Watch a mischievous Patti Smith play the clarinet during an interview, 1979
Among all the genres on offer, rock and roll is known to be a storehouse of infamous musicians. Though they have gained a notorious reputation through various individual acts in life, there are a few screw-ups that are common to all. That said, interviews have often proven to be a major contributor to their scandalous status. Rock stars such as David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne, Tom Waits, James Brown and many more have given interviewers the hardest of times when on top form. In truth, there was no specific way one could have been prepared for a situation like this simply because these people were extremely unpredictable, flipping from discussions around the deepest philosophical topics or, instead, choosing not to answer questions at all.
Patti Smith was no exception in her days. During the mid-1970s, Smith formed a band initially with guitarist-bassist and rock archivist Lenny Kay, and expanded the group with the addition of Ivan Kral on guitar and bass, Jay Dee Daugherty on drums and Richard Sohl on piano. The band gained early exposure by performing live at various venues and Smith’s writing soon grabbed the attention of Bob Dylan who was present in the coffee house where the band played that night. Not only Dylan but also Clive Davis of Arista Records recognised their potential and signed them in 1975 and, from that moment, there was no looking back. By the end of the decade, Smith and her group were the talk of the town.
In 1979 after a live performance, Patti Smith and Richard Sohl were interviewed by the Rockpalast host Alan Bangs which remains Smith’s most mischievous interview to date. Alan asked Patti about ‘So Want to be a Rock and Roll Star’ with which they opened their act, wanting to know her take on the lines “Don’t forget who you are/You’re a rock & roll star.” Smith, looking away the whole time and completely zoned out, became obsessed with her image in the monitor and ignored the question twice. When Alan asked her not to look at it because it didn’t matter, she replied in a goofy way, “You know I am just a drug to myself.” After the monitor was removed, Smith began to talk in a serious manner as if she was going to answer the question this time. Instead, she said: “Well listen, I really hope you’ll forgive me Alan but…I am really very happy to be on television. When I get on TV, I get so excited …I just can’t control myself.”
Alan, who was clearly growing more irritated, then passed the question over to Richard Sohl who was standing next to Smith enjoying the encounter up until that point. Sohl was totally disinterested and, by the time he formed a sentence, Smith cut in and said jokingly: “Does he look like a rock and roll star? Look at this slip!” drawing laughter from the small crowd standing behind them. Right after that, she started playing the clarinet, interrupting Alan who was still valiantly trying to speak. In an interview which was spiralling into a farce, Smith went away and brought Lenny back with her, stating: “Lenny why don’t you talk to Alan…” Ultimately Lenny ended up answering all the questions meant for Smith who was happily playing the clarinet.
Of course, the funniest part of the exchange would be an excessively serious Alan Bangs, relentlessly attempting to translate all the gibberish Smith said into German. He kept asking the same question determined to get an answer. The relief he felt when Lenny finally answered it could be clearly seen on his face. Guess we will never know what other questions he had lined up!