Patti Smith & Lenny Kaye on Her 1975 Debut Album Horses, Healthy Regimens, and Finding Joy

Interviews, KEXP 50
Janice Headley
Lenny Kaye, DJ Kevin Cole, and Patti Smith in the KEXP Studios, 2005

It’s KEXP’s 50th anniversary, and to celebrate we’re taking an in-depth look at each year of our history – from 1972 to 2022. All year long we’ll be bouncing around the timeline, pulling out the best music from a different year each week – and this week, we're looking at 1975, the year that Godmother of Punk Patti Smith released her debut solo album Horses.

Back in 2005, Smith and her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye stopped by the KEXP studios for an intimate in-studio session hosted by DJ Kevin Cole. At the time, the pair were on tour, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the album. As we look back at 1975, let's also reflect on this very special KEXP session. Listen to the complete hour-long session (including music) via the American Archives of Public Broadcasting, and read excerpts from their chat below:

On Horses

KEXP: You and Lenny are playing tonight at the Crocodile Cafe, and I think it coincides with the 30th anniversary of Horses. When I play that record, I get folks either in exclamation points just saying thank you or folks calling and writing like, who was that? How does it feel to have such a remarkable piece of work?

Patti Smith: Well, I'm just... I'm happy [laughs] and I'm happy that people are still interested in it, and I'm proud to be a part of it. And actually, maybe Lenny would like to answer that. 

Lenny Kaye: Well, it's just great to be remembered, you know, to have the work that you do. We are workers. We tend to judge ourselves by the quality of the work that we do and when it leaves our hands and gets out into the realm of the people, that to see what they make of it and see how they take it further and make it evolve. 

Some artists have a hard time listening to any of their work and seem to lose perspective on it. I don't know if you have perspective on the impact that that record had and and how that might make either you feel. 

Patti: Well, I don't really think about that because that would be kind of conceited. But when people say that, you know, the record means something to them or helped them get through some period of life or inspired them, I'm really happy because I know what other records have meant to me and how they've helped me get through a rough adolescence, or a difficult period or just, you know, just gave me real joy. The way I get around listening to the records is, I always think of them as being the band's records. So, I listen to them. [Laughs] And that makes it more pleasurable.

You can take your own ego out of it. That's funny. 

Patti: [Laughing] Oh, definitely. 

Lenny [to Patti]: And I listen to you

Patti: Well, there you go. 

Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye at CBGB's in New York City on April 04, 1975 // photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns


On Inspiration and Being an Artist

When you started playing rock music, in part, you were making the battle cry to save rock and roll. And I think you actually said that. Do you feel like you did? 

Patti: What our real battle cry was, not so much to save rock and roll, but to inspire people to save it, to inspire people to remember its full range of possibilities. Being our cultural voice, our poetic voice, our revolutionary voice, our sexual voice. And I think that was our true mission, was to rally others. And I think that we were successful in rallying. In terms of saving it ourselves, that was never really our mission, but to have a part in reminding people of its great possibilities, I think that we did our job. 

You did your job fantastic. From documented situations like somebody like [R.E.M.'s] Michael Stipe saying that at age 15, he heard Horses and that pretty much changed his life. He made a decision to become a musician, too. Through an interview right around that era, you were talking about [poet] Arthur Rimbaud and that inspired me to find out who is this person, and read books that I probably would have never read before. So, thank you for that. 

Patti: Oh, thanks. I think that's important that we all do that. I mean, I learned about [singer/actress] Lotte Lenya from seeing her on the cover of [Bob Dylan's 1965 album] Bringing it All Back Home. We all share our references and the myth makers and the spiritual voices of, you know, poetry and music. To me, it's part of the thing that makes it worthwhile, makes it exciting. 

Talking about influences and your influence on others, at this point in your career, do you still have mentors or people that you consider really influential in how you approach your work today? 

Patti: I don't really think of people so much in terms of "my mentors." I just try to learn from whoever I can. I mean, I listen to [opera singer] Maria Callas all day long, learning from her and how I apply what I learn is up to me. Could be Picasso, it could be my own kids. There's always some place we can learn from. There's always something we can learn, whether it's the Dalai Lama or our mom and dad. There's a lot of wisdom out there and we got to keep ourselves open. 

Speaking of your mom and dad, what influence did they have on your attitudes and philosophy as you became an artist? And were you supported in that drive early on, because you were pretty rebellious as an artist.

Patti: Well, my parents, essentially what was important to them is that all of us were good people, that we were non-biased, that we were compassionate and hard working in whatever we do. So whether it was to be a laborer or somebody creative, they were supportive, but they were supportive first in that they wanted to see us be decent human beings. And my mom, of course, was one of my biggest supporters. And as she always said, whenever she had to clean the house, she would just put on "Rock N Roll N*gger" and clean away 

The jolt she needed. [laughs] How about you, Lenny? At this point, what inspires you? 

