The Saturday interview: Patti Smith
Patti Smith became a rock star by accident – it made her an icon. She wrote a book – it won a major award. Now, with an album on the way and a UK tour, she's as driven as ever
Saturday 22 January 2011 00.10 GMT
hen, in the late 60s and early 70s, Patti Smith was working in bookstores in New York, often having to choose between art supplies and lunch, she stacked National Book Award-winning books on shelves, wrapped them up for customers, sold them. And as she did so, she told a rapt audience last November, choking up with tears, "I dreamed of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf"; she hardly dreamed of having a National Book award of her own as well.
There were wet eyes in the house, too, and more than one person listening to her must have thought that there was a kind of rightness about the fact that the book with which she won the award last year, Just Kids, was about that time, and about the person, Robert Mapplethorpe, who experienced it along with her. He was the person who refused to "listen to me falter, question myself, question my abilities"; who held her fast to the idea that her art and her dreams mattered, and if she only could only hang on to them, they would win out.
He was, it must be said, working with willing material, in that she had outsize bravado, and despite their extreme poverty (when she first arrived in New York, she slept on benches in Central Park), an instinctive integrity: when she was still stacking books a couple of people "saw potential in me and offered me quite a bit of money to do records as early as 1971, '72, but not in my own way. They would have a vision of me – a pop vision, or how they could transform me, and the money didn't tempt me." Was there ever a moment when that was quite a hard choice? "No." The answer is sharp, immediate. "If somebody said I'll give you a million dollars, but you have to go against your own grain, you just have to do what I say – it would take me one second. I've never been tortured by something like that. Tormented more about what line to use in a poem, or the right word to use in a sentence. All I've ever wanted, since I was a child, was to do something wonderful."
This is, in part, what gives her her singular presence. Her appearance, of course – the strong, masculine face and honey hair, all crags and straw, the dark toque and oversize coat somewhat incongruous in a boutique hotel in central Paris – but more her sense of wonder, her openness to the possibility of wonder in herself and others. It underlines in her an unexpected warmth and delicacy. The openness has always been a kind of survival strategy too: for all its fierceness – and after she recorded her debut album, Horses, in 1975 and found herself on the path to being a rock star, defiance – her career has been one of reverences, of chasing and collecting icons and relics and friends from whom she could learn the things she needed to proceed. It's a pleasingly unironic predeliction: "I'm not an ironic person," she once said. "I'm not always articulate, and sometimes I'm just crap, but I'm never ironic."
So, famously, Rimbaud, whose Illuminations she stole from a second-hand book stall when she was a teenager, and whose incantatory poetry and rackety life have compelled her ever since; Blake, whose everyday visions of angels, whose merging of language with "drawlings" (as she says the word) in a pale gold palette both she and Mapplethorpe loved and emulated; Jim Morrison, whom she saw on stage, and, watching him turn poetry into performance, thought simply: "I could do that." Her new album, which will be finished within the next month, was inspired by her reading of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita – but also by St Francis of Assisi, and by a visit to Dylan Thomas's home in Laugharne.
Or Sam Shepard, whom she met when he was in a band, who became her lover and taught her: "When you hit a wall" – of your own imagined limitations – "just kick it in." William Burroughs, whom she encountered when she and Mapplethorpe were living at the Chelsea Hotel; from him "I learned more about how to conduct myself, how to make the right choices in terms of – keeping your name clean. William said, 'If you keep your name clean, your name will be worth more someday. If you keep your name clean, it will always be of use.' And even though my name's only Smith, I have found it useful." It is instructive that when she fell in love and settled down, she did so with a man, guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, who she believed was cleverer than herself, who had things to teach her.
When he died, in 1994, leaving her a widow with two young children, it was one of the few times she felt properly lost. "That was a very difficult time in my life, when I had to decide what I was going to do, without him. But you know, when I have these moments, I just go all the way back to being 11 years old, when I knew who I was. Seven, 11 – I go all the way back there and then begin again, in my mind."
Smith grew up in straitened economic circumstances – her mother was a waitress and her father worked in a factory, assembling thermostats, jobs that provided just enough, and sometimes not enough, to feed four children. But there were always books, music, and as much art as they could afford. Her father "would take Socrates to the factory with him" and read Plato aloud over dinner, while her mother made meatball sandwiches; her mother had sung in nightclubs in the 30s, and loved opera, and the emerging glimmerings of rock'n'roll.
Smith, who was often ill – scarlet fever gave her hallucinations and, for a long time, double vision – daydreamed about being an opera singer. Not the swooning, romantic women's parts, but "the tenor parts, the young Gypsy-boy parts. Being in Verdi, Il Trovatore, being Manrico or something." Or she wanted to travel to the Great Wall of China or join the Foreign Legion; she was unimpressed to discover she was expected to be a girl, and especially a girl in the 50s in rural America, where you became a hairdresser or a housewife, "and the boys went to Vietnam or became policemen. A girl had these few choices, and the boys had these few choices. And I wasn't interested in any of their choices. I was interested in the whole world, that was not even spoken about. I had more communication with my dog than I had with my surroundings."
