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Patti Smith: “I’m an American artist and I feel guilty about everything”

The godmother of punk on talking to Dylan, Trump and a snapping turtle.

Patti Smith appears in the upstairs bar without footfall, her slightly irregular gaze hitting the back window. She offers a quick apology and walks straight out again. Four minutes later she returns, with an old navy blue beanie on her head: “I saw your hair and realised I didn’t have my hat.” She had dropped the beanie somewhere on the street in Paris, and set back outside to walk the Rue des Capucines and locate it on the pavement, where fortunately it lay untouched. Smith – who has “a penchant for roaming” and pounds the pavement a good deal wherever her job takes her – dresses, in an army jacket and jeans, like a serious cultural tourist, the kind that goes to North Korea. She only stays in this hotel – located in the 2nd arrondissement, not far from L’Opéra – when in town with her band, a slimmed-down operation often consisting of her long-time collaborator Lenny Kaye and her son Jackson on guitar.

Staying in the 2nd is for “work”. When she’s alone, she stays in the 6th, in Saint-Germain, because she likes to be around the ghosts of writers – though she favours not Les Deux Magots but Café de Flore, next door, beloved of Ionesco. Smith always wanted to be a writer but drew bigger crowds in the clubs of Manhattan when her poetry was accompanied by Kaye’s guitar and rock gestures, such as sticking her foot through an amplifier. She still writes every day, in notebooks, which are piled into boxes and mostly remain unpublished, but the 2010 memoir Just Kids, about her life with the photographer (and her muse) Robert Mapplethorpe, gave her recognition in the book world. Her new volume, Year of the Monkey, is an incantatory, ambulatory travelogue spun from a notebook entry on New Year’s Day 2016, a few hours after playing a gig at the Fillmore in San Francisco. It reflects more than a hint of life on the road as a rockstar – morning after morning in motel rooms, endless cravings for grits and black coffee, fruitless journeys to diners not yet opened. In Just Kids Smith points out that she and Mapplethorpe’s obsessions were art and food.

“I spend a lot of time on my own,” she tells me, “so that’s the little touchstone – where you’re going to have your coffee, where you’re going to have lunch. When I’m by myself, sometimes days go by and the only people I talk to are shopkeepers or café owners. That’s why it’s nice, if you have a café where they’re used to you, and a little bit of social engagement. But I’m not very social, so it doesn’t really bother me not to have social engagement.”

Her habits as revealed in the book – she has conversations with inanimate objects – bear the marks of an introvert. “I’m just not social – it’s a little different,” she says. “I’m not shy, I just find it difficult in social situations. Sometimes all I want to do is escape – I was like that as a child, Thanksgiving dinner with a bunch of relatives, I just wanted to high-tail it out of there. It’s no judgement on anybody.”

When Smith, in her late twenties, first met Bob Dylan, whom she worshipped, she told him she didn’t like poets and “poetry sucks”. “It was so teenage. Like a boy when he likes a girl, he insults her, or whacks her or something. The more you liked somebody the meaner you’d be.” She was a late bloomer. Her diffidence began as a feeling of outsider-dom in suburban Fifties Philadelphia: a tall, “somewhat awkward” girl who wasn’t interested in teasing her hair and wearing make-up (“I was interested in books and art”). She explored her alternative tastes through the jazz appreciation society at high school in New Jersey, around the same time Mick Jagger was spinning Coltrane records in the lunchtime jazz club at Dartford Grammar.

Smith’s family life was too strict to allow her to be actively rude to people back then, but she was, she says, “inner-surly”. Her attitude hardened when she started delivering her poetry. To perform, electrified, gave her a new kind of energy: “I could be mean as a snake. But not always. I could be loving, but I could be vicious. That stuff has to come naturally. If I smashed a guitar, or put my foot through an amplifier, or told everybody to go fuck themselves, it came naturally; it wasn’t a stance.” The cliché of the punk attitude led Smith, over the years,  to develop a reputation as a figure not overburdened by humour. Yet she used to fantasise about standing in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, telling jokes and interviewing stars: “The sad thing about it was, because of my reputation in the Seventies, he never let me on. I was probably his biggest fan in the universe.”

Her demeanour at 72 is more earth mother. She talks in round, slow sentences, giving you what you want – but she gets what she wants, too. “Excuse me, but somehow we have to develop a conversation about my book,” she smiles. “Because that’s why I’m here. Because I can’t go through my whole life over and over with people. I’m enjoying our conversation, but that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. It might be good to move toward that?” Another smile. This is what it means to be on the wrong side of Patti Smith, nowadays.

