At the age of 66, Patti Smith is finally visiting Fes for the first time, to headline the Sacred Music Festival. The press was granted an audience with her yesterday during which she endeared herself to us all with her humility, honesty and child-like wonder.
Her answers to our questions are below, however the experience of meeting her was revealing. The conference took place at sunset in an open courtyard and the birds returning to roost had her rapt with pleasure – as well as referencing them several times during the interview, she was transfixed by them during the interludes when her answers were being translated for the French-speaking press, a serene smile playing across her face as she watched and listened to the birds.
Her mannerisms and demeanour also reflected a girlish quality – she entered wearing her trademark beanie but this was removed after a fashion and she then began to play with her hair, undoing her plaits and shaking her hair free.
Her answers to the more pressing questions about the state of world reflected this too – her perspective is simple and unchanged since she was a young girl. People are the same the world over, we all need the same things, why can’t we all just get along? She may be right – as adults we over complicate things when sometimes simplicity is the best answer. Perhaps, like Patti, we should try to stay in touch with our inner child and regain our sense of wonder.
Here she is, in her own words:
Hello! Nice to meet you all. Fes is such a beautiful city. Whenever I come to a place that I’ve never been before, I always wonder ‘will anybody come?’ They say, ‘you’ll meet the press’ but ‘I think will any press come?’ Because I’m a stranger! So it’s very exciting to see you all here and I’m also very happy to see and hear that the birds are here too! Thank you.
What makes a piece of music sacred?
Huh. Well, I think that’s a very subjective question and the answer would also be subjective. I mean for me a song that is sacred could be a song that my mother sang to me as a child. It could be also Jimi Hendrix singing Are You Experienced? or John Coltrane doing A Love Supreme, or Beethoven. I really think that there’s a sacredness inherent in us all and anyone has the ability to express this and when they do we feel it, whether it’s in a rock and roll song or an opera or an old mountain ballad. There’s sacredness in all of these I think. In fact, this – the bird song right now – that’s sacred music! It’s beautiful.
You are a singer, a painter, a poet – what are you working on today?
Well I’m always working, my children are grown so I have a lot of time to spend on my work. I’m writing a new book and I’m writing poetry, preparing a new album, taking photographs and preparing for a few exhibitions for museums – I’m always working. But right now I’m here and my work right at this moment is talking to you all and performing tomorrow at the concert.
You wrote a song as a tribute to Amy Winehouse. What connected you to her?
Well the song that my bass player Tony Shanahan and I wrote for Amy Winehouse, called This is the Girl really it began as a little poem that I wrote after she died and we made it into a song. I admired her. My connection was as a singer, she was extremely gifted and a very young girl who had such a grasp on the music of my generation – R&B, jazz and rock and roll, but with such a modern spin. She was a truly gifted artist and I was so sad that she didn’t make it but my connection definitely was through an appreciation of her voice.
Is there any Moroccan or North African influences on your new album?
Specifically on our new album I can’t say so, we all listen to Moroccan music, all of my band does, but the Moroccan aesthetic has always influenced me. Not just the music but the aesthetic – the architecture, the art of story telling, the literature. Lenny Kaye, Tony and I we doing some acoustic work in Tangier and we were listening to the gnawa and I will always love the bass lines of Moroccan music. There is much about the Moroccan culture that I love. Our drummer wrote a song called Mosaic which has I think a certain rhythm that shows that influence, it’s more of a Sufi style song merged with rock and roll.
The golden age of rock and roll seems to have passed so what is the future of rock music and can you write good rock music without using drugs?
I think it’s most likely you’ll do better writing without the drugs! But drugs have their place especially in accessing certain spiritual elements within ourselves if they’re used wisely. If they’re used for recreation then usually nothing comes out of it, except maybe some fun, or trouble! But I don’t use drugs to write because I’m struggling for clarity anyway, I’m abstract enough, I don’t need drugs to be abstract!
But in terms of the golden age of rock and roll, rock and roll is always golden to me, it’s always evolving. As a child I saw Little Richard and Elvis Presley and early R&B and it evolved as a cultural voice in the ‘60s and then within the realm of punk rock – there’s been so much evolution within the last 50 years. And then generations will continue to evolve and redefine it. I think it’s very important not to feel that all the great things were already done. We worked to evolve rock and roll as a cultural voice and the next generations will continue. We shouldn’t discourage them by acting as if all the great work was done in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’m waiting for the greatest work ever to be done by young people in the 21st century; they are the hope of the world.
