Ethan Hawke and Patti Smith seemed like kind of a weird pairing for a Tribeca Talk, and yesterday’s tete a tete at the Tribeca Film Festival started a little awkwardly when they couldn’t decide who was supposed to be the moderator. “How about this?” Smith suggested. “Neither one of us be the moderator and we’ll both be ourselves.”
With that sorted, it turned out they had more in common than one might think. They’re both writers, they both play guitar (though at one point Smith said she didn’t consider herself a musician), and Smith, a fan of detective shows, has made acting appearances on some of her favorites, as a professor on Law & Order: Criminal Intent and a doctor on The Killing. Also, Hawke has done plays written by Sam Shepard, the ex with whom Patti Smith wrote Cowboy Mouth while they were in the throes of a breakup.
But perhaps the most intriguing overlap in their creative venn diagram is Chet Baker. Hawke, of course, plays the troubled trumpeter in a new biopic, Born to be Blue. And Smith, it was revealed, once tried to get him to play on “Elegie,” the last song on Horses.
The song was written in memory of Jimi Hendrix and recorded in the guitar god’s Greenwich Village studio, Electric Lady Land, on September 18, 1975, the fifth anniversary of his death. Smith has been known to dedicate it, during shows, to lost loved ones like Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist and former lover who is the subject of a new HBO documentary, Look at the Pictures. Its last lines – “I think it’s sad, it’s much too bad, that all our friends can’t be with us today” – were borrowed from Hendrix’s song “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be).”
Smith told the packed house at the SVA Theatre— down the block from her former home in the Chelsea Hotel— that she wanted Chet Baker to accompany the final lines, which start, “Trumpets, violins, I hear them in the distance.”
“I wanted Chet Baker to be playing it out and he said he’d do it,” Smith recalled. “I’d see him on the street or something when he happened to be in New York. But then his agent got ahold of the whole thing and just when he was going to record, they demanded $5,000.”
That might sound well worth it for a cameo by the face of jazz’s “cool school,” but at the time, Smith was working at Strand Book Store (“I didn’t like it,” she once told New York magazine. “I worked in the basement, and it wasn’t very friendly.”)
“In 1975 when you have a $25,000 budget for a whole album, $5,000 is a lot of money,” Smith told Hawke. “And I was still working at the Strand Book Store and I was making like $2,000 a year.”
Needless to say, Baker didn’t get the money he was looking for and never played on the record. “But always when I hear this song he’s, like, there in my head,” Smith said, telling the audience that “if you hear this record and hear the last song, just throw some Chet Baker on it and then it’ll be perfect.”