GAZES WISTFULLY ACROSS HER WRITING TABLE AT THE FLOORto-ceiling book shelves lining one wall of her Manhattan home. The singer and poet is culling her library, donating items to charity, and it has been hard. “I look at a book, and I know I don’t need it,” she admits. “But then I go, Oh, Robert used to like to look at this, or Sam gave me this,” referring to two of the most important companions and profound losses in her life: photographer-artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989, and playwright Sam Shepard, who died last year. “It’s my whole history,” she says. “Looking at my book shelves, I can see what I was reading when I was pregnant with Jackson” – her son, now a guitarist like his late father, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of the MC5 – “and when I met Tom Verlaine. I have a book for every event in my life.”
It is still a life in overdrive. Earlier today, Smith, 71, was at this table working on a forthcoming illustrated edition of Just Kids, her best-selling 2010 memoir of her relationship with Mapplethorpe and their creative awakening in the explosive, bohemian New York of the 1960s and early 1970s. In two weeks, she hosts a film festival premiere of Horses: Patti Smith And Her Band, director Steven Sebring’s documentary of her 2015 tour performing the landmark 1975 album, Horses. And Smith is back on the road this summer, in Britain and Europe [see panel, p55] with her loyal cadre: guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty from Smith’s original ’70s group, and her bassist of two decades, Tony Shanahan. (She also performs often with her pianist-daughter Jesse.) Smith laughs when asked about the heading on her website, where most artists promote ‘Tours’ and ‘Concerts’. Raised in a working-class household in New Jersey, she calls them ‘Jobs’. “I can’t bring myself to use the word ‘gig’,” Smith says firmly. “When I was younger, I always called them jobs,” whether it was her shifts at the Strand bookstore or the early club shows at CBGB in 1974. She cites a memory that came back while looking at images for the new Just Kids. “We have a flyer for my first reading” – at St Mark’s Church in February, 1971 with Kaye on guitar. “It says, ‘Gerard Malanga, poetry’ and ‘Patti Smith, work.’ I remember Gerard saying, ‘Why are you calling yours work?’ I said, I can’t bring myself to call myself a poet. I’m a worker.” For more than three hours, in her home and at a favourite coffee shop nearby, Smith – in all-black except for a white Tshirt – recounts her life in art and labour, especially on stage, making plain her determination to keep moving forth while other rock stars of her vintage dramatically announce their retirements. “‘Work’ is an honourable word,” Smith insists. “It’s what you do to make a living. But I’m lucky. After I quit the Strand, I never had to have another traditional job. Playing the great stages of Europe – that’s my job.”
After your debut with Lenny at St Mark’s Church, did you envision a future on-stage?
No. I did some work in the theatre. I had some really good parts. I was Madame Dubonnet in The Boy Friend. I was in plays at La MaMa. But I could not stand wearing makeup. Also, I didn’t like being confined to saying the same words over and over. I liked to improvise. Robert was pushing me to do a poetry reading, and he arranged it through Gerard. It was Sam Shepard who suggested having a little guitar
behind it. I had written this poem which had a big car crash at the end. I asked Lenny if he could improvise car-crash music, some feedback, and he said, “Sure.” That was mission accomplished.
Then you got an offer to join a rock band. [Producer] Sandy Pearlman was there. He wanted me to sing with Blue Öyster Cult, which was still called Stalk-Forrest Group. I heard [BÖC singer] Eric Bloom and said, “He’s doing fine.” But I met [guitarist-keyboard player] Allen Lanier and started writing with him. I was writing songs with Lee Crabtree [who played with The Fugs]. I wrote a song for Janis Joplin.
What was it called? Work Song, of all things. It was so Janis, because it’s about a girl who gives all of her life to work. It had lines like, “She’s on the stage while love slips through a theatre that is full. ”I saw her all the time. She was so lonely. She wanted a real boyfriend, someone who only cared about her. I wrote this little song, she liked it and then
she had to go to California. She was recording Pearl and never came back.
I’ve heard a recording of that St Mark’s reading. I don’t hear any nerves.
Oh no.The Warhol people were in that audience. There was Lou Reed, all of the Circus and Creem magazine people. Sam Shepard was my armour. He taught me a lesson about improvisation: “Create like you’re a drummer.You miss the beat? You create another like you’re Elvin Jones.” I have no fear. When I was younger, I thought I might be a school teacher because I like being in front of people talkin’. Todd Rundgren wanted to get me on [the TV show] Laugh-In because he thought I was so funny. I was just working in a bookstore. But Robert believed in me, and Sam magnified my swagger.
