Patti Smith discusses activism in the age of Trump: ‘I’m not going down with the ship, that’s for certain’

Patti Smith photographed in New York City, 2014.
Patti Smith photographed in New York City, 2014.
(Jesse Dittmar / For The Times)

Patti Smith is speaking from a pasture in Brittany, France, she explains by way of apology at the beginning of a recent phone conversation. The musician, poet, memoirist and activist is about an hour out from showtime there, a period that she uses to ground herself before taking the stage.

Given her setting, she’s answering questions with a caveat:

“There’s nothing like sitting in a big field with cows roaming around to make you not as politically articulate as you should be,” she says. “I’m looking over here at these cows, and it’s so abstract.”

Smith is talking among the herd in advance of her performance on Sunday at the Theatre at Ace Hotel as part of a benefit for Pathway to Paris, a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to encourage collaboration “between musicians, artists, sustainability consultants, cities and activists to highlight solutions to climate change.”


She’ll be joined by a roster of musicians including the bassist Flea, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ singer Karen O, rapper Talib Kweli, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and guitarist and Beatles offspring Dhani Harrison.

Founded by Smith’s daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, and the Canadian cellist and composer Rebecca Foon (who will also perform), Pathway to Paris formed with an initial goal of helping to ensure the success of the 2015 Paris Agreement. When the Trump administration announced its intention to exit the accord, the organization vowed to carry on.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I’d imagine you get approached all the time about participating in noble causes. Besides the obvious connection of your daughter’s involvement, why Pathway to Paris now?

I travel all over the world, and I’m seeing the effects of climate change. Every city I go to is completely different. I was just in Cambridge, England, where their beautiful green fields in front of Cambridge University are just completely burnt out. They’ve never been like this in most peoples’ lifetimes.

And that’s just one place. Everywhere we go, there’s the intense heat or intense flooding. Terrible fires in Portugal. Terrible fires in Spain. You go to Greenland and the icebergs are melting. These are all places that I go to, that I’m seeing such heartbreaking shifts.

But there’s another reason. I think it’s very, very important for older generations to support the initiatives of our young. It’s not just that Jesse is my daughter. She’s part of a new generation that is aware and unified and up against so many odds. She was doing work to make the Paris Agreement a real thing, and then the president of her country withdraws from it.


You’ve long used your platform to speak out. Do you feel more urgency now?

I did a concert in Cologne and Joan Baez joined me. We sang “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” together, and we were both in tears singing because a lot of these concerns are within the lyrics of that song. And Joan Baez is fearless. To hear her really that worried about our future environmentally — we were confiding in each other, really, that we both are concerned with our grandchildren.

Older generations have witnessed the changes firsthand.

I’m talking about all generations, but we put our faith on our youth. And to me, to give them some support — which right now is something as small as a concert is a way to show some unity, come together through music, through activism —supporting a universal cause that a lot of our young people are embracing. And thank God they are.

Has today’s political climate shifted your priorities?

Well, I think, like anyone else, it can be debilitating. It can be depleting, humiliating, every single day. It’s amazing that there’s not a single day that goes by that something is said — our so-called president carries things out in such a way that he can’t make one gesture without trying to magnify himself.


Truthfully, I have found it so difficult. But my philosophy has been in the last several months just to do my work. I keep attentive to what is going on — I know exactly what’s going on on the news. But I have to put it in a certain place, because I’m 71 years old. I have a lot of work to do — a lot of positive work to do. And I think that if I can’t change the things that are happening right now, what I can do is just resonate positivity, strength, unity, individuality.

I’m not burying my head in the sand, but I am reserving the right to be able to do my work. I’m not going down with the ship, that’s for certain.

Jesse’s more articulate about these things. I’m a simple humanist. I do things because I know they’re right. I know it’s important. I don’t have all the language. I don’t know all the political implications. But I do know I believe in what they’re doing, and I believe in our young. We have to have their backs.

What do you think your role should be?

You know, when others articulate things in a strong and dignified manner, we have to magnify that type of response. In the end, no matter how bad things get I always believe that good will prevail. So I just try and do as much good work as I possibly can from the smallest gesture on, and that’s why I am supporting my daughter’s work.

All I can say is, focus on the good that you can do. We want a pandemic of good. We want a pandemic of positive change. I think that we all just have to find each other, step through the mire, find each other, support each other and do good work.



Pathways to Paris concert featuring Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, Talib Kweli, Karen O, Eric Burdon and more.

When: Sunday, 7 p.m.

Where: Theatre at Ace Hotel, 929 S Broadway.

Tickets: $39.50-$99.50


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