Patti Smith on the pathos and passion behind her latest writing

The iconic singer on Warhol’s meanness, family life, and being the original gender-bender

Elio Iannacci
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US singer and songwriter Patti Smith poses during the opening of an exhibition dedicated to the late US photographer Robert Mapplethorpe at the Grand Palais in Paris on March 24, 2014. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK KOVARIK

(Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)
(Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

“Patti Smith saw so far into the future she could afford to take 10 years off and not say another word.” These are the words of performer Sandra Bernhard, who, in her one-woman show, Without You I’m Nothing, eloquently sums up the influence that Smith has had on many generations of artists, writers and creative types, from Madonna and Morrissey to Courtney Love and Lorde. Smith’s 1975 debut album, Horses, tackled a bevy of social and political issues: gender equality, the environment and the side effects of capitalism. Her gender-bending style, which she once described as “equal parts Balenciaga and Brando,” also changed the way music fans thought of women in bands.

Her first memoir, Just Kids, which went on to win a National Book Award (and is set to be adapted into a TV series by Showtime), offered some hints at Smith’s path to greatness. It chronicles her early life in New York City as a broke but brilliant artist paying her dues and falling in love with a just-as broke and brilliant gay photographer: her best friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. Her follow-up, M Train, goes further. In an extensive two-hour interview, the 68-year-old writer, artist and godmother of punk opens up on the pathos and the passion behind her newest batch of writing.

Q: In the ’70s, being a person who was interested in the cross-section of art, fashion and music was considered unworthy. Did you feel like you and Robert Mapplethorpe were pioneers?

A: Yes and no. I’d like to think that in the terms of multidisciplinary people, Robert crossed over everywhere. I’m old-fashioned. I think William Blake and people in the Renaissance people were multi. Look at da Vinci, he was involved in science; and Michelangelo was dabbling in poetry. Both of them were painters and sculptors but they also involved themselves with architecture. I honestly don’t know what happened in the ’60s and ’70s. If you sang rock and roll in America at that time or were involved in expressing yourself through music like that, then many thought you couldn’t possibly be an artist. That thinking is archaic.

Q: You once stated you felt “our cultural voice” was in jeopardy. Is it still in trouble?

A: I was talking about the cultural voice that I grew up with. I can’t presume to say that about this new generation’s cultural voice—that would be unfair and presumptuous. I’m estranged from social media and I don’t really deal with it. I tried to work on a website and it took up all my time. People wanted me to have a Twitter account and I spent the whole day figuring out what would be the first message. I still haven’t wrapped my head around it.

Q: So many great artists have decided to keep away from the viral game altogether. Is this a missed opportunity?

A: Social media could be very strong in terms of bringing people together but it also takes up so much of people’s time that I wonder if we’ve lost the ability to daydream. I daydream a lot—that’s how I get my ideas. If I’m sitting in a café, I’m not on my phone because I want to hear my mind. I think that those periods of small solitude that we are really losing are so important. People need space to air out their thoughts, to have a sense of themselves—unfettered by anything. We’re a culture more than ever that wants proof of everything, we want things fast, and someone sends you an email, you want to answer in five minutes. We have to allow ourselves nothingness, in our relationships too. When I had a long-distance relationship with [husband] Fred—we only got to talk on the phone once a week if we were lucky. That was three years of long distance.

Q: In M Train, you say it is tough having no partner to rely on when it comes to writing. Why?

A: Arthur Conan Doyle had to be Sherlock Holmes in order to envision how Sherlock Holmes would unravel a mystery. He had to be in Sherlock’s situations. You have to be of two minds. I watch a lot of crime shows. The head investigator always said to the crime solver, “What do you say?” And inevitably the other has to say something like, “Well I’m thinking he was shot in the neck with a certain gun and he seemed to be running.” The solver has to picture what he’s seeing first, and then express his own observations. The writer does the same.

Q: Where you write is of utmost importance in M Train. Why are you so particular about cafés?

A: Because of the nature of my work, I travel a lot. I write on desks of so many hotel rooms. When I was home, traditionally since I was young, I’d write in cafés. That was the romantic notion in 1963. Café atmospheres back then were different. The café life really stemmed from the Parisians’ idea of it, with poets struggling over their poems and drinking coffee. No music, no sounds, maybe a little jazz, or soul, but mostly nothing. Now you go into a café and the music is really loud, people are having business meetings, they are on their cellphones. It changes from generation to generation.

