Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Dark Eyes And A Sardonic Smile: Patti Smith On Working With Bob Dylan

I asked Patti Smith to talk about the time she worked with Bob Dylan. This is what she said.

I had finished Gone Again in memory of Fred [‘Sonic’ Smith, her late husband], and I really didn’t think about touring at all, since my children were in school, but I heard from Dylan in 1995, and he asked whether I wanted to do a series of East coast dates with him. And because they were very local I could easily take my kids or just be away for a night, so I decided to do that. It was my first tour in 16 years. We had my band, and Michael Stipe came with us to give us some moral support, because I hadn’t performed in so long I was a bit nervous. But Bob and I also had a mutual friend in Allen Ginsberg, who also encouraged me to go out to the world and get strong and receive the people’s energy, because I was at a very low point in my life.
Bob and I spoke privately and I thanked him for giving me the opportunity, and he really encouraged me to come back into the fold. He said the people would be happy to see me. I truthfully wasn’t certain how I would be received, or what I should do, and being encouraged by him was very important to me. I mean, Bob – the man I know – is a man of few words, but the words are always meaningful. And so that was very important. He was very encouraging to me about my place in the community of rock’n’roll.
Also, he gave me the opportunity to choose any song from his catalogue and we could do it together. So I looked through his lyric book, and I realised what a profound opportunity this was. This was somebody that I had adored and admired since I was 15 years old, giving me the opportunity to sing any one of his songs with him. So I chose Dark Eyes, and Bob and I sang it for the next several days. Ending, I believe, in Philadelphia, where I’m from.
It was really one of the great experiences of my life, singing the song with him. The people were so electric, and the concentration of the two of us on this very beautiful song under very hot lights – the sweat was dripping from our noses – and he’s so charismatic; he has so much mental and physical energy that performing with him is very special.
We didn’t rehearse. We just went over the song quickly in his dressing room, just to find a key. We just sort of did it on stage. We mapped it out, and he said ‘I’ll come in, and I’ll do a little guitar break, and come back in.’ On the last night, I doubled the end of the last chorus, without saying anything to him. And he looked at me, and said [sardonically] ‘good ending’.
I chose Dark Eyes because its one of his lesser known songs, and I just think the lyrics are very beautiful. They’re sort of in the tradition of Milton and Blake; the lyrics stand as a poem. Also, it’s a good song for my voice. It’s tonally dark. It would have been very obvious to do Highway 61 or something, or Like A Rolling Stone. It would have been fun, but I wanted to experience doing something beautiful with him. And it was beautiful.
I saw him occasionally on tour. He’s very private on the road and his organisation works very different to mine. I only have five band people and four crew, and we’re all a brotherhood. We all have the same tour-bus, we use the same dressing room. So our situation is a lot different than his, where there are a lot of rules, and people have their duties and their place, and it’s very complex and exact.
When you’re opening for any band, doesn’t matter who it is, I always respect the ground rules of the headlining person. But I saw him occasionally. We spoke when we needed to speak, and it was always a pleasure, and then we toured again in Australia, which was also a pleasure.
I saw him play most nights on the tour. I’m not much of a spectator, and after you perform you have a lot of adrenaline, but I watched a lot of his shows. He’s a charismatic performer. I mean, I saw Bob in 1963, with Joan Baez. I’ve seen him in many incarnations. I saw him in ’65, I’ve seen him many times, and he’s always interesting.
He changes his set each night, and he often changes the key or the rhythm of a song. He’s a singer-songwriter … I mean, he has a lot of magnetism, but we’re not similar in the way that we perform. I perform directly to the people and interact with the people, and he more concentrates on the music. And because he concentrates on the music, he’ll take a song, and in the same week, he’ll do it two or three different ways, because he’s highly creative and always restless. He doesn’t like the repetition of his own things. He often changes them up or finds a different way to present them. He doesn’t do the shows by rote. He shifts his set list. The people are interested anyway, and his other task is to keep things interesting for himself.
One of my favourite records he’s ever done is World Gone Wrong, which he did right before we toured. In fact I told him that his acoustic guitar playing on World Gone Wrong was just as good as anybody. The authenticity and the clarity of his playing, and the choice of songs, were beautiful. So, I love that album as much as I’ve love John Wesley Harding.