Lenny: The endless complexities of the six strings that I play. I still find more and new things. I'm just open to all kinds of music. There's so many musics and great musical words in this universe, and I just, you know, wish I had enough time to explore them all. I just kind of wander around it. Well, I love Arabic music. I love the great Be-Boppers. As you continue to be in this world that we call art, there's so many different places to visit and they all inspire and inform you. 

Does it take discipline to keep the spark in the creative process alive? Or are there natural lulls? Or does that wax and wane for you? And at times, do you have to dig really hard and deeper, or does it just kind of flow? That's for both you. 

Patti: I guess all of those scenarios apply. But I think the main one is that, it's hard work. You have to spend a lot of time in contemplation, frustration, trying to be patient, and study. And then there are, of course, those moments that are like gifts where you're just totally open and you're almost like a vessel and a poem comes to you or a piece of music. So I guess, you know, an artist has to be willing both to physically sacrifice to labor, but also has to try to remain open and accept things that one will channel from whatever realm, you know, whether it's from the Great Consciousness pool or what people call God, or just the energy in the air. But, you have to sort of find a balance between openness and discipline. And that's the continuous, I guess, struggle and dilemma of the artist. But you have to be willing to work hard. 

Lenny: I feel lucky enough that if I seem to have reached a plateau in one of the arts that I practice, I can move on to another side of my brain. I like the writing gene and I like the musical gene. And sometimes if you've explored one, it's nice to have the other one to go to because it'll say, you haven't, you know, paid enough attention to me. And, sometimes you can even get them to interact one, inform the other. 

Use it or lose it kind of deal. 

Lenny: There's many ways in which to create. And, you know, if you just find the song or the piece of writing in your heart, it's the joy, really? 

Patti Smith at the Neptune Theatre, 2013 // photo by Brittany Bollay (view set)


On Self-Care

I always like to get listeners involved in the show if I can, so I have some questions that some listeners sent in to ask you, if you don't mind. 

Patti: Sure. OK. 

This is a good one here. This is from Marla listening in Seattle, she says, "Every time I've seen Patti live, she always mentions dental hygiene, and she encourages the audience to brush and floss regularly. And in fact, in Michael Stipe's photo book of her on tour, there's a picture of her brushing her teeth. Please ask her to elaborate." 

Patti: Well, I mean, there's nothing much to elaborate. I will say that for my generation, dental hygiene was not in the forefront. Dentistry was pretty barbaric and scary and very painful. So a lot of kids from my generation have a lot of teeth and gum problems, and I will tell you that having these problems is distracting, costly, painful, and you can even get sick, you know? I mean, I didn't know about this stuff when I was younger, nobody told me. And really, if you just get your teeth professionally cleaned, you know, once or twice a year, you'll keep your teeth longer and it'll just alleviate a lot of problems. No one can imagine how debilitating and how costly and how draining teeth problems are. So, I know that it might seem like a really simple thing, but I swear to you, it's worth the effort. And you know, it's all part of my program anyway, that we all, in order to do our work, take good care of ourselves. And you know, it's one of these simple things that if we just have a little regiment, you know, these small regiments: drinkin' extra water, cutting down salt and fat and sugars and doing a little exercise, just small things, you know. You just feel better and be able to do your work better. So, I still stand behind dental hygiene. 

When you talk about your program, you know, like eating well, exercising a bit, this and that that you just mentioned, have you pretty much abided by that throughout your career? 

Patti: As soon as I got to a point where I realized that these things have their resonance. I mean, even as our band on the road, we always would do little exercises. It's just disciplines, imposing disciplines on yourself. I mean, look at our country right now. People aren't imposing discipline on themselves. They're feeding their kids tons of fast food and sugars and stuff. We have an obesity problem in our country. We have children suffering hypertension and diabetes. These are not childhood diseases, they come from simply really poor nutrition, fast food. You can't even call it nutrition — It's just shoveling things that are harmful into somebody. I don't have any particular philosophy. I mean, I'm not a vegetarian or anything like that. I just try to use common sense. And there is a extreme lack of common sense in our country right now in terms of taking care of oneself. 

This question comes from Sarah listening in Portland. She says, "Patti, I love your music. Thank you for all you've done. You're such an intense person. What do you do to chill out? Do you have any favorite TV shows, sports teams, or do you do any exercise?"

Patti: Well, I don't watch that much TV, though. I like the Chris Carter programs, you know, I like The X-Files. Like, I'll watch the reruns of The X-Files or Millennium. I really loved this Carnivàle show. In the '80s, I was really plunged into sorrow when they took off Kung Fu Theater.

