NEW YORK - Monday night, Patti Smith stood among five new inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But for years, she would just as soon have torched the place.
“I was deeply opposed to it,” Smith admits. “I still don’t believe in rock `n’ roll awards. I would not accept one from MTV or something. That’s kinda disgusting to me. But I try to understand the meaning that this (Hall) has for people. It means a great deal to the inductees, and I accept it in that spirit. It’s an honor.”
In her case, the honor salutes a legacy that began 32 years ago with “Horses,” an album recognized on impact as a seminal work in the evolution of punk, poetry and women in music. From its iconic cover photo by Robert Mapplethorpe to the music’s mix of feverish verse and bare-bones rock, “Horses” established Smith as both a beacon of boho cool and a new kind of pop star.
The Hall’s recognition of those achievements isn’t the only thing putting Smith in a historical frame of mind these days. Next month she will release “Twelve,” an album that finds her covering a dozen classic rock touchstones.
From Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” to the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the CD flips through rock’s back pages with a rare sense of rumination. “Twelve” isn’t an attempt to Xerox, or compete with, the rock can on. It’s a way to reconsider songs that have bound many of us - and to highlight some reasons those connections have proven so durable.
Smith’s interpretations of songs like the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” tear down the original arrangements and put speed bumps in their beats. They’re rawer, softer and quieter than the originals - for a purpose. “I wanted to emphasize the lyrics,” says Smith. “A lot of people don’t really know the lyrics to (Paul Simon’s) `The Boy in the Bubble.’ The few people I’ve played the record for have all said they felt they were hearing the words for the first time.”
Smith has done prominent covers in the past, from a translation of the Who’s `60s declaration “My Generation” for the punk generation of the `70s, to a daringly un ironic take on Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” later in that decade. But only now, at the age of 60, did she feel equipped to devote an entire album to interpretation.
“I wasn’t acquainted enough with my voice and didn’t have the range I needed to approach a lot of songs,” she says. “This time, I felt more qualified.”
Smith asserts as much in the album’s opening track. It’s her attempt to make good on Hendrix’s famous boast about being “experienced.”
“When I was younger, I didn’t feel I could answer the question - ` Are you experienced?’ - with a yes,” she says. “I wanted to be able to back up the boast.”
Smith taps into a far younger version of herself in the quintessential adolescent outburst “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“No matter what my age, I felt I could really relate to those lyrics,” she says. “I could really understand what drove (Kurt Cobain) to write them.”
“Teen Spirit” gets the most radical makeover on the album. While Nirvana’s original howled with heavy-metal pain, Smith tracks hers through the dust of Americana. “In Kurt’s voice I could hear his love of bluegrass music, of Bill Monroe and Leadbelly,” Smith explains. “It’s in the twang of his voice.”
Some of the songs have a political tint, like Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule The World.” Others turn spiritual, like George Harrison’s “Within You Without You.” Such choices make clear that, despite Smith’s image as a Godmother of Punk, her current character skews closer to hippie earth mother.
In that spirit, Smith seems naive about the marketing motivation behind a covers album in this day and age. Lately, labels have been aggressively encouraging older artists to cut these kinds of records as the only way to get attention in a youth-driven market. Carly Simon’s record company all but insisted that she do one for her latest release. Smith admits her company ( the same as Simon’s, Columbia) wanted her to do this kind of project. But she maintains she had the notion just as avidly in mind.
Either way, Smith was left to choose the songs herself. They include a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” selected to salute singer Grace Slick, who predated Smith in her ability to transcend gender. No doubt Smith’s use of that persona helped quicken her entry into the Hall.
As a sweet sidebar to her induction, Smith was joined by some musicians who’ve been with her from the start, including guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. They continue to tour with Smith, joined by her 24-year-old son, Jackson. (Gone from the band, and from Smith’s romantic life, is former lover Oliver Ray).
As the singer contemplates her entry into the Hall, and the legacy it hails, she finds it hard to believe that more than three decades have past since her career began.
“I feel completely ageless,” she says, a feeling she credits partially to rock `n’ roll.
“There’s something Peter Pan about it,” Smith says, “something eternal.”