Q: A lot of what you do is about sacrificing one work for another, i.e. scrapping ideas and paragraphs for newer stories. Are there emotional repercussions?

A: Oh yes. Robert and I used to always call our work our children when we were younger. Sometimes you have to abandon your own children for other children. You get very attached to a certain child but then you have to sell it and you agonize because you had to sell it, or you agonize because you can’t sell it.

Q: At what period in your life did you feel the most pressure?

A: I have abandoned so many projects but in the ’80s when I left public life to be married and have real children—I love my children and I would never sacrifice them for anything—I had to find a way to simultaneously be a mother and wife and fulfill my duties and still be true to myself as a writer. I woke up at 5 in the morning and wrote until 8. My children woke up at nine. I came to cherish that time because it’s a silent time. You go out and stars are just going out of the sky, the light is just coming up and no one is awake yet. I disciplined myself to still write early in the morning but I wrote novels, books of poetry, but I haven’t published anything from the ’80s and I wrote every single day.

Q: Do you plan on revisiting all that abandoned work? What is it mostly comprised of?

A: It’s all fiction. In order to do that I need the same kind of concentrative solitude because everything was written by hand, I had no typewriter. I have piles of notebooks. Just Kids came out of years of disciplining myself and learning how to write between making lunch, dinner, breakfast, and sewing hems on uniforms, taking care of my husband and washing clothes.

Q: Most people would think you’d have a team of people helping you raise your kids…

A: I didn’t have nannies or babysitters. I came from a lower middle-class household with four children; I’m the oldest so I know how to be responsible. When I’m on my own, I’m a bum, though. I’m okay with roaming around the world in my bunk for days on end. Maybe every third day I’ll get a shower or stumble out at dawn and realize I’m in a field in Poland. I like that kind of life.

Q: There is a chapter in M Train where you describe a hallucinogenic experience you had while sleeping in Frida Kahlo’s bed. What parallels in your own life do you see in the lives of Frida and Diego?

A: Robert and I were two young artists and had a very feverish bond. I can’t say that I’m more like Frida or Diego in one way or another but I can say that I had a couple of relationships in my life, that were so entwined with another great, creative, brilliant person. In that way, I feel I can taste what Frida’s life was like.

Q: You draw from the tarot deck regularly. What card do you get seem to always be stuck with?

A: The Queen of Swords. Always. At this point, I have just divined that it’s my card. I’ve gotten that card over and over no matter how much I shuffle. It’s a very focused, strong card. When I’m faltering I’ll look at that card and consider the philosophy surrounding it and try to apply it. Its not an aggressive or war-like card—its just someone that has moral armour and proceeds with their tasks.

Q: You’ve explored Neil Young’s lyrics a little in this book. Why?

A: Talk about shaping the cultural voice! Neil did that. He and I are the exact same age but I wasn’t a ’60s person. When he was out in the trenches and writing songs like Ohio, I was working in a bookstore and drawing. I wasn’t really connected with the world because I worked six days a week and lived in Brooklyn. Neil’s songs and a song like Ohio made me become a disciple, just like Bob Dylan or Joan Baez. With that single song, he helped unite our country to start seriously protesting the Vietnam War. Then those young people were killed at Penn State for the smallest little peaceful protest against the war—these were 250 kids, not an angry mob of 3,000. When Neil came out with that song it was like a wake-up call and, believe me, it did wake people up.

Q: Some days it seems we are getting away from his idea—which you’ve quoted in the book, “that winning is an illusion.” When you see the reality show contests, the importance placed on getting a leading hashtag or becoming a trending topic … that all seems a universe away.

A: This is temporary. These are exciting and dark times, because no one knows how powerful technology is. We know how much evil can be done; we know how much hacking can affect us. New generations are intoxicated with the idea that they can make their presence known on the Internet. When I was young, there wasn’t anything comparable. Very few got their picture in a magazine, fewer made records. We have to stand back and let them get their footing. Hopefully they’ll come to the realization that the most important thing is their work and how they conduct themselves. I see my own daughter make use of all of this. She’s a very fine musician and she’s has a very strong social consciousness and is concerned about climate change. She’s very savvy in social media. I don’t quite understand what a hashtag is but she finds a way to make it useful.