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The subplot of Year of the Monkey is the tale of repeatedly visiting, and worrying for, a friend – Sandy Pearlman, once producer for the Clash – who lies in a coma. But despite all the hospital trips and the anxiety, Smith also keeps her phone off for hours at time, or allows it to run out of battery, or leaves it on the tour bus overnight. In one passage, she returns to her hotel and makes a point of sitting down to call everyone she knows in one go, to reassure them she is not lying in a ditch. She recalls now, “I thought – I made it such a big thing in my mind – all right, I’m going to go back to the hotel. I’m going to pay for the calls – because it costs extra when you use the hotel phone. I’m going to call my children, I’m going to call my lawyer. And nobody was home!”

Her new book has, she thinks, failed on one account: she had hoped to be completely free of responsibility. In writing the biographical Just Kids, she felt a duty “to Robert, to New York City, to chronology, to the people that surrounded us and to our culture”. When she began the 2015 memoir M Train she “just wanted to write an irresponsible book!” – but ended up writing about her husband, Fred Smith, who died in 1994. She has had a string of powerful male muses and mentors in her life – Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Bruce Springsteen, the list goes on. One day, she thinks, she will write a book with no one else in mind – but it never quite seems to happen.

She suggests that being the eldest of four children that she could never quite turn her back on her duties to others. “I just wanted to be free, my whole life; I just wanted to be an artist and not have to… I didn’t care about whether I had any money or anything like that, I just wanted to evolve. But because I was the oldest, I had to help out financially, get a job when I was 16 [her song “Piss Factory” was inspired by her time on a production line, boxing up toys]. I’ve been a breadwinner for a lot of my family. So I know how to be really responsible.”

Has she managed to achieve irresponsibility on a day-to-day level?

“I always find a few moments. To me, it’s about not answering to anybody. I really didn’t want a cellphone, and finally I had to get one because my poor son couldn’t stand not being… My kids worry about me roaming around the world on my own. When I thought about what I’d like to do in life, when I was young, I had one thought that sort of says it all. On one side, I wanted to be a missionary. And on the other side, I wanted to be a beach bum. So there it is.”

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When she was in second grade, Smith was very late for school in Germantown, Philadelphia because during her journey, which took her through a wooded area, she got into a long conversation with a snapping turtle. She tells me that in the Fifties, snapping turtles were commonly used in soup; they were violent (she makes a snapping sound) and could weigh up to 150lbs.

“I must have talked to that guy for, like, two hours,” she recalls. “The trouble I got into. My mother had to be called in.” The adult community were concerned because they feared vagrants and kidnappers in the area, yet Smith could not account for the two hours of her life in which she had disappeared. “Finally, my father took me for a walk and said, Tricia, you need to discuss what you were doing for all that time,” she says. She told him about the turtle, and no one bothered her again.

“Even now, as an objective adult – a semi-objective adult – I still know I talked to the turtle. It was not a one-sided conversation.”

Smith’s father was a questioning man. A factory worker at Minneapolis-Honeywell in Philadelphia, which made thermostats, he was an agnostic who read Jung and Aristotle for fun, and enjoyed sparring with priests he met, or anyone who came to the family home trying to spread their religion. Her mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, was less keen on interrogating faith as a concept: Smith herself followed the religion until the age of 12 –“which is when you start asking questions that can’t be answered”.

Her parents accepted her artistic aspirations and her lack of interest in finding a husband or becoming a school teacher: “they knew I wasn’t lacking guts”. And while her father came only twice to see her perform, finding the concerts too loud, her mother was a regular, and a huge rock ’n’ roll fan.

In 1975, Smith’s debut album Horses appeared, with a black and white photo on the cover, shot by Mapplethorpe, that spoke to a generation of otherness and androgyny like nothing had done before: many people – among them Viv Albertine of the Slits and Mick Jones of the Clash – bought it without hearing a note of the music. After that, Beverly Smith answered her daughter’s fan-mail by hand: Smith received many letters from gay teenagers who’d been disowned by their parents. Beverly would invite them to the family home, Smith explains: “They thought of her as their new mom and they became close to her, independent of me, because she cared.”

One teenager who received a reply from Smith’s mother was REM’s Michael Stipe, who wrote, aged about 15, and decided to start a band after hearing Horses. He’d later help reactivate Smith’s musical career in the late Nineties after the death of her husband; she had retired from the music scene in the late Eighties and retreated to Detroit, where her children were born. She did not miss touring, still wrote her notebooks every day, and replicated the self-educating environment in which she’d grown up by studying and reading with her husband in bed at night, instead of watching the television. “I didn’t perform for 16 years and I was myself,” she says.


