Creating music on the fly, taking responsibility for the sounds you make, allowing the mantle of leadership to automatically pass from one musician to another is no different from defining your place in a flat company and operating with a high degree of independence.
It's a precept upon which guitarist Lenny Kaye and poet/vocalist Patti Smith forged their musical partnership. One of the original groups to come out of the New York punk scene, Smith's five-piece band continues to operate with an artful spirit of free-form invention. So forget the business books. Next time you need to bone up on taking the lead, cue Patti Smith and check out Kaye's rules for playing in a world without rules.
To get creative, give up control.
"We like to move from genre to genre, and you can't do that by trying to control the music's direction. One night, on the spot, Patti segued from 'Radio Ethiopia' into the Hank Williams song, 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.' The only way to move from free-form jazz to country and western is to commit to keeping your options open. You do this by keeping your antennae up, by understanding your fellow musicians, by giving yourself permission to roll with the flow."
Stay alert for when you should take the lead — and when you should step back.
"Improvisation breaks down the leadership structure. If guitarist Oliver Ray is working toward a really good solo, I try to get under him and support him with rhythm guitar. He keeps playing until he rides out that wave and somebody else steps up. The bottom line is you must know when somebody else has an opening that can produce great sounds."
The best ideas come when you're least self-conscious.
"Recently we were in the studio improvising on a song that grew out of 'Not Fade Away.' Once we got our favorite licks out of our system, we stopped playing the parts that we thought were great and started playing what came to us naturally. We freed ourselves of the song and reached the point where we could play without thinking about it. That's a good place to be, and that's what will end up on the record."
Coordinates: Patti Smith's new album, "Peace and Noise," is available on Arista Records, http://www.aristarec.com .
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.