Patti Smith’s Musical Tributes to the Russian Greats: Tarkovsky, Gogol & Bulgakov

In 2010, Pat­ti Smith won a Nation­al Book Award for her mem­oir Just Kids, mak­ing her, by my count, the only Rock and Roll Hall of Fame mem­ber to land that prize. Of course, she’s also the only per­son I can think of who has appeared in both a movie by Jean-Luc Godard (Film Social­isme) and an episode of Law and Order. And she’s def­i­nite­ly the only rock­er out there who has a per­son­al invite from the Pope to play at the Vat­i­can.

Back in the mid-‘70s, Smith fused the noise and urgency of punk rock with spo­ken word poet­ry and cre­at­ed some­thing unlike any­thing before or since. She per­formed with such inten­si­ty on stage that she looked like a mod­ern day shaman in the midst of an ecsta­t­ic rev­el­ry. Yet she had a lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­i­ty that made her stand apart from most of her fel­low pro­to-punks at CBG­Bs. (The Ramones are awe­some but no one is going to parse the lyrics of “Beat on the Brat with a Base­ball Bat.”) The B‑side track of Smith’s first sin­gle, “Piss Fac­to­ry,” describes the unre­lent­ing tedi­um she expe­ri­enced work­ing at a fac­to­ry before she swiped a copy of Illu­mi­na­tions by French poet Arthur Rim­baud.

While mak­ing Film Social­isme with Godard, she con­ceived of her lat­est album, Ban­ga, released in 2012. When she start­ed writ­ing songs, she was, as she said in an inter­view, very inter­est­ed in Russ­ian cul­ture.

I like my trav­els to be akin with my stud­ies, and so when I start­ed being smit­ten with Bul­gakov and start­ed read­ing a lot of Russ­ian lit­er­a­ture and then watch­ing a lot of Tarkovsky, being very immersed in Russ­ian cul­ture, I got some jobs in Rus­sia. … But I’ve always done that. We have very idio­syn­crat­ic tours – I always make sure that the band does well finan­cial­ly, but a lot of our tours are based on things that I’m study­ing, and I’ll make choic­es as to where we go so that I can see some­thing spe­cial.

The title track of the work, Ban­ga, is tak­en from a minor char­ac­ter in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Mas­ter and Mar­gari­ta – Pon­tus Pilate’s extreme­ly loy­al dog who wait­ed cen­turies for his mas­ter to come to heav­en. Fun fact: John­ny Depp played drums on this track.

Accord­ing to the lin­er notes, the album’s first sin­gle, “April Fool” was inspired by nov­el­ist Niko­lai Gogol. As John Free­man notes in the Moscow Times, a num­ber of lines from the song evoke the writer.

We’ll race through alley­ways in tat­tered coats” is a fair­ly clear ref­er­ence to Gogol’s short sto­ry “The Over­coat,” while “we’ll burn all of our poems” begs to be con­sid­ered a nod to the fact that Gogol famous­ly burned the sec­ond vol­ume of his great nov­el “Dead Souls.” That work, one of Rus­si­a’s fun­ni­est and dark­est, is con­jured in the lines, “We’ll tramp through the mire when our souls feel dead. With laugh­ter we’ll inspire them back to life again.

And the track “Tarkovsky (The Sec­ond Stop Is Jupiter)”, not sur­pris­ing­ly, evokes images from the films of cin­e­mat­ic auteur Andrei Tarkovsky – specif­i­cal­ly, his meta­phys­i­cal sci-fi epic Solaris along with Ivan’s Child­hood. Hear the track at the top of this post, and watch Tarkovsky’s films online here.

In case you thought that the album was just about Rus­sians, her song “This is the Girl” is about the life and death of Amy Wine­house, “Fuji-San” is a trib­ute to the mas­sive 2011 Tohoku earth­quake, and “Nine” is a birth­day present to John­ny Depp.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch Pat­ti Smith Read from Vir­ginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Sur­viv­ing Record­ing of Woolf’s Voice

See Pat­ti Smith Give Two Dra­mat­ic Read­ings of Allen Ginsberg’s “Foot­note to Howl”

Pat­ti Smith Plays Songs by The Ramones, Rolling Stones, Lou Reed & More on CBGB’s Clos­ing Night (2006)

Pat­ti Smith Doc­u­men­tary Dream of Life Beau­ti­ful­ly Cap­tures the Author’s Life and Long Career (2008)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of bad­gers and even more pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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