In the studio with Patti Smith
On Monday, I dropped out of the sky and landed behind the mixing board at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village. Patti Smith had just come out of the cold to finish up her new record, a covers album, called Twelve, and she was smiling and eager to chat as she rolled out a chair and sat me down in front of mission control. Hmm, I wonder what happens if I touch this button…
Pinching myself: No, this was not a dream.
I love Patti Smith for a million reasons. I’m knocked down by the infinite depth of her voice and the way her live performances can suck you in and spit you out. I love her love of art and literature and the fact that Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester beaded Patti Smith lyrics onto strips of black ribbon on shirts I cannot afford. (Thanks, career In journalism!) I had highbrow fantasies of sitting with Patti talking about Rimbaud over coffee in Paris.
Instead, we talked about sideshow freaks on TV. Benny, her publicist, gave her a set of the HBO series Carnivale on DVD, and Patti was as psyched about this gift as I was drooling to hear some of her new songs. She liked the 1930s, she said, jumping up and down a little, and she liked the way Carnivale was filmed. Then she smiled wide and confessed to having a crush on one of the show’s actors.
addCredit(“Patti Smith: Nick Harvey/WireImage.com”)
Thank you, HBO, for my next simile, which is that Patti’s band andcrew are like her own version of a travelling family of carnies. Sheturned up to the studio with her long term photographer friend, Steven Sebring,who has just finished a documentary about her (check out some clips onhis site). Patti’s lovely 21-year-old daughter, Jesse, who really doesofficially have the coolest mom ever, was also milling about. I wastold Jesse sings on the album and that she plays piano, and thatPatti’s son, Jackson, plays guitar on Twelve but was back inDetroit working with his own band. The album notes also reveal that SamShepard plays banjo on Patti’s version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,”accompanied by his son, Walker. Add on her amazing band (Lenny Kaye!Tony Shanahan! Jay Dee Daugherty!), and it is indeed a Carnivale ofsoulful souls.
(OH MY GOD—I cannot wait to hear SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT).
A word about Electric Lady. The studio has an insanely great history.The Abstract Expressionists (um, hello, ghost of Willem de Kooning!) hungout there before the rock stars took over. On this day, I saw a metalcase in the hall that had the word “Interpol” stenciled on its side, soeither Inspector Clouseau and his secret police were hunting down thePink Panther in another room or Carlos D. and company were cranking outan eagerly anticipated opus down the hall.
The control room was totally purple. Since Jimi Hendrix built theplace in 1970, I thought, “Oh, I get it, ‘Purple Haze.'” (Patti does aversion of his “Are You Experienced” on Twelve.) But Patti’sproducer, Emery Dobyns, said he thought Prince had recorded there yearsago and had customized the studio in his favorite hue.
Patti played me three songs that day: Stevie Wonder’s”Pastime Paradise” (you’ll know the melody, sampled by Coolio on”Gangsta’s Paradise”), Neil Young’s “Helpless,” and, remarkably, Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” Patti’s version of the TFF hit isbeautiful, and the earnest ache in her voice commanded my ears to payattention and listen to the lyrics for probably the first time sincethe ’80s narcotized my eardrums. I told her that her voice seemed morepowerful than ever—it really is a unique instrument. You know thatvoice. It isn’t anyone else’s. She explained that listening to operasuperstar Maria Callas taught her to sing with gut feeling. Thetrick was not to fall apart during the take because it would ruin thesong, but you could cry afterwards.
(I wanted to cry right then and there.)
So how did Patti Smith choose to cover an ’80s Britpop song? Shewas sitting in a café, she said, thinking about the war and the worldwhen she heard this song come over the speakers. She said she’d neverheard of Tears for Fears, but she thought, “That’s it, everybody doeswant to rule the world.”
I’ll talk to her again soon for an article that will run in themagazine. But until then, I leave you with a little bonus Patti Smithcover that did not make her disc. Here is my Youtube search jackpot:Patti Smith doing Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” on the ’70s TV show, Kids Are People Too.