I go to meet Patti Smith in a downtown café, New York. I feel like I already know her a little. We’ve had an exchange of emails and calls to set up this interview. She ended up as my migraine advisor, very nurturing. Not what I expected to find. Not the woman whose image I grew up with. When I was at school, a boy who knew me well said as he presented me with her debut album Horses, ‘you’re gonna love this. It’s a singing Sylvia Plath but way more cool looking.’ Indeed she was. A pre-punk poetess whose most successful song Because the Night she co-wrote a few years later with Bruce Springsteen a couple of years later in 1979.
The Horses album was all about the look. The Robert Mapplethorpe cover portrayed a stylish, androgynous creature with a white shirt, a ribbon tie and a boys’ blazer hung over one shoulder. Black and white. Such a powerful image. Everyone assumed she was a powerful person. She was however shy and vulnerable. She’d never intended to be a rock n roll singer so it was no sacrifice for her to give up touring and marry Fred Sonic Smith, live in rural Detroit and be a wife and mother to their two children. When he died at 45 in 1994 she was forced back into the limelight to make albums and tour. But she never stopped writing. She’d already been working on Just Kids – a memoir of her life with Mapplethorpe, a moving poetic best seller published in 2010. In that book, we see that she is a complex person, a good girl doing bad things or a bad girl doing good things. Since then there have been more books including M Train, another winner of the National Book Award.
The night before we meet she’d hosted a premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival for the documentary Horses (out on Apple Music May 22nd). To make people feel it was worth their ticket price, she decided to perform a short set joined by Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe. What was a casual jam for Smith, was THE ticket of the festival – the only news item of Tribeca to hit Page 6.
She’s texted me she’s sitting at the back of the café so I head straight over to the woman in John Lennon spectacles and long, grey, tangled hair that probably never sees a brush. The waitress says ‘Oh, you’re with her,’ and nods with a look of nonchalance combined with respect. It’s her local café. She’s here every day. We would have gone to her home but she explains her daughter Jessie who runs an anti-climate change organisation, is embroiled in meetings there.
She’s wearing a red tartan flannel shirt and a t shirt she’s slept in, given to her by the Electric Lady studios where she recorded Horses and where we are soon to end up because the café is too noisy.
She smiles when I bring up the Horses premiere. “It was a wonderful night.” On cue her son – the bands guitarist – now back in Detroit calls. They chat warmly, sort of like mother and son but somehow even their casual is intensely close. Then Jessie arrives in the café for a takeout for her and her colleagues. We all walk down the street towards the studio. Jessie towers above us. “I used to be tall,” says Smith, “until I had children. My son is 6 foot 4.” Jessie’s legs are indeed endless and liquorice stick skinny in her black leggings with lace inserts.
Smith has added an Anne Demeulemeester blazer to her ensemble. When Smith was broke, Demeulemeester sent her a suitcase full of runway garments. Smith spots that I am wearing an Anne Demeulemeester eyelet shirt. “I have the same one, “she says enthusiastically, “and there were so few of them made.” I can’t help it. This makes me feel bizarrely akin to her, so I can ask her all the questions she’s never answered because have the same shirt.
Once inside Electric Lady, she takes me into the actual studio where Horses was recorded. Electric Lady studios were built by Jimi Hendrix.
We go upstairs to a quiet spot with a velvet couch and floor tapestry, past the murals which Smith remembers being there on the opening night. But in those pre Instagram days things were different. Things were not documented. “Things shift as you get older (she’s now 71). When I was younger I was extremely photogenic and I was fascinated to get my picture taken. These days I’m not so fascinated with my own image but I like connecting with people. Instagram I don’t take many pictures of myself but I take pictures of the world. I never appreciated the phone at all before. It was thrust upon me by my kids but now I find it very useful. You can write about a café in Czechoslovakia or your favourite poet or when Milos Forman died I did a little meditation for him and today I put up a picture of Saint Bernadette, always my favourite Saint when I was young.”
Smith grew up a Jehovah’s Witness. God, prayer, the saints, the Bible have always been significant in her life. Her mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, encouraged her to read the bible every day. She found it a creative tool. God is indeed throughout her lyrics. The seminal Gloria starts “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.”
