifice. But I know that I made the right choice.
Hey, I loved your husband, too, at least his musical legacy.
Is there any Fred Smith or MC5 stuff still hiding in your basement
that the public might someday hear?
SMITH: Well, I think the things that were there have been well-documented.
Fred and I left public life in 1979 and back then, we didn’t
have the tools or technology, or even the foresight to document
things the way people do now. Fred didn’t have the income
to heavily document the band so I think, you know, people find
things and release them. But I have my son and daughter as a
legacy of Fred’s work as well as all the work we did together
on Dream of Life. Fred produced that album and wrote
all of the music, played all of the guitar, and so, he can be
found on that record.
Will True Testimonial ever be released? What’s
the story there?
SMITH: What is that?
Um, the completed documentary on the MC5 that’s been in
limbo for years now because of legal disagreements between various
members of the band and/or their surviving spouses and families.
SMITH: I have no idea. I’m not connected with that. I
think it would be nice for people to see it but I’m not
connected with it at all. That’s not in my jurisdiction.
Do you think rock and roll is still culturally relevant? Still
a powerful medium to communicate ideas, revolutionary or otherwise?
SMITH: Certainly, I think rock and roll is a powerful cultural
voice. It has its periods of exploration, some more political
than others. I think that right now people are regrouping and
I think that a lot of new things are in store for us and I look
forward to what new generations are doing. I think rock and
roll, I’ve always believed it’s the peoples art.
It’s a way that all people at any age can voice their
opinions, their sexuality, their spirit, their political ideals
and I think that it’s there as a format, it’s there,
we just have use it. It’s there as a uniting principle.
So it’s really up to the people how they use it.
I’d argue that it’s not nearly as uniting as it
might have been 30, 40 years ago. You know, when you consider
. . .
SMITH: I think it’s potentially uniting. There’s
a lot of different ways that people unite now. Whether it’s
through the Internet, there’s technology that we didn’t
have in the ’60s and ’70s. We didn’t have
cell phones, computers or Internet. And most of the people I
knew, we didn’t have TV, or you know, anything. We had
to unite through the radio, through more active protest marches,
we had a handful of ways in which we united. People have a lot
more possibilities of unification now, and I think that music
is one of these strong possibilities.
Looking back, would you vote for Ralph Nader again?
SMITH: Ralph is a great man. He’s the most honest, the
most sacrificial person I have ever met. A person who really
devotes every second of his life to the good of the people and,
you know, the fact that he was marginalized by all of these
people, that he was not at least approached as a teacher, and
a friend, the fact that they tried to keep him out of the election
process. Ralph believes in organic law. Part of being an American
is having the right to develop new parties. We’re not
supposed to be a two party system. Abraham Lincoln came into
the presidency on a new party, and that’s a very important
part of our system. And because, you know, trying to push people
like Ralph and that type of organic ideology out, we’re
stuck in this two party system which is very close to becoming
a one-party system. I mean, I could go on and on about Ralph,
not only defending him, just speaking about him, in a country
where 40 per cent of the population didn’t even vote.
Do you see a new day dawning for the US, or do you think it
will just be more of the same, but with a new, yet always familiar,
SMITH: I see a lot of struggle. Things are so difficult economically,
we’ve made such a terrible . . .terrible and moral mess
of Iraq. The environment has been greatly compromised. I don’t
see it as a golden time but I do hope that there’s change
and we can start rebuilding and repairing damage, reassess ourselves,
but I think we’ve got a very difficult set of years to
come, just economically. And I think the people really won’t
understand how bad it is until they reassess things and see
exactly what this present administration has done. Just by draining
all of our resources entering this unnecessary and really immoral
occupation of Iraq. So I think that the rude awakening we are
about to experience is going to be difficult for the American
people, but the American people are resilient. We’ll just
need to reassess ourselves and rebuild. I’m not a politician,
I’m a citizen so . . .
Yeah, but your politically astute and have a . . .
SMITH: Well, you know, my opinions are very common sense oriented.
I’m not politically astute, I can’t say that I’m
not politically articulate, but I come from humanist roots,
my parents were humanists, things that seem just so simple and
obvious, like how wrong it was to go into Iraq. I mean, it was
just such an obvious thing. It wasn’t just because I’m
anti-war. One could project, easily, and see that this would
be disastrous, not only for the Iraqi people but for us, and
have some negative global impact, and it has. It was just common
sense. I’m still just broken-hearted that we’re
responsible for the present state of things in Iraq and the
instability it’s caused, but that’s what we have
to live with right now.
The only song I’ve heard so far from the new album is
Smells Like Teen Spirit, which I think is great by the way,
reminds me a bit of Ghost Dance from Easter. Anyway, what inspired
you to cover that particular song here?
SMITH: Well, it’s obviously a strong song, I relate very
strongly with the lyrics, I think I understand what drove Kurt
Cobain to . . . The song really articulates the schism of being
an artist and a performer, you feel a certain calling to do
something strong, but on one hand you feel this special power
but on the other you don’t want to be separated from other
people. You don’t want to be isolated and I think that
the schism of both being dogged as an artist and wanting to
just be a human being was very difficult for him. But I just
wanted to do it, and to do it in the way that I did because
I envisioned the song in a genre that he embraced. He loved
bluegrass music and I thought it would be a fitting tribute
to him to do the song with the type of music that he loved.
What are you listening to these days?
SMITH: Glenn Gould, um. Bach. Wait, I’m going over to
my CD player, uh, My Bloody Valentine . . . The soundtrack
to Naked Lunch, which is Ornette Coleman. So there
you have it.
What are you reading right now?
SMTIH: Right now I’m reading, or re-reading, I’ve
always got two or three books going at once, I love to read.
I mean, I like to read Swedish mystery novels, I’m always
reading many things. It’s a big part of my life. I’m
reading Cain’s Book by Alexander Trocchi, and
I’m also reading Lichtensteins Nephew by Thomas
Bernhard. Listen, Chris, I’m happy to talk to you for
as long as you want but I have to go to the airport any minute
now, I’m going to Europe and . . . I’m really not
brushing you off here. I’d be happy to talk with you for
another hour if you want, but I just can’t right now.
I’m already really late. I’ll be back home Monday,
you have my number, just call me if you . . .
No worries, Patti. Thanks for your time.
by Chris Barry:
Pageants: The Golden Years
Clubs as Safe Zones
- Swinging Ad Extremis