Patti Smith prides herself on working in the present, always with an eye toward the future.
But between her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and an album of cover songs, “Twelve,” Smith has allowed herself to enjoy her past a bit more in 2007.
Nevertheless, rock’s “punk priestess” hasn’t completely given herself over to nostalgia and sentimentality. The induction in particularly, she says, “makes me feel like I have a lot of work to do.”
“You have to continuously earn these things,” says Smith, 60, who lived in Michigan from 1980-96, when she was married to the late MC5 guitarist Fred Smith. “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ... they give you that for your life’s work, but I hardly feel like I’ve done my work. I have a million more things to do.”
That said, Smith found the Hall of Fame induction to be “very emotional” as she was saluted for 32 years of groundbreaking work, including nine albums that won critical adoration and occasionally crossed over into the pop mainstream with hits such as “Because the Night” and “People Have the Power.” Smith says she thought a lot about her late husband, who died of heart failure in 1994. At the end of the evening, she particularly enjoyed watching the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards playing “People Have the Power,” which Fred Smith co-wrote.
“Keith Richards was his favorite guitar player,” explains Smith, who had two children — Jackson and Jesse — with Fred. “All I did was stand there watching Keith play Fred’s chords, and Keith even gave me a guitar pick for him, so when I visit his resting place I can leave it there.”
The “Twelve” album, meanwhile, blends Smith’s past and present. The songs are by some of her favorite artists — the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Nirvana — but many of the arrangements, done “mostly live” in the studio, are new, and she chose the material with a thematic unity in mind.
“Most of the songs were chosen for their lyrics,” Smith explains. “I didn’t record my 12 favorite songs; I recorded 12 songs that had lyrics I thought were applicable to our time, having some more spiritual resonance like (the Beatles’) ‘Within You, Without You,’ and an anti-war song like (the Stones’) ‘Gimme Shelter.’
“Even the little pop song, (Tears for Fears’) ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World,’ certainly I chose that because of our present condition. I thought that we’re living in such a greedy, materialistic world ... where governments and corporations are constantly jockeying for power, and that little song, to me, seemed to encapsulate that.”
Smith returned to Detroit in January to record the album’s closing track, Steve Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise,” working at 54 Sound in Ferndale with former Was (Not Was) keyboardist and Eminem collaborator Luis Resto.
“It was a beautiful thing to do a Stevie Wonder song on Martin Luther King’s birthday in Detroit,” she recalls. “It was nothing I planned, but the whole record was like that. Things just fell into place.”
Smith and her band, which now includes son Jackson, plan to spend most of 2007 on the road in support of “Twelve,” and she’s planning to hold a tribute concert for Fred Smith on his birthday (Sept. 13) in New York City. But she’s already starting to think about her next album.
“I’ve been working on a lot of songs,” she says, “so I’d like to record again next year. It’s time for me to make a record.”
That could follow a pattern. Smith has released new albums, some of them politically charged, in each of the last three presidential election years — “Gone Again” in 1996, “Gung Ho” in 2000 and “trampin’ ” in 2004. So that climate could exact some pull on her work this time, too.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” she says with a laugh. “I hadn’t factored that in. But ... I will be more attentive to that. I’ve just been working so hard, it’s like 2008 is creeping up. I will keep that in mind.”
The Patti Smith Group performs 7:30 p.m. Thursday (August 2nd) at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor. Tickets are $25-$35. Call (734) 668-8463 or visit www.livenation.com.
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