Patti Smith talks Pathway to Paris and why people truly have the power

Lyndsey Parker
Patti Smith performs in 2010. (Photo: Francois Durand/Getty Images)

When punk-rock legend Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Patti Smith plays the Theatre at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on Sept. 16 at a benefit concert for Pathway to Paris — a climate change nonprofit, founded by her 31-year-old musician daughter Jesse Paris Smith and Canadian cellist Rebecca Foon, focused on turning the Paris Agreement into reality — one of the highlights of her set will no doubt be “People Have the Power.” Patti penned the positivity anthem with her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of Detroit’s political protopunk band MC5, 30 years ago, but the song is more relevant now than ever. Patti tells Yahoo Entertainment that Fred, who died in 1994 and would have turned 70 this week, would be happy to see its message embraced by the masses.

“‘People Have the Power’ was Fred’s title. Fred was very politically aware, and he wanted to write a song that was anthemic but also appealed to a grassroots level,” says Patti, whose National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids is being re-released as an illustrated edition on Oct. 23. “He brought me the title and asked me to write lyrics. I thought a lot about it, and the song has three tiers: The first relates to environment, the second to war, and the third to prejudice. The idea is the song is like a dream of what could happen if the people took the power, took hold of the power that they have — that they could make significant change in our environment, they could create a massive antiwar/anti-nuclear movement, that they can open their hearts to one another. Idealistic or not, these are essential human issues.

“What Fred hoped was that it was a song that people could use all over the world for their concerns about injustice, human rights, that they could use it in celebration and protest. And he didn’t live long enough to see that happen, but it certainly has happened. I have marched all over the world with people in front of me with banners that said ‘People Have the Power’ and have quoted the song or were singing it, and they had no idea that my husband and I wrote it. And that made it all the more meaningful. I’ve sung it with U2; I’ve heard U2 sing it. Vote for Change used it [with Bruce Springsteen covering the song], and Eddie Vedder sang it before Obama’s last speech in Chicago. Fred’s dream of the song being of universal value to the people has come to pass.”


Patti combined art with activism from an early age — performing at campaign rallies, human rights events, and antiwar protests throughout her career — and she and Fred instilled their spirit of activism in their children, if only by setting an example. “My father died when I was 7, but as I got older, just watching my mom on my own and seeing her [speak out about issues like] Iraq, and watching footage of my dad’s band and how they were using music as a platform to talk about political issues — just their work and seeing firsthand what they were doing was very inspiring,” says Jesse, who co-founded Pathways to Paris with Foon in 2014 after feeling fired up by New York’s People’s Climate March (the largest march for climate change in history, with an estimated 311,000 participants).

“It’s important to move out of fear and into active solutions,” says Foon. “We really believe music can really be an inspiration, a tool for building a movement.”

“Climate change is the most critical issue of our time. It’s such an urgent crisis. It really requires world peace,” says Jesse, echoing the sentiments of “People Have the Power” as she adds: “We need to all come to together to solve it. The second I learned about [climate change] as a teenager, it was a no-brainer — like, ‘Of course, this is absolutely terrifying, and I have to do this. If I don’t do anything, if I don’t devote my life to it, then I’m just saying it’s OK and normalizing it.’ It’s all our responsibility. We have to do something.”

The elder Smith is clearly proud of her daughter’s achievements with Pathway to Paris and has hope that Jesse’s generation can keep our planet and the spirit of “People Have the Power” alive. “We have to look to the young, to the new generations — to put it in the simplest terms — to save our world, to rebuild our world,” Patti, age 71, tells Yahoo. “It’s like, we [older citizens] haven’t done a very good job. And our current president is my generation. [Donald Trump] and I are the same age! And it’s appalling to see, when I think of all the hopes and dreams and idealism from my generation, that is who is representing us, is probably the worst of my generation. And that’s our president. We have to do all that we can and look to the future, look to our young.

“It’s like that old Crosby, Stills & Nash song: It starts, ‘Teach your children well,’ and then it ends with ‘Teach your parents well,’” says Patti. “And I feel that’s what my daughter is doing. I’m turning the page from her book.”

The Pathway to Paris concert will feature a lineup that includes both Smith women, Foon, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, Eric Burdon, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Dhani Harrison, Talib Kweli, and speaker Bill McKibben from 350.org. Read on for more of Yahoo Entertainment’s conversation with Patti Smith, and go to PathwayToParis.com for more information on the concert and the organization’s efforts.

Yahoo Entertainment: Do you feel artists have a responsibility or even an obligation to speak out, whether it’s about climate change or other issues that concern them?