You’ve always had strong men at your side, along the way.
The man in my life has always been important to me, no matter how a relationship went. I’m very conscious of what each person did to help me along the path, to make it more elegant, less rocky. I used to sing “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine ”very aggressively. I had so much energy. Allen Lanier suggested that delivery on Horses: “Why don’t you pull back and do it a little slinkier? Make people come to you.”
When you started the Patti Smith Group, did you envision it as a full-strength squad like The Rolling Stones? At first, it was just you, Lenny and pianist Richard Sohl.
It was a process of evolution. Richard was classically trained and very happy to play Mozart-style variations on three chords. But once I got a sense that we were becoming a rock’n’roll band [with Daugherty and bassist Ivan Kral], I felt like we had a mission. When we rehearsed, I’d have the band do Land [from Horses] for half an hour before I’d even step in. I wanted them to keep playing until they were an organism. I didn’t want fancy guitar work or big solos. What was important was we were a pulse. I ran it pretty tight.We had to be authentic and principled. I would read T. E. Lawrence to them aloud while they were trying to eat. I would have all these ideas, sit with the men and the crew in the canteen and read to them from Seven Pillars Of Wisdom.
You polarised audiences when you played the clarinet on-stage. What inspired that?
It was Fred. I dedicated [1979 album] Wave to “my clarinet teacher”. I was a shallow breather. I was born with bronchial pneumonia. I sang through my nose. He said, “You have to breathe from further down. ”Fred played saxophone and loved Coltrane. He said, “You should play alto sax like Art Pepper. ”I couldn’t handle the mouthpiece. Fred had an old clarinet he played as a kid. He gave it to me, and I got into it. I had no skills. I could clear a room pretty fast. But you know who really liked my clarinet playing? William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. I spent a few days with them in Amsterdam.The two of them would talk about Morocco, have a long smoke and I improvised – it sounded like some Berber musician (smiles). I thought they were just being nice. But I’d stop and they’d say, “Keep going! ”If you have Brion Gysin and William Burroughs in your fan club, you don’t need anybody else.
Did playing the clarinet help your singing?
On Wave, my singing is a little richer. I certainly think my singing is richer now than it was when I was younger, because there’s more breath there. I don’t sing as high. But that was an important shift for me. I could sing with strength.
PATTI WAS TOURing America with Horses when she first met Fred: on March 9, 1976, in Detroit after a record company party at a hot-dog restaurant. “I was going out the back door,” she recalled in a 1996 interview. “I happened to look up, and this guy is standing there as I was leaving. Lenny introduced me to him: ‘This is Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, the legendary guitar player for the MC5,’ and that was it. Changed my life.” Patti married Fred in 1980 and moved to Detroit to raise a family. In 1988, she emerged from seclusion with Dream Of Life: eight songs co-written with Fred and coproduced by him. But the album was critically pounded, and the couple never toured together. Patti would not go back into the studio for almost a decade, until after Fred’s death in 1994. “I didn’t think I was coming back,” she says of recording and touring, “and it didn’t disturb me. I felt like my job was done. I didn’t sacrifice my greatest dream, because writing was my greatest dream. Also I had two children. I couldn’t visualise myself getting back on the road.” Smith finally returned, for good, in 1996 with Gone Again, a record loaded with mourning – for Fred, Mapplethorpe and her brother; for Kurt Cobain on About A Boy. The album also marked the start of a new, vital phase in her art: memorialising the fallen.
How hard was it to make Gone Again?
I can’t listen to that record. I feel the hollowness, the depth of my grieving. Everything’s so slow. It was the one time I was not in full cognition of my emotional state. It’s like going to an Irish wake and listening to these women lamenting.
You also had a guest on that album, Jeff Buckley – his last appearance on a record before he drowned in 1997.
He was working with Tom Verlaine at the time. I met him when I did one of my first performances back, at Lollapalooza. I was beginning Pissing In A River, and I felt like I could not go on. It wasn’t stage fright. It was overwhelming emotion. All of a sudden, I felt this energy pushing me. It got me
through. After it was over, I could see it was this boy, Jeff.Tom introduced him, and I thanked him: “I felt you stirring me on.” I told him we were recording: “Why don’t you come by? ”He was listening to [the improvisation] Fireflies and said, “Could I try something on this?” He left and came back with this strange-shaped box. He took out this Indian instrument, an esraj, and played it (she makes a high, delicate, humming sound). See this box here? (Smith opens a black case near her work table) That’s the instrument. His mother gave it to me. When they found him in the water, he had a tiny key in his pocket. It was for this instrument.The only thing he played it on was my record. (She holds up the frayed bow) He played it so intently. And it’s got a broken string. But it did its work. It was the firefly on Fireflies.
