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Exclusive: Patti Smith interview

The legendary singer, who performs at this month's Meltdown, talks about the convictions that drive

At 62, Patti Smith seems to have lived several lives in one. Her first album, Horses (1975), which drew on her background in poetry and performance art, was a literate, feminist approach to rock music that garnered widespread acclaim. Influenced by Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger, she has in turn influenced successive generations of musicians, from late-Seventies punk rockers to P J Harvey. Fiercely independent and always at ease in the alpha-male world of rock’n’roll, Smith has never been afraid to speak out about her politics. She is a distinctive figure, a hippie pacifist embraced by wave after wave of music fans.

Smith’s energy as a performer has not diminished with age. Most importantly, perhaps, she is continuously excited by new musicians – which is why she took such pleasure in curating Meltdown at the Southbank Centre in London in 2005. This annual festival allows each curator to invite a sometimes weird but often wonderful mixture of musicians and performance artists. Smith’s line-up included Yoko Ono and Marc Almond. Now Smith returns to Meltdown – curated this year by the jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman – alongside Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra, an experimental Canadian collective with whom she will improvise on stage. There will be no set list; anything might happen on the night.

You’re currently in Florence for a show by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe who, among his achievements, shot the cover of “Horses”. What have you been doing there?
There’s a beautiful exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, exhibited alongside Michelangelo’s work at the Accademia. I helped to arrange the exhibition. [For the opening] I had to read poetry, speak about Robert’s work and sing in front of the great statue of David, looking out at the other pieces by Michelangelo. I set one of Michelangelo’s sonnets to music. It was quite an evening. It was a perfect way to salute both of them.

Tell us about Meltdown.
To be part of Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown is a real honour. I’m sure it’ll be instructive, so I’m looking forward to it. Flea [the bassist with Red Hot Chili Peppers] is coming over. We’ll do something. Perhaps I’ll be able to do something with Ornette. So it’ll be a lot of improvisation. There’s nothing like improv to keep you mentally flexible. I just adore Ornette. I’m looking forward to hearing him and if there’s any way I can serve him, I’ll be there.

You’ll also be appearing on stage with Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra. Have you played with them before?
I always admired them. I went to Montreal and we actually improvised a whole concert in a Ukrainian meeting hall there. They’re such a mix of beauty and experience. There’s a bit of anarchy attached to what they do, too, so I’m looking forward to seeing what we come up with.

You’re doing a lot of touring this summer. Are you still planning to play in Korea?
I believe so. I haven’t heard any different. I haven’t been before. It’s a music festival, so I consider it that – I’m going to play music. But I’m certain that we will have something to say while we’re there. Usually when I go to a place for the first time, unless there’s something historical or spectacular that nature has to offer, the first thing I like to do is see what’s on the minds of the people. I’ve no idea what they’re thinking about and what the young people’s concerns are. It’s a good way to learn. There will be 20,000 or 30,000 people there, so you can get some sense of what they’re feeling.

Do you have to be careful of what you say in that kind of environment?
No. It’s not careful. I’d just make sure with anything I say I know what I’m talking about. One doesn’t have to be very learned to speak against the build-up of WMDs or nuclear weapons. It’s just simple logic that there’s no need or use for these things in our culture.As human beings we want to live, so we don’t want to use these weapons. All of human society should abolish them.

When we met in Paris last autumn, you were stressed about the imminent US presidential election. How did you feel when Barack Obama was elected?
Ecstatic. First of all to see the Bush administration go, but also to see that our country made a lot of strides politically and psychologically and morally to elect Obama. I’m happy to see in my lifetime that this has happened. But everything is such a mess and so complicated and the Bush administration has created scenarios that are not easily fixed. Our economy has just been shredded. All the things that have happened in the last eight years can’t be untangled in a few months by an idealistic, energetic new man. It’s going to take him quite a while to comprehend first of all what’s happened in the past eight years – or past 16 or 32 – and see what contribution he can make. You can’t patch things up. You can’t put a Band-Aid on things.

Has anything disappointed you about Obama so far?
I’d like to see more compassionate involvement in the Middle East and more comprehension of the needs of the Palestinian people. I don’t think the area of Jerusalem should be part of a Jewish state; it belongs to all people, to Christians and Muslims and the Jewish people. I think it’s criminal that they [some Israelis] think of it as some kind of archaeological playground to build up the case for their own identity.

Do you feel as though you’re a lone voice in terms of musicians being politically outspoken?
If I feel any marginalisation, it’s because the things that concern me aren’t so important to other people. I don’t think the Palestinian people or Afghan children or some other things I’m concerned about are at the top of other people’s agendas – not right now, when America is going through such a recession and people are suffering across the board financially. But I think all that will change. What I say should always be prefaced with this: I’m not really politically articulate. I just try to be like Thomas Paine: what is common sense? So when I say these things to you, I am speaking from a humanist point of view. I just look around and see what’s wrong.

How does that relate back to music?
Well, Ornette Coleman is a real musician. He takes all of the things he’s thinking about in the world – which is a whole universe upon universe – and translates this into music. All of the things we’re talking about can be found in his music in the most literal and abstract way.

Patti Smith performs at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, on 18 June. For more details: click here

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!