Q: Did you always see yourself as a leader?

A: I’m the oldest of four children so I was my siblings’ shepherd. I was always concerned about them. When I did Horses it was my first album. I was much older than Neil Young or Bob Dylan, when they did their first album. I was declaring my own existence and my sense of self but I was really also thinking about what was going to happen with the new generation. I was lucky I had Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin and all the beat poets. As people were dying, and other people were withdrawing, I started understanding the way that things were developing. I wanted Horses to be some kind of bridge for new generations to grab ahold of. I didn’t care about a career or being famous and I didn’t think I was better than anyone else. I had a desire to do something great, but I didn’t want anything out of anybody.

Q: You once said that Andy Warhol and the scenesters at the Factory often made fun of you. Why do you think that is?

A: I came from South Jersey—it’s very rural. I was very well read, and I knew a lot. I knew more about literature and various things than most of those people did. I didn’t know or care about drug culture. I understood high fashion because I found old Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines and I loved the House of Dior and Chanel—I loved high fashion. So I came to New York somewhat of a hick but a knowledgeable one. They didn’t know what to do with me. They would be really snotty with me and sometimes it would hurt my feelings, but Robert was my knight. He wanted very much to be a part of some of those worlds but he didn’t let people mess with me—he always stood up for me.

They just didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t show them any respect and I wasn’t trying to get anything out of them. Now you have people networking, back then it was hustling. I wasn’t part of that hustle. I was dreaming about writing a book that would be as great as Pinocchio is. To me Warhol’s Factory was like high school. People [were] judging you by the way that you looked or what you were dressed in and by your accent. Andy Warhol was a genius, I respect him on that level, but I think to him I was a dirty hick. Robert and I didn’t even have a bathroom in our place so I only washed once a week and I didn’t comb my hair. I was repellent to Warhol. Yet before he died he showed me a great respect and we worked that out. Some of the work he did—like his take on the Last Supper—was phenomenal.

Q: In M Train, you have this wonderfully obsessive paragraph about Maria Callas. What is it about her that is still so magnetic?

A: A critic said it best a long time ago. Something like, “If you want to know what an angel sounds like, you go to Renata Tebaldi—because she is so technically beautiful. If you want to know what an angel feels like go to Maria.” She had it all: she was beautiful and one of our greatest voices and she was embraced by high society. She also had one of the richest men in the world [Aristotle Onassis, who famously left Callas for Jacqueline Kennedy] and really fell in love with him. Then she sacrificed her career for him. That doesn’t happen often in today’s world.

Q: So much of your writing is about people who have passed away. Did any of your literary heroes—who often wrote about loss—prepare you for your losses?

A: I don’t think anything can prepare you for one’s losses. Robert—who I always felt would be my lifelong friend and collaborator—was suddenly gone. Then my pianist, Richard Sohl, died. He was younger than me and I always thought he would always be my collaborator. Then my husband passed away—I thought he would be my partner forever. Then my brother [died] too. I thought they would all last a lifetime, at least my lifetime.

Q: What helped you to cope with all this devastation?

A: One thing I did have under my belt was, my mother lost her mother when she was 11. She mourned her mother her whole life and made my grandmother seem present even though I never met her. I couldn’t imagine how my mom could go on but she did, she took care of us, she worked two jobs and had four children. She was such a good example of how to conduct oneself in a time of grief. When I lost my husband, I tried to model myself as much as I could on her. What helps me is watching other people negotiate loss. I think about how we dropped a bomb on people in Hiroshima and 150,000 people were killed in one night. Those people had to mourn and they had to rebuild their city right away.

Q: You often write about visions of your husband watching over you in dreams. Is it a challenge to revisit that?

A: All of my dreams from the past 20 years of Fred are sad. The truth is, he’s not seeing his children and not physically here. To have an unexpected joyful dream about him was a gift. That’s why I wrote it down. The others are too sad. I used to dream about Robert almost every night. It was like I could see Robert sitting across from me most days.

Q: You once said, “being any gender is a drag.”

