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.