In it for the love of learning

At 65, Patti Smith sees no reason to slow down, writes Jane Rocca.

PATTI Smith might be the quintessential godmother of punk rock, but she's more like the scholarly aunt who brings poetry, history and religion to the table on her 11th studio album, Banga.

The day she speaks to EG from her record label's Manhattan office, Smith reveals it's Mikhail Bulgakov's 121st birthday. He's the reason she named the record Banga - after the dog in the Russian novelist's acclaimed The Master and the Margarita. Banga was a loyal dog that belonged to Pontius Pilate.

US rock singer and poet Patti Smith poses with her vintage Polaroid camera.
US rock singer and poet Patti Smith poses with her vintage Polaroid camera. Photo: AFP

''He stood by his master for some 2000 years, surely Banga deserved a song by now,'' Smith says, explaining that Pilate waited that many years to talk to Jesus Christ with the loyal canine always by his side.

And like Pilate, Smith surrounds herself with those she can trust - including long-term collaborator Lenny Kaye and Television's frontman Tom Verlaine - to perfect an album held by loose jazz, scraping guitars, classical strings and her signature spoken-word drone.

At 65, Smith sees no reason to slow down. In fact, in her most complex work to date she brings forth studies of Christian mysticism and history with her own poetic interpretation.

Smith began writing poetry in her teens, took up photography soon after and made her debut album, Horses, in 1975 in her late 20s. She floated on the edge of New York's punk scene but when she joined, brought an intellectual verve.

In between 2007's covers album Twelve and Banga, Smith toured Russia and Italy with her band. She and Kaye also joined filmmaker Jean Luc Goddard on a cruise while he was making Film Socialisme, in which Smith appears.

The touring and seaside trips led her to mapping Banga, with everyone from Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol to fresco painter Piero della Francesca inspiring her songs.

In fact, while in Italy in 2008, Smith went on a pilgrimage to explore the life of Saint Francis. This in turn inspired the song Constantine's Dream, which features a local Italian band, Casa del Vento, playing on the track.

''The intensity of this time really drew me to wanting to understand what was happening in the life of Saint Francis, we visited his tomb, saw where he spent time. It was mind-blowing,'' she says.

''I guess you could say I try to one-up myself constantly and I am always interested in something new. I love learning, that's what I am here on this earth to do,'' says Smith, who was raised a Jehovah's Witness but disassociated as a teen.

Her son Jackson and daughter Jesse appear throughout the album, but the trio performs a moving cover of Neil Young's After the Gold Rush.

''Jesse plays McCoy Tyner-style piano and the guitar gets a good jazz run on that song,'' Smith says. ''This is a beautiful performance of us playing live together. We have loved and lost so much together as a family, this song really feels special to me.''

In 2010, Smith won the National Book Prize for her memoir Just Kids - a touching story about her love and life with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe - and plans to write another about her late husband, guitarist Fred ''Sonic'' Smith, who died of heart failure in 1994.

''When I think of people who are no longer here, they are always with me. I don't think of my parents and Fred as the past. They are part of my everyday thoughts and always there,'' she says. ''It's like religion. You don't just think about God on a Sunday, he is always with you. They were extraordinary people and their story needs to be told.''

Banga is out next Friday through Sony.