How do you look back on the albums that followed, such as [1997’s] Peace And Noise and [2000’s] Gung Ho? They get passed over in the rush to celebrate Horses.
There were great improvisations in that period: the Ho Chi Minh song [Gung Ho]; Gandhi [on 2004’s Trampin’]; Memento Mori [on Peace And Noise]. But they’re emotionally wrenching.
In what way?
None of them had lyrics. They are based on emotional experiences in the studio. Radio Baghdad [on Trampin’] is 12 minutes long. It was completely improvised on study I had done. I can’t remember 12 minutes’ worth of lyrics on-stage. It wouldn’t be the same. Sometimes you have to lay them aside for a while.
When I’ve seen you do those pieces live, I recognise a kernel of text from the records. But you spin off into melancholy, outrage, whatever that kernel inspires in the moment.
It’s what Richard, Lenny and I started – locked riffs that I ride from one place to another.The subject matter of our younger pieces was more poetic. Radio Baghdad is a mother trying to sing a lullaby to her children about their country while Americans are dropping bombs on them. It’s not a piece I can do over and over like an actress. I don’t say that in an insulting way. I have great respect for actors. They can do an emotional speech from Shakespeare, or die on-stage, with the same intensity. I’ve watched my friend Ralph Fiennes do that – he’ll stop on the street and deliver a speech from Richard III. He’s a true actor. I’m more of a channeller.
People Have The Power was largely ignored when it came out on Dream Of Life but has come into its own on-stage. Its continuing relevance has eclipsed Because The Night as your biggest song.
Fred wanted it to be sung by people all over the world. He didn’t live to see it performed live. But I’ve been on marches where people who didn’t know me sang it with banners held high. I’ve seen it in the Greek elections. I’ve seen Palestinians with signs that said “People Have The Power”. It’s beautiful because it’s exactly what he wanted.
Many people feel so powerless now that they take refuge in demagogues. Given that, is the song’s meaning still valid?
Absolutely. There’s always going to be the children. There’s always going to be a movement. We keep getting slammed. And we get up and keep going. Now we have the students across the country who marched that day against gun violence [the March For Our Lives on March 24]. The people have more power than they think.
T’S SO FUNNY WHEN PEOPLE SAY ‘Horses changed my life,’” Smith says, resuming our conversation over an afternoon coffee in a Soho café. “My own book changed my life. I was hoping it would have some cult following. It’s been my greatest success. Nothing else I’ve done comes close.” Just Kids – a worldwide bestseller, translated into 45 languages, and the 2010 win-
ner of the National Book Award for nonfiction – is actually two stories. One is a very personal and moving account of Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe. The other is a valentine to a creative age in New York that now seems distant, almost impossible. Talking about Just Kids today, Smith is at once proud and melancholy. “I promised I would write it the day before Robert died,” she says. “My task was to deliver my promise – to be responsible to our relationship and belief system and, at the same time, to New York City and all of the people who touched our lives. “It’s ironic because Robert always wanted me to have a hit record,” Smith adds with a fond laugh. “He’d say, ‘Patti, when are you going to write something we can dance to?’ But I did have a hit book. I almost cry every time I think about it. It’s like he said, ‘I’m going to die tomorrow, but I’m going to make sure you’re taken care of.’”
I was surprised to find that when you sang at the Nobel ceremony for Bob Dylan’s literature prize, you took it on before you knew he won.
The idea was I was singing for the laureate of literature. Maybe it’s not my favourite writer. Whoever it is, it is always someone of great merit. So I chose a song that I thought would be right for any writer, Wing [from Gone Again]. When he won, I realised, “I can’t do my own song.”
Instead you sang A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” – and had to start again after stumbling over the words.
I do know that song backwards and forwards. It was like I was the boxer who overprepared. I wanted to magnify Bob’s moment the best I could, to be invisible and just be the song. Instead, I was the most myself I’ve ever been (grins). That’s life.
Ironically, Dylan got his Nobel when he was releasing nothing but Frank Sinatra covers. Have you listened to those albums?