A: I’m very comfortable with being a female now but when I was a little kid I only wanted to be a boy. I didn’t want to be a girl. I didn’t feel like a man inside… being a boy was just cooler. I have seen a lifetime of transgender people and it was hard enough being gay in the ’50s and early ’60s. One couldn’t imagine the cruelty that trans people had to face back then.

Q: Your debut album pretty much has that anti-gender stamp on it.

A: Yes, on the back of Horses I wrote “Beyond Gender.” I was not going to be confined or defined in any way. I’m 68 years old now and I still don’t bend to anybody’s concept of gender. All I’ve ever wanted to do was create freedom. My mother helped [instill] this in me. She wanted us to be good people—whatever sexual orientation any of us would’ve chosen. I grew up with that. I’d come home and her house would be filled with a lot of male gay couples that were thrown out of their house because their parents turned their backs on them. Some of them had AIDS and nowhere to go.

Q: You’ve never cared for the term “feminist.” Has it evolved to your liking?

A: I still don’t want to be put in the feminist bag. I’m a humanist. Of course I care about women’s rights but as a mother I have a son and a daughter. I care for my son and my daughter’s rights. In the ’50s you had to wear pink ribbons if you were a girl, and you were supposed to become a hairdresser or a secretary. I couldn’t stomach it. Later on, when I fell in love with my husband and had children, that’s when my mother’s earthiness or sense of femaleness kicked in. As an artist, I never wanted to be fettered by gender nor recognized or defined as a female poet, musician or singer. They don’t do that with men—nobody says Picasso, the male artist. Curators call me up and say, “We want your work to be in a show about women artists,” and I’m like, why? For Christ’s sake, do we have to attach a gender onto everything?

Q: You’ve written songs and poems about U.S. presidents but I’m wondering if you are supporting any candidates at this time?

A: I don’t know for whom I would vote. I worked for Hillary [Clinton] when I was young—when she was running for the Senate. I was fundraising and things, I see all of these people as political in a way that isn’t humanistic. I’m just watching and hoping that someone is going to distinguish himself or herself as comprehending what we need. Look at Obama—he is now trying to help us environmentally but he should have done it eight years ago. He’s trying to salvage his legacy and trying to do something good but we needed for him to show leadership from day one. Our country is run by corporations, it is run by banks and Wall Street. That’s why we can’t get guns under control. It’s because all these lobbyists don’t want gun control, they don’t want us to have strong environmental safety guards. Young people can become aware of that and they are the most powerful lobby. With a click of a text, you can have millions of people voting for one person.

Q: You have such incredible work, have you ever felt censored?

A: I’ve been censored but it doesn’t bother me. They wouldn’t play my records because I had armpit hair on the cover of my Easter album and because I had a song called Rock n Roll Nigger. I don’t feel like a victim. I feel that when you do controversial work, you’re going to upset a certain amount of people.

Q: Have you ever felt some reactions to be so extreme that you wanted to quit?
A: Horses upset a lot of people because of the “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” line. I got hate letters, death threats, some said Jesus was going to come down and smite me. They didn’t understand the phrase at all. For Rock n Roll Nigger, people still look at it as insensitive and terrible, politically incorrect. I don’t feel that anyone keeps me from doing the work, though. I’m my bigger censor.

Q: Do you see artists like Pussy Riot as a beacon of change?

A: What I think they did was great. They had a real purpose. They used the sanctity of the church to speak out on the government; those priests should’ve embraced those kids. When I was young I was very confrontational, but now I have different methods.

Q: Fans are still waiting for you to record the unreleased song She Walked Home—which is about Jacqueline Kennedy. You demoed it with your husband. Will it ever happen?

A: My son and daughter and I will do it together for the next album. It’s always been very hard because I can still hear my husband’s voice singing it. I didn’t have any false illusions about Jackie. She was our queen, but in such a cool way. She brought couture to the White House but in a gentle way. She was intelligent and well read, she read poetry and wore Chanel.

Q: Is it tough to revisit old demos? Do you get hypercritical?

A: I can’t always listen to the sound of my voice. I can’t listen to my records except for certain cuts. I’ll listen to Radio Baghdad and Radio Ethiopia. I’m not disappointed—I always know that everything I do is the best I could do—for that moment. For example, I was reading M Train publicly and I found a flaw. But it won’t change the book or my life.