I like to read, you know, I like to take pictures. I have an old Polaroid camera. I like to just take walks and take pictures, take pictures of the architecture, the falling leaves. For me, I like to work and usually I'm working on something. I guess if I thought of, you know, when I really, really, really need to get away from everything, I always go by the sea, even if it's just taking a train. You know, in New York City, if you take the F train to the end of the line, you get to Coney Island and you can be near the ocean. And so I think being near the sea is what I like. What do you like, Lenny? How do you relax? 

Lenny: I usually go to a Record Fair and zone out. [Laughing] And I like to watch EastEnders. Me and my wife, it's our true pleasure. It's the English soap opera that is really not like an American soap opera. And they they show it, you know, five hours a week now on our PBS. So, it's almost a full time job keeping up. But it really is nice to enter another universe. 

That's right. Sometimes you just need to detach and decompress. 

Patti: Oh, I know one thing I like to do. I like to listen to opera records. In fact, right now I'm into Parsifal. I forgot about that. When I'm home, I'll just like prop up my pillows and put on Parsifal and just listen to it. 



On Joy

Where do you get your greatest joy? 

Patti: I don't know. There's so much stuff I like. I might just get joy because, you know, I'm walking down the street in New York and the sun's going down. And all of a sudden, the sky looks really beautiful or the way the light is on the buildings. You know, sort of moseying upstairs and hearing my daughter play piano. Just writing a new poem that I feel articulates the things that I wanted it to articulate. Finding a new book. Getting a phone call from my sister... You know, just lots of stuff. I mean, every day there's stuff, you know? Life is really beautiful and there's so much terrible things happening in our world right now. And you know, so much strife, the people suffering, the whims of nature and disease and poverty. And the stupidity of our governments and the greed of corporations. But there's also so many beautiful things, so many simple, beautiful things to be happy about. 

It's so true. How do you, as a citizen and as an artist, deal with the the things in the world that aren't so beautiful? 

Patti: One is active, if they can be. One can take the streets and protest and speak out. Sometimes all we can do is say a prayer. Keep people in their situations, in our consciousness. I think it's important that one does their work, you know? The Dalai Lama has said, things that are just too big or out of one's control, sometimes you have to let that go or just trust in, you know, God and nature and human nature that we will figure things out, and just work on the things we can control. And in that way, if we all worked on the things that we can control, that could possibly resonate and we can create a stronger network of positivity. I think that for us all to feel so depressed and overwhelmed about the situation in the world that we just retreat, we're not going to meet each other. We're not going to connect and therefore build a stronger infrastructure. So we have to, you know, do what we can. But I think it's really important if we can't do anything directly, keep people in their situations alive in our consciousness. We have to remember that there is suffering happening as we're going on in our daily tasks, but we still have to do our daily tasks. So we have to be both cognizant and vigilant, but also do what we have to do. 

I think that for us all to feel so depressed and overwhelmed about the situation in the world that we just retreat, we're not going to meet each other. We're not going to connect and therefore build a stronger infrastructure.  

— Patti Smith

Tell me a little more about that, keeping thoughts of those folks in mind while you're doing what you're doing. I wanted to ask you about the esoteric thought, like in Sanskrit mantras, for example. There's the thought that words have power, but also the vibration of the words have their own power. As a poet, do you believe that? What do you think of the vibration of words and thought? 

Patti: I believe in that in various ways. I mean, I believe in it, in terms of creativity and how we communicate to one another. But also there's, for instance, the Tibetan way of praying where they'll turn huge prayer wheels for nature, for peace. They will turn and turn these great wheels and send out the language of prayer through the air. And I find that a beautiful thing. And I think that the power of the word is well known, and we can exercise it directly and exercise it in a activist way by protesting and and speaking out, but we can also exercise it in a more a less direct, but I think also affecting way, in the healing way, sending out prayers or, you know, thoughts. And you know, it's all very abstract and it has to do with one's personal belief system and a certain amount of trust in musical or poetic vibrations. We have to have all of these things happening at once. You know, obviously, if we were all sitting in fields, meditating prayers, it's a beautiful thing and I'm sure could, you know, cause everyone to levitate. But we also have to be active, you know, so all types of communicating the greatest aspects of language are needed. 

Positive energy... Is that what you're getting at in "People Have the Power" and turning the Earth's revolution? 

Patti: Well, yeah, I believe that. "People Have the Power" was my late husband's [Fred "Sonic" Smith, former guitar player for the MC5] phrase, and he asked me to write lyrics based on that phrase. And I will always believe that the people do have the power. They just have to exercise it. People keep saying to me, "When you look at the world right now, do you still believe that?" Absolutely. I believe it. I just believe that we aren't exercising it. The people outnumber the government. They outnumber corporations, they outnumber the people who have moral authority, outnumber the greedy and the evil. They just don't exercise their powers. They don't animate them. And I think when we remind ourselves of the possibilities of animating our our powers, we will get a lot more done and hopefully new generations will do that and and take back our world. 

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