If I want to listen to Sinatra, I’ll listen to Sinatra. But I look at Bob Dylan the same way I look at Picasso. Guernica is the most important painting ever. I love Cubism. But if he wants to do 45 fish plates, he can because he’s Picasso. I took that attitude with Bob a long time ago. It’s been a very long time since I’ve related to some of the things he’s doing. But it doesn’t matter, because I can go back, when I’m in a certain mood, and listen to Chimes Of Freedom or John Wesley Harding. This guy gave us The Death Of Emmett Till.
Have you see Springsteen On Broadway?
No. I went to see Bruce at Town Hall, to speak about his book. But I don’t go out to much of anything. I saw the Fleet Foxes at Electric Lady [Studios]. I only had to walk up the street.The one band I will walk through the desert to see is My Bloody Valentine.
How did you come to make The Coral Sea with MBV’s Kevin Shields? When it came out in 2008, it was his first album in two decades.
I loved My Bloody Valentine. When I was chosen to be the curator of Meltdown [in 2005], they wanted to know who I wanted to collaborate with. I said, “Kevin Shields. ”They said he was in seclusion; it would be easier to call David Bowie. I said, “Ask him. ”He said yes. I went to a studio in Camden Town.We sat on a couch and talked. I said, “I want to do this book, read these poems.” He had a guitar, and he would pluck the strings. After a couple of hours, I said,“Do you want to rehearse?” He said, “This was a good rehearsal.” We remade it on-stage the way we knew each other – with a beat-up couch and his pedals in front of him. One loop connected with another, and it got so loud that I couldn’t even see. I threw the book on the floor and improvised. The music shooted up, like the inside of a cathedral. I finished and laid down on the couch until he was done. It was one of the most transporting experiences ever. Two things I wish in my life: that Dream Of Life had its better due, for Fred’s sake, and that The Coral Sea had its better due for Kevin’s sake. Every once in a while I hear from him. He’s living in a little cabin in Ireland. He’ll tell me about this goat that got into his house and ate one of his master [tapes]. There’s always some tale of woe.
Have you been writing new songs?
Yes. I would have been very happy if [2012’s] Banga was my last record. But I want to do one more, and Columbia will give me one. I have enough things to say. Some songs are issue driven. Some are coming more from my roots, Appalachian folk songs. But they don’t come easy. Writing songs is the hardest thing in the world for me.
What’s so hard about it?
It’s unpredictable. Someone can give me music, and I can go for months without finding a single word. Then I’ll have a strange thing like Maria [on Banga]. Tony [Shanahan] had a piece of music.We were in his studio in Hoboken. [ The actress] Maria Schneider had just died. I listened to this music, tears started falling and I heard the whole thing – I just wrote it down. I know my gifts. I’m not Smokey Robinson. I’ve written a hundred songs in probably my whole life. Someone will say, “I’ve been working on this record, I have 42 songs to choose from. ”I’m going… (stares in disbelief).
But your emphasis on art as work has given you longevity in a way that’s harder for bigger artists. When you’re a ‘rock star’, people always expect you to create – and succeed – as if you’re always 25. This boy came up to me, really naively. He wasn’t being mean. He goes, “Did you used to be Patti Smith? ”I said, “Yeah. ”He had a copy of Horses he wanted me to sign – it was his father’s. He said, “What happened? ”I looked at him and said, “I got old.” (Laughs) He looked so scared. All of a sudden, he started laughing. He realised time had passed. I signed his album and he went on his way. I’m never going anywhere. I’m always going to be doing something. There are so many things to be angry about, frightened of, sick over. But life is good. I’m excited to be alive. Like Bob said [in If Dogs Run Free], “Just do your thing/You’ll be king. ”I actually say that to myself sometimes .I’m the king of my own joy. They can’t take away my joy of being alive. I won’t let them.
Patti Smith appears at the MOJO-endorsed Cambridge Folk Festival, August 2-5. See www.cambridgelivetrust.co.uk/folk-festival
“I choose songs that have something to say”: Patti performs Land; (below) “awesome” Joan Baez.
Wild wind: Patti Smith the clarinet-player clears the room in 1979.
What a night: Smith with Because The Night co-author Bruce Springsteen, Tribeca Film Festival, April 23, 2018; (right) red carpet friend Ralph Fiennes. Working it: Patti with husband Fred ’Sonic’ Smith and (left) Arista Records’ Clive Davis, 1984; (below) rock TV impresario Dick Clark: “I’m a businessman”.