Patti Smith: Well, I’ve always had the attitude that all people have the obligation. I don’t think that artists have any more obligation than anyone else. I think everyone has an obligation and everyone has different ways they can contribute. Artists can contribute by inspiring or inciting the people. Sometimes, if an artist has a strong public name, they can perhaps draw more attention to something. But I think that climate change and, in fact, all the things that affect all our people, is all of our responsibility.

During the Vietnam war, artists and musicians were important in helping to inspire the people. I was a young girl when I heard Neil Young’s song “Ohio” and realized what was going on, and it inspired and pushed me to work harder and to march. But it’s not up to artists; it’s up to the people. When I do something, I don’t do it as an “artist.” I do it as a human being. I think of myself, I’m a mother, I’m a human being, and these are humanist causes. And I think that we’re all responsible, and we all can make a contribution, no matter how small. Every contribution, one link to another, makes a difference.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t think artists have a strong responsibility. Not only do we have a responsibility, artists have a unique opportunity, and hopefully they’ll use it. I remember, years and years ago, hearing Richard Gere speak about that — that if you have a name, if you have a certain amount of celebrity, if you can use that name to help inspire or further a cause, whether it was to assist in, as he was, human rights issues in Tibet, or whatever that cause may be. I think yes, it’s important that artists wake up and be aware and contribute, but I think that artists themselves cannot make change. The people make change. A handful of artists can vote, but it’s the people, the masses who turn the vote one way or the other.

Tell me more about Pathway to Paris.

It was started by two young girls as a citizen’s action, a simple citizen action, in New York a few years ago. And they have built it without any push from any certain people. They came up with these ideas themselves, these initiatives themselves, and went and supported. Their concerns about climate change are deep. They connected with [environmentalist] Bill McKibben. They connected with the U.N. They have done all of this on their own and keep building the people that are working with them. When we do concerts, it’s not a rock concert where you forget why you’re there. Yes, all the music is there, and one goes to a concert to be lifted and to be entertained, but their concerts also include some of the most important voices in climate change, and political voices and artists and international artists — because they want people to go away from the concert not only feeling inspired or fulfilled, but having some civic tools, and perhaps have some ideas on how they can contribute.

To quote Crosby, Stills & Nash again, you did teach your child well.

Oh, she’s teaching me, believe me!

Patti and Jesse Paris Smith. (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s crazy to think of you and Trump as being from the same world, being the same age.

We’re just months apart.

But you are worlds apart.

Well, I would hope planets apart. Universes apart! [laughs]

I’ve read both your memoirs, and particularly with Just Kids, it seems in some ways that was a more dangerous time, but in other ways, it was a much more innocent time. So how did things change? After all that progress and revolution and idealism, now it seems like society is regressing.

I don’t know how these things happen. Corruption upon corruption, dissatisfaction, people becoming more materialistic, people more frustrated. However you can account for it, there’s so many things that make this environment that we’re living in so much more troubling. And I don’t just mean the “environment” in terms of our water, our air, and our land. It’s just, it’s almost like dark things were done secretively and then they were exposed. Now dark things are done openly and nobody seems to care, or it doesn’t seem to matter. They keep happening. I mean, we wake up every day and have to read with either guilt, remorse, shame, embarrassment, or anger what our president is twitting, twittering — sorry, I don’t use Twitter. Every single day, this last year, I feel sometimes hijacked by this atmosphere. I have to make myself put it in a compartment for some parts of the day so I can do my work, so I can remain optimistic, so I can maintain my joy for being alive. And I’m sure many, many people feel like this. It’s exhausting. But we have to get up in the morning and figure out, every single day, what we can do to make things better, or at least to emanate some positive energy.

And in terms of the world we live in, when I was young, when Robert [Mapplethorpe] and I were young, we didn’t have a TV. We didn’t have any of this technology. We didn’t have a phone. We didn’t have a credit card. If we wanted something, and if we were hungry and if we didn’t have money, we didn’t eat — unless I was clever enough to figure out how to steal some chicken wings from a bar that had happy hour! I mean, we really didn’t eat. And I’m not saying that like we were suffering; I’m simply saying those were the rules. And now, it’s just like the rules are, no matter what economic structure you live in, your kids, to be connected, they need a computer, they need a cellphone. Just to go out the door, they need a phone charger. And I’m not even criticizing any of it, I’m just simply saying it’s a whole different world economically, the economic structure in terms of our just simple freedoms. People are walking around, doing their job all day long and all night on their phone with something plugged in their ear, drinking their coffee with something plugged in their ear. The streets feel continuously agitated, and it’s all about moving toward… like ants building this structure, for what? What are we doing? To what end? To make more money? To get more stuff?

