NEW YORK — Patti Smith has been called a punk legend and the founding mother of alternative rock. But if you really want to make her smile, tell her that you think she's written some beautiful pop songs lately.
"See how happy I am?" Smith says, her eyes welling up slightly. "I'm so happy that people think my new record is worthwhile."
The 53-year-old singer-songwriter-poet-painter is referring to her eighth album, "Gung Ho," released last month to notices that seemed even more effusive than those that she normally receives.
"Gung Ho" was called "inspired" in a 4 1/2-star review in Rolling Stone. Other critics have judged it Smith's best work since such groundbreaking early efforts as 1978's "Easter" and her 1975 debut, "Horses."
But what really tickles Smith--who appears at the Wilshire Theatre on Friday--is the prospect that her new material might appeal to a wider audience.
"It was never my intention to be underground," says Smith, sipping herbal tea in a vegetarian restaurant across the street from her townhouse in Manhattan's SoHo district. "I don't think there's any merit in being purposely obscure. I might write certain poetry or have certain ideas that aren't for everybody. But for me, the great possibility of rock 'n' roll is that you can globally communicate. It's taken all this time till this record, I believe, to have the right people and the right frame of mind to, hopefully, communicate with more people."
Smith specifically credits "Gung Ho" producer Gil Norton, engineer Danton Supple and the musicians in her band--guitarist and longtime colleague Lenny Kaye, bassist and keyboardist Tony Shanahan, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and guitarist Oliver Ray, who is also Smith's boyfriend--with helping her accomplish this goal.
"I always have a sense of vision for a record," says Smith. "But don't have a lot of technical ability as a musician. I really depend on my musicians for their ideas. On this album, we just jelled perfectly."
The songs on "Gung Ho," most of which Smith co-wrote with members of her band, evoke a disparate assortment of people whose courage, compassion and fortitude moved the singer. The title track is a tribute to North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, while the buoyant "One Voice" pays homage to Mother Teresa.
"Both of them had a calling when they were young, and they devoted their whole lives to it," says Smith. "Her seed bloomed into charity, and his seed bloomed into him being a revolutionary and touching millions of lives."
"Libbie's Song" tenderly remembers General Custer's self-sacrificing widow, and the shimmering "China Bird" was inspired by Smith's own father, who died last August at age 83 and is pictured as a young man on the album cover.
"I'm elegiac by design," Smith says. "It seems to be the way that I work. But I don't think I'm driven specifically by death; I'm more guided by life. I'm driven to study somebody who inspires me, or whose work I think I can learn from."
Smith points to her 1996 album, "Gone Again," as the one case where she was actually "in mourning" while doing a record. That album--which was informed by the deaths of her brother, of close friend photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and especially of her husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, who succumbed to heart failure in 1994--marked Smith's return to rock music after 17 years in which she released only one album, 1988's "Dream of Life."
Though she never stopped writing, Smith spent this time focusingon raising her two children--daughter Jesse, now 12, and son Jackson, 17, who plays guitar on "Persuasion," a track on "Gung Ho." Smith clearly remains a conscientious parent--and probably a more traditional one than some might expect.
"I don't try to be the hip mom," she maintains. "I embarrass my kids in some ways. In other ways, I'm sure they're proud of me. But it doesn't matter. I'm not here to be their friend; I'm here to take care of them, to teach them as much as I can. Young people need guidance and discipline. I rebelled against my parents, but as I evolved I came back to thank them and honor them."
Of her relationship with Ray, who is 26, Smith says, "We've known each other for five years. He helped rekindle my interest in self-expression. He's also a poet, and a really fine writer; so I find that writing lyrics for his music is challenging, because he could just as well write his own."
Uncertain About Her Future in Music
Though she is promoting "Gung Ho" with a national tour, Smith admits she is less than certain about her professional future. Her contract with Arista Records, whose president, Clive Davis, signed her 25 years ago, expires with this album.
"Clive believed in me even though I was starting from scratch, so I couldn't be happier that I fulfilled my obligation with what I think is my best effort," Smith says. "But I don't know what's gonna happen now. I don't know if anyone will ask me to do more records or if I'll do things independently. Nothing's been revealed."
Not that Smith is fretting. "I just try to look at it all as a great open canvas," she says, grinning almost girlishly. "I've had a few blows that allow me to say that life can be pretty hard. But it's also incredibly beautiful. Take a breath, and appreciate it."
Patti Smith, Friday at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 8 p.m. $27.50. (323) 468-1716.