Increasingly, books became her world, and by extension, wanting to write them. "Everything else grew out of that. More than anything that's been the thread through my life – the desire to write, the impulse to write. I mean, it's taken me other places, but it was the impulse to write that led me to singing. I'm not a musician. I never thought of performing in a rock'n'roll band. I was just drawn in. It was like being called to duty – I was called to duty, and I did my duty as best as I could."
At 20 she discovered she was pregnant; the way she speaks about it now, eyes nearly closed, reveals more about the climate for discussing such things in America than anything about herself. "Well, it's, you know – that's a huge decision for any person, especially a young person. It was not a sacrifice, and it was not a decision I took lightly, and I didn't have the emotional or financial stability, or even the motive – or even what it took to raise a child. I had a good upbringing, and a strong understanding of the value of human life, but it still was … I just did the best I could, that's all. Who can say?" What is clear from her memoir, though, was that it dragged her out of childhood and gave her focus and direction: sitting on her bed working up the courage to tell her family that she was pregnant, and that she had found an educated, childless couple to take the baby, "an overwhelming sense of mission eclipsed my fears … I would be an artist. I would prove my worth." She was dismissed from college; when she went into labour the nurses called her Dracula's Daughter and, almost fatally, as the child was in a breech position, ignored her. She will not say whether or not they have since been in touch.
Horses, as well as regularly being cited as one of the best debut albums ever, had a cover photo taken by Mapplethorpe that became an instant classic. "It was the most electrifying image I'd ever seen of a woman of my generation," Camille Paglia once said. It "immediately went up on my wall, as if it were a holy icon. It symbolised for me not only women's new liberation but the fusion of high art and popular culture." The trouble was, Smith's motivations were never to stand for anything but herself, particularly not any political movement, however worthy. She continued to explore wordscapes and the soundscapes that might make them live; her accidental career gave her choices, and the freedom to travel. But it didn't give her, eventually, the satisfaction or integrity she craved. So she left – she met Fred Smith, married him, and moved to suburban Detroit, becoming a non-driver (she is too dyslexic) stranded in a land of cars. "That's where he wanted to live," she told an interviewer some years ago. "He was the man."
Those who looked to her as a feminist pathfinder felt betrayed. They accused her of selling out, called her a "domestic cow", a phrase that clearly still stings. "I was still a worker. Some people said, 'Oh, well, you didn't do anything in the 80s – first of all, to be a mother and a wife is probably the hardest job one can have. But I always wrote. I wrote every day. I don't think I could have written Just Kids had I not spent all of the 80s developing my craft as a writer." She wrote for three hours every day, from 5am to 8, when her baby woke; having two children, and a husband, "I had to learn, really, how to rein in my energies and discipline myself. And I found it very very useful. I rebelled against it at first, but it's a good thing to have." They recorded an album together, which didn't sell; as well as publishing books of poetry, she has produced "many unfinished books, a few books that I finished in the 80s but never published, a crime book, a character study, a book of travels"; right now she is writing, simultaneously, "an extension of the book I wrote for Robert, and working on a detective story, and a sort of fairytale. I'm always working."
After her husband's death, she had to perform again, to support her children – and many people rallied to help her: her lawyer found her children a place at a progressive private school, Michael Stipe, who credits Horses with beginning his career, found her a house, Bob Dylan asked her to play with him, Ann Demeulemeester gave her clothes. Now, increasingly, she works with her children – her son is a guitarist and married to Meg White of the White Stripes; the evening before we met she did a gig with her daughter, a composer. They will do more of these gigs in the UK next week, one in St Giles Church, which she likes because they do good things for the homeless, and another at Aldeburgh, where she will improvise work based on WG Sebald's poem After Nature. She has spent the morning reading him, and "listening to Polly Harvey's new song – she has this new song, The Words That Maketh Murder – what a great song. It just makes me happy to exist. Whenever anyone does something of worth, including myself, it just makes me happy to be alive. So I listened to that song all morning, totally happy." Her face lights up, her eyes shine. And I think that the joy she finds in these things, the searching for them, the openness to them, the wanting to do them herself, are, finally, so much more interesting than being held to any creed; more interesting, more inspiring, and far more profound.
Just Kids is published by Bloomsbury £8.99. Patti Smith will be in conversation with Geoff Dyer on Tuesday at the Royal Geographical Society, 7pm. See intelligencesquared.com/events
• This article was amended on 24 January 2011. The original said Patti Smith would perform at the Aldeburgh festival. This has been corrected.