work their whole life.
throughout the decades, as much a pioneer as a participant.
Ageing, however, is one of life’s great levellers – does she feel that the time to create more work is slipping away? “No one knows how long he or she is going to live, you know,” she says in a casual why-are-you-asking-methat? tone. “The poet Arthur Rimbaud lived to only 37. Robert Mapplethorpe lived to only 42. I’ve already outlived Jackson Pollock and John Coltrane. I think an artist can work their whole life, and if I’m lucky enough to live until I’m 90, maybe, I’ll be like Picasso and work until the very end.
“My work ethic hasn’t changed throughout my life. I work just as hard and feel that my work has strong qualities. Thinking about how little time there is left is almost a waste of time; one could get depressed about it. Fate can decide for or against you, so I think, ultimately, one should just take care of oneself and see what happens.”
From her emergence in New York (via Chicago) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when she hooked up with struggling artist/ photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (whom in her extraordinarily elegant 2010 memoir, Just Kids, she describes as “the artist of my life”), Smith gradually made a name for herself as a willing partner to experimentation. Nothing was closed or alien to her: performance art, spoken word, painting, acting, rock journalism, singing – all these and more formed the backdrop to her virtually poverty-stricken New York life as friend, lover, co-conspirator and muse to artists such as Mapplethorpe, playwright and actor Sam Shepard and Blue Oyster Cult’s Allen Lanier.
Yet it was as a singer and performer that she gained a high profile. It helped that she fitted the protopunk look like a leather glove: a whippet-thin, stringent beauty who fused scarecrow chic, Keith Richards-like androgyny and arty poetry with intelligence and wit. Over the years she has continued to fight the good fight against the dumbingdown of art as she blends rock’n’roll with poetry and vice versa. Not for nothing has she been described as “Rimbaud with Marshall amps”.
“Many people have done that beforehand,” she says. “I’m in a line of artists who have worked to infuse rock’n’roll with poetry, the most important being, probably, Jim Morrison. Whatever work I’ve done, be it in rock’n’roll or poetry or activism or motherhood, I’ve tried to do well.
“Accolades? I don’t depend on them, I don’t work to receive them. If I get one I try to accept it in the spirit that it was given. If they think I’ve been an influence, or if they think my work has been of some avail, then that’s a nice thing, and I’m happy to be acknowledged.”
As a creative person, what does she think is her defining characteristic? “I like to work, and my defining characteristic is that I carry that with me all of the time. Work isn’t a compartment for me. Some people go to church on Sunday and the rest of the week they don’t think about religion. Some people pray every day and God is with them as they walk. My creative impulses are with me always. I would do it whether or not it was