You don’t necessarily associate androgynous rock star and God but that’s why it all works. When you meet her she’s not the least bit androgynous. She’s more mother figure and uber female.
“I felt a kinship with Catholicism as a young girl. It was almost completely aesthetic. We were a poor family and I found objects of Catholicism that my friends had like rosaries, holy pictures were a fascination but I wasn’t drawn to the dogma of the church.
My mother taught me about God when I was 3 years old. I was a precocious reader by the time I was 3. Not a child genius or anything but I went to bible school early in life. It was very spartan. They had no crosses or statues, just bibles. Teachings revolve around the interpretation of the meaning of the scriptures. I was fascinated with the difference between our meeting hall which was unadorned and then going with a friend to mass which was like being inside of a jewel box and it seemed magical until I got whacked on the butt by a nun for not getting up and sitting down at the right times.
There is a romanticism of the stories of the saints but being whacked on the butt is not in the bible so I found myself rebelling against these Dogmas. Can you imagine Jesus doing that? Jesus was a remarkable teacher. I’ve read the bible all my life and I still read it. At Easter time I like to read the New Testament and I read it quite a bit because my sister is a Jehovah witness and she reads the scriptures every day and we have a nice rhythm of having bible studies together. I enjoy talking about the bible with her because next to her children and grandchildren it’s the most important thing to her. It’s a beautiful way for us to connect.”
She and her sister Linda remain close. She is not so close to her sister Kimberley – 12 years her junior. The song Kimberley on Horses was written for her. “She’s had a lot of difficulties in her life. I do the best I can by her but we’re not as close as my other sister and I. people evolve in different ways.”
She was super close to her brother Todd who died suddenly one month after her husband in 1994. “He had a faulty heart valve which, if he had known, a 39-cent piece of plastic could have stopped it. It was a terrible, terrible blow. My brother was so animated, so energetic, so loving. A great man. A double blow because we had decided after my husband Fred died that my brother would come and live with me and help raise my son and daughter. We felt that that would be a positive and good transition because my kids loved him but then he died.
He wasn’t sick, he had no symptoms. It just happened. It took a long time to reconcile. I had already lost Robert (Mapplethorpe) and then my pianist died from the same heart valve problem as my brother. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than losing Robert but then my whole world was grief.” Mapplethorpe died in 1989. “I was just getting myself emotionally back on my feet when Fred died in 94.”
She took her marriage very seriously. At the time, feminists complained that she’d swapped the edgy rock n roll life to be wife and mother, implying it was a giant betrayal. They saw her refusal to shave her armpits for the cover of the album Easter (1979) as a feminist statement, but it was nothing to do with that. It was her statement as an artist, as a person.
When I was a young girl I was interviewed by Ms Magazine. They came to my apartment and I was doing my boyfriend’s laundry. He was a musician going on tour and the journalist found this so distasteful but I said he pays for our apartment and I like doing his laundry. She found it so anti-feminist she dropped the story. If I want to treat my husband like a king, I’ll treat him like a king. I don’t want to be defined by anything. I don’t want to be defined as a punk priestess. The wild Mustang of Rock – whatever they called me. I did my best work when I was married and out of the limelight and people found it so vile. They would do articles about me depicted flying through in the air with udders, cow udders. I had turned into a domestic cow, yet I flourished.”
“I’ve been writing poetry and stories since I was 12 years old. I’ve always considered myself as a writer. I came to New York as a poet and when I met Robert that was my essential preoccupation. Then I began to perform poetry and because of my energy without planning it I just organically started merging rock and roll and poetry. I never expected to make a record. I never expected to tour. It was something I was given the opportunity to do. I thought I would go back and work in the bookstore but when there was an opportunity to tour – I always wanted to see the world and never had any money – so I was thrilled. We went to London and Paris and Finland. I still thought I would go back to the bookstore but then I was offered another record. I felt like in the course of four albums I’d said everything I needed to say. I didn’t love that as we became more successful, demands increased. There were all these interviews and radio stations. I didn’t feel I was evolving as a human being. I didn’t feel like my writing was evolving. I felt like I was spending a huge amount of time with these extra-curricular things and because of the stress I was becoming an arrogant or demanding person.
