Patti Smith says she was first attracted to several of the dozen cover songs that make up her latest disc, “Twelve,” because they have both a social and spiritual component.
But it becomes evident even during a brief phone conversation from New York that the veteran musician and newly minted Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (she was inducted in March) is uncovering other reasons for recording the songs by Hendrix, Dylan, Kurt Cobain, Neil Young, Paul Simon and Jim Morrison, among others.
For example, Smith suggests another link between such seemingly well-known but disparate material as “Within You Without You,” George Harrison’s spiritual, sitar-driven meditation on the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and the Rolling Stones’ incendiary warning of an apocalypse-in-the-offing, “Gimme Shelter.”
“Each songwriter presents two possible scenarios,” the 60-year-old Chicago-born, New Jersey-bred artist points out. “In `Gimme Shelter,’ war, rape and murder are just a shot away, and love is just a kiss away. In `Within You Without You,” without love, you can gain the world and lose your soul. Mick (Jagger) and George are saying the same thing: Love can change the world.”
Smith also ties in Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise,” another tune that proposes two possible paths, with the Harrison composition. “They are both conscience-examining songs,” Smith says.
And, she adds, the “Twelve” songs continue to evolve - “more of the poetry comes out” - as she performs them live with her band, guitarists Lenny Kaye and her son, Jackson Smith, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and bassist-keyboardist Tony Shanahan.
Along with vintage hits such as “Because the Night,” “Pissing in a River,” “Frederick,” “People Have The Power” and “Gloria,” several “Twelve” tunes likely will find their way into Smith’s show. Which ones, however, aren’t determined until the night of the concert.
“This is more of a celebration, less of a breaking-in-new-material tour,” says Smith, “so there’s a new set list every night. To build a set is like building a roller-coaster ride. It goes up and down.
“I try to mix a lot of `Twelve’ with my more popular songs. If I see people standing in line, waiting to get into the show, I ask them what they want to hear. After all, they’re who we do the concerts for.”
In assembling “Twelve,” Smith seems to have carefully probed each song’s core emotions, finding a new richness in the material by connecting, artist to artist, with the songwriters’ poetic sensibilities.
She also admits, “I really did this record as an exercise in singing, and singing well.”
In the past, Smith, who possesses one of rock’s most forceful voices, often has disparaged her vocal abilities. Asked why, she answers: “I know the difference between a natural singer and what I can can do. Joan Osborne, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris - they trill like birds.
“I grew up in an era where everybody sang. Most of the girls in my school could sing better than me. I always loved opera, R&B and jazz. Maria Callas and Billie Holiday and Julie Christie - I’m measuring myself against those people.”
Asked about arguably the most unlikely cover on “Twelve,” Tears for Fears’ 1985 hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Smith concedes, “It’s an idiosyncratic choice. Before I recorded it, I didn’t even know that it was this big famous song.
“I came across it in the middle of recording `Twelve,’” she continues. “I was reading the news in a cafe and was really depressed. Israel had just bombed (the Lebanese village of) Qana. It made me throw my hands up and say, `What’s going on here?’ And this little song comes over their sound system and I thought, `That’s exactly what’s wrong with our society, We live in an imperialistic, monopoly-oriented country and planet. There’s Iraq, (Rupert) Murdoch buying up all of our media, (Donald) Trump building skyscrapers in the middle of Greenwich Village, pharmaceutical companies that won’t give drugs to people suffering from AIDS. ...
“All of these little phrases - `All for freedom and for pleasure, nothing ever lasts forever,’ `I can’t stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision’ - seem to encapsulate our world right now. ... It was so much fun to record, and the fastest song to do.”
Smith says “Twelve’s” most “cerebral” track is her version of Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” while Young’s “Helpless” is its most “human,”
The most emotional? That would be the Nirvana anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which Smith recasts as a prickly, haunted bluegrass tune, complete with banjo and her extrapolated poetry.
“Of all the songs, I relate most to the line `I’m worse at what I do best,’” she reveals. “I’m a pretty flawed (performer). I’m not Neil Young. I’m not Bob Dylan. I’m just myself. Whenever I sing that line, it’s almost like, `Here I am. Here’s what I do.’”