It’s particularly exhausting nowadays, because every time you plug in, you are hit with a barrage of bad news. I know when I go on Facebook, for instance, I log off feeling worse than I did before.

All of these things are agitating. But in terms of our world, the idea that we’re moving toward a time where we might not have any water that’s not polluted in some way, that the air, no matter where you go, is polluted from natural disasters, from chemicals — these are all real things. I mean, I travel all over the world, I’ve been traveling for decades, and it’s changed so much just in the last 10 years, where you go to Paris in the spring and it’s 90 degrees, or you go to Portland and it’s 104, and there used to be one historic hurricane once every two decades and now there are cluster disasters. I mean, our world is changing. Have you been to Greenland and seen the spectacular icebergs 15, 20 years ago? They’re all melting and turning weird colors from a very unhealthy algae. Instead of magnificent white structures that are as big as a city, they look like skeletons that are tinged with this weird greenish-blue color. I mean, that’s all real. And people can say, “Well, we’re fine,” but all these things have reverberations.

I remember, 20 years ago, some of us were helping the Dalai Lama with something and then we were sitting around talking to him, and we were allowed to ask him questions. And I remember someone asked him, “What is the No. 1 thing that young people can do to help our world, of all things?” And without missing a beat, he said, “You have to be attentive to the environment. You have to be attentive to climate change. You have to do something to make people aware of that. You have to inspire people to change their habits.” He said he has to not think about the personal or things that just relate to his own history, but look at things humanistically: What’s the most important thing that is going touch every single person? And this gets back to your first question about an artist being active, or who has the most responsibility. Climate change is going to eventually touch every human being. Every human being has a responsibility to respond in some way.

Something that you often say as a mantra in your concerts is “Use your voice.” How can your fans, or people in general who don’t have the platform you have, use their voices for the greater good?

Well, my daughter’s own website, PathwayToParis.com, gives citizens tools, tells them what they can do, from very small things to more aggressive things. I can’t be the one to tell people how to perform their civic duties or their personal duties. I just do what I can do, and each person does what they can do. Maybe it’s a very small thing, or maybe it’s going to make a huge legislative change. Go to the people. Go to 350.org, because Bill McKibben has answers in terms of climate change to these questions.

And in terms of everything else, I would just say that each of us, we each have one life, and we cherish the lives around us. We cherish our family. We cherish our children. We cherish life itself, and I think in these times that are so dark and seem so overwhelming, partially because also the social media and the media in general, we’re being bombarded, and also by our own government, bombarded, bombarded with so much conflict, so much negativity, so many fear-inducing statements or news, that we just have to find some way every day to be grateful to be alive, to be grateful for what we have, and try to just take a beat every day. I know that sounds so simple, and it’s not a religious or philosophic thing. It’s just a human thing. It’s really hard starting the day quick looking to see what bad thing has happened [on the news]. So start the day, drink a glass of water, think about what you want to do today, think about what makes you happy. Any small thing to start the day feeling some energy for and enthusiasm for life, because it’s so easy to get beaten down as soon as you wake up. And that’s what I do, because I felt myself getting caught in that loop, starting with the election process. I admit that, and I’m not usually a person that can be brought down or made anxious. And we have to fight that, because it becomes its own addiction. We have to fight that inclination and try to enter the day just glad to be alive, because no matter what is the stuff is going on around us, it’s beautiful to be alive.

We only have [one life]. This is what we have. Despite our belief system, if one believes in afterlife, resurrection, or all these things, right now on Earth, this is the life that we have. And there’s so much beauty and so much wondrous things. We have to find a way to save a little for ourselves every day. And remind ourselves why it’s beautiful to be alive. Go to the botanical gardens and look and think, “This is what we want to preserve.” Go to the river and say, “This is what we want to be clean.”

I hear that appreciation in your voice. You seem to always have a positive attitude about life, and gratitude even in the face of aging or loss.

Getting older does have it challenges. It has its physical challenges. The changes in your looks, in the fluidity of your movements. But really, nature does other things for you. It makes you become more empathetic. Also one’s sense of humor gets stronger, as does your holistic comprehension of the world. [Aging] gives us the ability to step back and observe and not continuously place ourselves in the center of the universe, and understand that it’s all right not to be in the center of the universe — that the universe is infinitely interesting, wherever you’re standing.

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