We have been waiting for you to come to Morocco and you performed in April in Tangier and now in Fes. Why this second time and will it now be a habit? Will we see you every year in Fes?
Why didn’t you tell me you were waiting for me?! I have to say that I’m very surprised, we were never asked to come and I never imagined that we would have a waiting audience, I had no idea. So now that we have been welcomed and asked to come, I will come, I love Morocco. So, once you welcome me, just try to keep me away! There are so many beautiful places here and so much culture and if we are asked again to Fes I’m already saying yes! But you better wait ‘til tomorrow and see if you like it! Then after tomorrow you can decide.
When have you been to Morocco before?
The first time I visited Tangier in the ‘90s, I visited Paul Bowles and so this time I went and passed by his house, with my musicians we went to the Beach Café that Mohammed Mrabet wrote of and that was beautiful we had mint tea and sat by the sea in a café that I’d read about I the ‘70s. We performed for the people and we met Mrabet who was always one of my favourite writers, so I was very happy and we listened to him tell stories. He is such a great storyteller, he told a story in Arabic and it was wonderful. I didn’t understand it but it was fantastic because his sense of the inner narrative is so strong that I felt that I understood the story. And we did go to see the grave of Jean Genet which was wonderful, in an old Spanish cemetery and his grave is facing east and we stayed there for a long time, it was by the sea. And there was a little child, a small boy, who played at the grave and every time we left flowers the boy picked them and gave them back to us. So it was quite beautiful, I think that Jean Genet would like it very much to see that a little boy was playing at his grave.
This is a question that is asked of many philosophers and there is no answer, only your intuition. So, why are human beings on the earth? Is it an accident, random, a logical reason? And, are we going towards something?
It’s very interesting, this is a question that my father used to ask all the time since I was a child, so I have heard this question many times. I would think that, at this time in my life, that we are here to find a balance between ourselves and each other and nature. And when we find the perfect balance between one another and nature we will have a wondrous world. All of our difficulties in the world are because we have not found a way to wholly communicate with one another and to wholly respect nature and I think that we are here to keep evolving to the point where man and nature are one. So, that’s my answer.
This place shows that. I think St Francis would love it here. All the birds that are singing reminds of the painting by Giotto with St Francis and the birds and the stories of the birds covering St Francis and singing. This is amazing. I mean, do you have this all the time? It’s beautiful. I’ll remember that. That will be one of my great memories of being here in Fes is the continuous song of the birds. It’s very nice.
The way you seem to see the world is through words, music and poetry but also your immediate reaction to what goes on around you. What is going on today is not very easy, in certain regions of the world like Syria and other places. You have always reacted and spoken out about what is going on, so I would like to know how you feel about what is going in the region here today?
Well, it would be, this is a very strong question and I would want to be careful not to try to speak for all of the people in the Arab world. I can only talk in a very simplistic, humanistic way. Since I was a very young girl, I was always concerned with what would happen with our relationship with the Arab world because I have always loved Arab culture, even in terms of religions – they way the people pray – the architecture as I’ve said there’s both a sense of sophistication and a sense of deep history. It’s always been very beautiful to me and I react in the same way as I did as a young girl – it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart to see, first of all something like Israel and Palestine. Why does this have to happen? Everyone, when I went there and sang, to me the people were so similar, they all eat the same food, their children play the same games, some of their prophets are the same, it’s heartbreaking. But what is even more heartbreaking is the tribal aspect of their culture, when the tribes fight against one another. It’s the same in my own country – we’re a divided country. Everywhere you go, people are divided, they are fighting against one another.
So I can’t talk about this situation in specifics, but the inhumanity, what is happening to children…but just in the most simple terms, why as people can’t we focus on our uniting principles? Because we have them – our water, our air, the earth, our children – the simplest elements that make it possible for us all to communicate with one another. I always go back to the metaphor of a playground. If you have a playground with Syrian children, Israeli children, Japanese children, Chinese children, you have your own children, everyone has children. Are you going to choose which child should live or die? Which children are more worthy? All children are beautiful and we were all once children. And all people need the same things; they need love, they need to be without fear, they need freedom, they need water, they need bread. And they need to be able to pray to whomever they see fit. Why is it so difficult? That is why I am still contemplating the simplest questions. All the answers should be simple. But I’m not a politician, I’m a mother.
Text and photographs: Vanessa Bonnin
The View from Fez review of the Patti Smith concert is here: Patti Smith