“I felt a duty to Robert and to our culture”: Smith and Mapplethorpe in New York, 1978

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In a sense, it was not difficult to put the career on hold because it is not exactly clear what the career is. “I never aspired to have a rock ’n’ roll band,” Smith tells me. “I’m not any particular style of performer.” Her biggest hit, “Because the Night”, was written by Bruce Springsteen and came 41 years ago. She hasn’t had a single chart since 1996 – and that was as a featured artist with REM. And as someone commonly thought to be the first punk artist, she will always stand apart from the punks who came after: “I saw myself always as a bridge to what was coming. I loved those bands but I knew that I was already looked at as a square to them, or a dinosaur. They insulted me, but they had to.” Who did? “All of them!”

In every punk documentary ever made, Smith is the artist credited with showing women they could be rockstars too. But she tells me, “I do not care about the gender thing. I wasn’t interested in trying to break ground for women. To me, we didn’t need to have it break – you just got up there and did it.”

There are many prisoners of rock ’n’ roll born in the age that brought about Patti Smith. You can spot them by hair that hasn’t changed in four decades. But there are also people, like Smith, whose relationship with that period in history is tetchier (“I can’t go through my whole life over and over with people”) because while their lives have moved on, they are still ideologically wedded to what they believed in at the time.

When living with Mapplethorpe, Smith made extra cash by reviewing records for local Manhattan newspapers that no longer exist, and later for Rolling Stone and Cream. magazines. She’d receive ten dollars for writing a piece, and sell the records she chose not to write about for a dollar each. But she never gave a bad review to anyone.

“I don’t see the point in writing a bad review,” she says. “I wrote to open people’s eyes to things they didn’t know. Our cultural voice was built in that period. Rolling Stone went across barriers: revolution and politics and economics. It’s where you went to see how our culture was moving. It wasn’t guided by what was popular – it was guided by what was guiding us. Maybe it will be relevant again. But what is relevant now? The only thing that’s relevant is truth – and you really have to get a machete to cut through everything to find it.”

When it comes to the tendency to look backwards, Smith says, “I don’t think of it as nostalgia – I think of it as pain. I still feel pain that Jimi Hendrix died at 27. I still feel pain that Camus died at 46. I still feel pain to see how the Trump administration has unravelled all of Obama’s good works. Everything good that he did, especially for the environment, has been destroyed. So it’s not nostalgia, it’s more pride and some pain.”

She considers herself a “follower” of Greta Thunberg. “In 2020, I’m hoping to see millions of people on the streets. I hope it’s like the time of Gandhi.” But of her own generation, she is now more ambivalent. Born just six months after Donald Trump in 1946, she often crossed paths with her fellow New Yorker in the Seventies: “He has always been around, always terrible.” They would find themselves at the same Manhattan events or dinner table from time to time.

“He was pitching Trump Towers then. And just seeing him evolve, and everything he touches turns to shit. I never in my wildest dreams imagined this man would be president of the United States – someone that I thought was reprehensible since I was in my twenties. He is the most horrible example of anything that could have come out of my generation. Born in the same year – and I have to look at this person, and I think: all our hopes and dreams from childhood, to going through the Sixties, everything we went through – and that’s what came out of our generation. Him.

“I remember in the Seventies, I wrote, ‘I’m an American artist and I have no guilt.’ Now I feel like saying, ‘I’m an American artist and I feel guilty about everything.’”

Smith’s main income (you sense she lives thriftily) comes from touring. The first musician whose performance truly shook her was Johnny Winter, blues player and brother of Edgar – partially blind, albino, jumping into the audience in New York in the early Seventies and engaging them with what she describes as a “wicked and loving” energy. At her own shows, she sees audience members for whom she could be grandmother and feels “both a unity and a different sense of love”. She wears the same clothes on stage as she would for her Paris walkabout, and the set is minimal, with no video projections or lighting cues: “All the same as the Seventies, except we got older.”

If Smith is doing a Hendrix cover and spies a child in the audience upset by the volume, she either brings the child on stage “or I’ll stop the fucking song and have them leave – it’s not right”.

But despite this sense of responsibility, she is not  “the earth mother every minute”. Smith knows there are ways in which she has evolved as a human being, entering her seventh decade, but she liked the younger, harder self too. The travel is wearing these days. “One has to make priorities,” she says. “ What do I want to do with the next decade of my life?”

Three days after we speak, she plays the Paris Olympia to an audience of about 3,000, giving her – presumably – enough time to walk around the city and fill a few more notebooks before she gets on stage. 

“Year of the Monkey” is published by Bloomsbury. Patti Smith appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 1 November

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 27 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace