How is writing poems different from writing songs?
Patti Smith: Poetry is a solitary process. One does not write poetry for the masses. Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit. Songs are for the people. When I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.
We always write a certain amount of poetry for the masses. When Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl,” he didn’t write it for himself. He wrote it to speak out. To make a move, to wake people up. I think rock & roll, as our cultural voice, took that energy and made it even more accessible.
When I’m sitting down to write a poem, I’m not thinking of anyone. I’m not thinking about how it will be received. I’m not thinking it will make people happy or it will inspire them. I’m in a whole other world. A world of complete solitude. But when I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.
I write songs when I’m by myself, like walking along the beach, and a song comes in my head. Or I wake up from a dream, like “Blakean Year.” I often write songs out of dreams, and take them to my musicians to help me. Sometimes I write melodies that are too complex and I can’t find them on the guitar, because I only know about eight chords. So I take them to Lenny [Kaye] or Tony [Shanahan, her bassist] and they transcribe them into a song.
“Free Money” came to me walking down St. Mark’s at three in the morning. It was pre-dawn, but it was so light in New York City, and it came to me and I sang it to Lenny. He structured it and found the proper chords, and we made a song. It was one of our earliest songs.
Other songs, they just come in my head and I sing them out loud, and the band finds the place, and they adjust it. For myself, the simpler format the better. “Gandhi” is nine minutes on one chord. It’s an improvisation. “Radio Baghdad” was completely improvised. I didn’t know the lyrics, but I knew I wanted to speak out against the invasion of Iraq. Being a mother, I freely entered into the mother consciousness of the mothers of Baghdad who were trying to comfort their children as they were being bombed. So these lyrics that come to me are self-perpetuated.