  1. Thanks for providing such a detailed account of how Patti interacted with Bob Dylan on the 1995 tour.

    If you get the chance to talk to Patti again, maybe you could ask her about the final night duet they did with the incredible performance of "Knocking On Heaven's Door."

  2. How interesting, I admire and listen still to both these artists, met them too. I was only 14 when I was left by my "protective" older sis at a cafe in the Village called "Reinzi's" with .35 cents, it was 1964. Sitting in the smoky dark on the floor against the wall was this scruffy little guy plucking on old strings attached to a Martin D-28. Saw Dave Van Ronk that night too, and didn't know the import of either till later. Patti I met at a concert in Hoboken (NJ) and got a date with Lenny Kaye. Peter Gabriel is a gentleman and smelled like Old Spice, Phil Collins made me nervous with all that happy energy, (met them at the Academy of Music in NY) now let's see..any other name-dropping I can do lol? Nuff's nuff. Thanks, found you via Tony @ Bench. Nice place here, perfect title.

  3. Thanks, Lawrence. If I ever get the chance, I'll ask her!

  4. Most interesting - nice to get a big unbroken chunk of speech from Patti. Thank you.

  5. growing up, i was a kid i had access to a bunch of hand me down vinyl. Buck Owens, Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, some Elvis...my aunt gave me a copy of Beach Boys Endless Summer that i just wore out. Another aunt had loads of 60's motown and spector 45's we coule listen to at her house. But i distinctly remember (i was likely 10 years old or so) the first time i walked into my local record store with cash in pocket to buy a new album of my very own choosing. I must not have had ANY idea of what was what.. Just looking at the cover art basically...but somehow,I finally decided on a PAtti Smith album (i can't remember which one...that detail is muddy). The only way i could have possibly known anything about her (and maybe i did not know a thing) was if maybe i'd seen her on SNL or Gilda's rocker spoof of her. But anyway, I carry my vinyl treasure up to the hippy at the checkout counter and this guy, A HIPPY, tells me he can't sell me the album without my parents permission! To be told this BY A HIPPY, that gave my 10-year old self pause. This record must be terribly evil for a hippy to say something like that. And i was too embarrassed to ask "Why?" and definitely too embarrassed to hail my mom into the discussion. So, i put the LP back in the bin and end up buying Springsteens BORN TO RUN instead. Talk about a rock-n-roll road not taken LOL
    A few years later i'm at home listening to the radio. This bluesy rocker. It has an almost live quality to the recording and I am REALLY liking it. "Who is this?" i thought. After the song finishes playing my local radio DJ comes on and says "That's GROOM STILL WAITING AT THE ALTER", some new music from Mr. Bob Dylan!". Truth be told, i wasn't familiar with Dylan, it was a name i vaguely associated with the "60's", like MLK and the Monkees and other things that weren't there anymore. it was probably news to me that he was still alive. To hear a song on the radio and decide for myself "Yes, I like this, who ever it might be." for myself was a beautiful gift from my local DJ. Hearing this song made me want to hear it again..so a few days later i return to the very same old record store and search through the LP bins for Dylan's new album. I found it (or thought i had, SHOT OF LOVE) but couldn't find any track listing that included GROOM STILL WAITING. Once again, I was too embarrassed to ask the HIPPY behind the counter about it(I'd developed a real distrust for retail hippys) and left without buying my first Bob Dylan album (another R&R road not taken LOL, turns out GROOM was only available as a B-side on a single)...and i moved on to other interests

    I wouldn't end up really getting into Dylan or Patti Smith music until much later - in the late 80's when they were both coincidentally at career lowpoints, almost invisible (and Patti pretty much retired)...

    So, maybe i just wasn't cut out for rock n roll, but let me tell you this. When PAtti Smith and Bob stepped up to sing Daark Eyes in Philly in 1995, I was there in the room motherf***rs!! you bet your ass i was! and it was like a breach had been healed in the space time continuum. HAHA..a soul-shaking experience as a concert goer that (because it was so personal to me). The performance itself was rough, I don't think i'll ever have a concert going moment that felt THAT GOOD. Hippy i forgive you.

  6. Thanks, Stevie.
    Cargocult - great story. Those hippy record shops guys were intimidating, weren't they?

  7. another welcome addition to bob dylans never ending bio.

    its all about the songs.