By Mary Clare Fischer, The Baltimore Sun
8:24 AM EST, November 28, 2012
Patti Smith has a soft spot for Baltimore, dating back to the early '80s, when she and her husband would visit the city for soft-shell crabs and beer.
These days, she "hardly ever" gets to play in Charm City, so when her current tour gave her a day off in the area, she booked a performance here — on Saturday at Rams Head Live.
"I always liked Baltimore," Smith said. "I've always loved [Edgar Allan] Poe, too. The end of Poe's life is so mysterious — I like to contemplate that. I've visited the area quite a bit. I go to Baltimore on my own and take pictures."
Much has changed since Smith broke into the New York's simmering underground scene in the '70s, but despite her hit "Because the Night," Smith is still an outlier — a role she relishes. In June, she released "Banga," her first new album in eight years. Of course, that's not even close to the 16 years she clocked without a record between 1979 and 1995. Her tours continue, motivated by a love of performance that came well before she ever started a band.
Performing has allowed Smith to indulge her love for traveling, she said.
"I came from a lower-middle-class family, and the idea of travel was impossible," Smith said. "Even going to New York was a big deal, and you'd have to save for a couple of months. Now, I've been able to go anywhere you could imagine, and I'm grateful for that.
"It gives you the opportunity to share ideas — political, ecological, poetical — with a lot of people," she added.
On "Banga," her ideas are scattered, ranging from odes to Amy Winehouse and French actress Maria Schneider to the Japanese earthquake-inspired "Fuji-san" to a cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush." The new album is named after the dog in Mikhail Bulgakov's novel, "Master and Margarita."
Smith's writing process on "Banga" was certainly different from the way she and her band had done things in the past, but the change came out of necessity, not desire. Smith's band no longer has its own practice space, so the members can't simply sit down and work through all their thoughts.
Both the songs "Amerigo" and "April Fool" started as demos that bassist Tony Shanahan had written while Smith was busy promoting her 2010 best-selling memoir, "Just Kids." "Constantine's Dream" wasn't even written at all; the track was laid down and then Smith improvised for about 10 minutes in the studio. Smith originally wrote "This Is the Girl," dedicated to Winehouse, as a poem when Shanahan came to her with some notes.
"His music and my poem had the same cadence," she said. "They fit perfectly together. It was as if I wrote the lyrics to his music."
Smith considers herself a writer, not a musician. She can play a few chords on an acoustic guitar and improvise on the piano, but she never studied music and she said she has some kind of dyslexia where she confuses her lefts and rights, making it difficult for her to remember patterns.
"I found it boring to just keep reading [my poetry]," Smith said. "People can become bored unless you're a very compelling reader, and I have a tendency to get distracted. Plus I had a lot of edgy energy, especially when I was younger, so merging poetry with simple rock 'n' roll chords was perfect for me."
Yet Smith plays multiple roles. Her activist roots still affect her outlook on life; right now, she's most actively concerned with the environment.
"I'm not a scientist, and I can't speak knowledgeably about global warming," she said. "I can only say, as a person that travels quite a bit and has seen a certain amount of life, that the world is changing. Our earth is becoming part garbage dump for our own crap.
"But in the face of that, there are a lot of beautiful things to be thankful for," she continued, "like the simplicity of what nature gives us when she's happy — a beautiful sky or a rainbow or rain upon our crops. Or art or camaraderie."
Smith said she's not a depressed person, though she does acknowledge that she's a little less energetic these days. Though she's considering limiting her touring in the future, she feels her voice and her ability to express herself through her music is stronger than ever.
"I'll take a page out of Michael Stipe's book and say, 'It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine,' " she said. "We just have to do better."
If you go
Patti Smith performs at 9 p.m. Saturday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Tickets are $35. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.
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