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I think a lot of artists, in whatever field, tend to operate through intuition — they know they want to do something but they can’t quite tell what it is until they have a forum for it, an audience. It’s like that Bob Dylan song “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” You’re always thinking: When am I gonna write this classic book that I have in my head?When am I gonna do this song that communicates the most to people?Between you, Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, and Lou Reed in the background … And Richard Hell and I weren’t even musicians, we were performers. Developing original material and not being confined by anything.Well, the thing is, we didn’t walk around saying that we were punk rockers. Richard Hell was a poet, and I came to rock ’n’ roll through poetry. There wasn’t any place to play for people who were off the grid.That brings me to the New York music scene of the mid-’70s.We think of it as being punk rock, as being raw and direct, but it was actually very literary.But I think the difference was, for one thing, Bob Dylan was alive.
It’s that kind of mental restlessness that keeps us going and keeps us working.You can see it when you’re standing on the street where Picasso painted , and all the streets are named after poets. There’s a connection — it’s still the same and you can still feel all of that.I wonder, when you were a teenager living in a small town, you weren’t taking the train to whatever the cool club was in 1970, or 1965 …Tom Verlaine is a really fine musician — he was an exception. And we weren’t just poets, we were people who loved poets, we were people who read all kinds of literature. And there wasn’t much difference in age between us, just a year or two. Unless it was a cabaret, but a lot of them had uptight rules. I interviewed Sonny Rollins once, and I asked him why, at age 82, he was still flying around the world playing when he could just hang out with his friends.And so the first tier of CBGB’s had a poetic nucleus. And the great thing about CBGB’s was — we just did what we wanted. It was a really great place for us to develop a vision that sometimes was only half-formed. It’s just about the work, and where it goes comes second. But for me my target has always been an imagined greatness: I want to do something really great, or I want to do something better than the last thing, or I want to get closer to doing something of worth. I basically said: “Why are you still working this hard? ” And he said, essentially: “Well, I am Sonny Rollins, but I’m not yet the Sonny Rollins I want to be.” Yeah, exactly, I can totally relate to that.
(It is based on a speech Smith gave at Yale and is part of Yale University Press’s ¤ SCOTT TIMBERG: So I want to talk to you about the new book and the inspiration that went into it.