All these things I’ve kept to myself, but when I met Fred in Detroit on the road – he had been very successful in the band MC 5 – and he now had another band Sonic Rendezvous Band (Sonic Youth would later derive their name from this band).
We fell in love. I knew he was the one immediately. I don’t know why but I did. I knew I would marry him but I didn’t really want a long distance relationship. At that time, if I was in Ireland and he was in Detroit it would cost $300 to talk to him for 20 minutes and we were always parted and I didn’t want to be parted from him anymore. He was a Detroit boy and he was loyal to Detroit. What did I want to do? It wasn’t all based on love but in the scheme of things there are all these great new bands and I thought rock n roll would be fine without me. It wouldn’t matter whether I was there or not.
When I was out of the limelight in the 80s it was my most prolific time writing. I didn’t publish anything but I learnt how to write. Had it not been for those years I wouldn’t have been able to write Just Kids.
I also think I became a better person. Fred was politically involved, very concerned at the plight of the common man and I too knew all about being poor. In the beginning I wasn’t concerned with what was happening in the world. I just wanted to be an artist but in marrying and having children I learned what it was like to be a citizen.
My mother and father struggled and they were very hard working and then I saw for myself how hard it is to take care of a family, make 3 meals a day and do the washing and the ironing.”
Did she live off royalties? “We lived very frugally. I had one successful song Because the Night and a couple of moderately successful songs. We lived really simply. We didn’t go anywhere. When we really needed money in 1987 Clive Davis gave us the money to make Dream of Life.”
In her former life as an artist living in New York in the late 60s early 70s, she lived only with her art materials, no phone, no TV. “I never had a TV in the 70’s but Fred, a Michigan man, had to have his TV. We weren’t deprived. We lived simply.”
Does she think that growing up a Jehovah Witness and used to a spartan life made her more accommodating of this? “No I don’t think it had anything to do with it. Aesthetically I always liked the things that I liked, whether I could have them or not. My mother worked as a waitress, my father was a factory worker. We had a lot of rough times when there wasn’t enough to eat and I was sick a lot. I had bronchiolar problems.”
Even today she’s still coughing, a lot. She’s given up certain foods like tomatoes and aubergines for health reasons and in the café ate roasted beets even though she doesn’t like them. She says she’s not seriously ill but has reached a point where she has to take care of herself. At the time of being a suffering artist she didn’t mind. “Everyone suffered. Van Gogh was poor, William Blake was poor. Their work wasn’t received by anyone so I felt ready for that. It wasn’t to do with religion. It was a certain amount of sacrifice and hardship was how it was meant to be. Robert on the other hand found nothing romantic about poverty. He wanted to make money and was very ambitious. Robert did not have the constitution to have a steady job and be creative. It drained him so much but I had a really strong constitution. It wasn’t a sacrifice to me to work in a bookstore”
She was happy to be the working one, the practical one, the one taking care of Robert. They met when she first moved to New York and she was living on the streets. Again, something she accepted not so much as a penance but as a rite of passage. They recognised each other as twin souls. They immediately found empathy and a bond they’d never known but was it passionate as well as soulful? A pause.
“We met when we were 20. We were both very unformed. Robert was not that experienced. We had a beautiful physical relationship. We were very work centric. We didn’t have money to go anywhere. We took walks to Washington Square Park. We entertained ourselves. We led a simple life. We didn’t have a telephone, a TV or a radio. We had a record player. I would sing him little songs or write little poems to him. We’d make love and he’d get up and draw. I loved our life. When we were 23 we moved into the Chelsea Hotel but by 24 he’d been through his – I don’t know what to call it – self evolution.”
By this she means he had discovered he identified as a homosexual male. It might be easy now to say that Mapplethorpe, who became famous for his beautiful and tortured homo erotic art, his sado masochistic epics, was gay…
“But back then when I was raised in the 1950s and early 60s people hid their homosexuality because their families would institutionalise their kids, sons especially, so the only homosexuals that you met were drag queens or very affected people. That was my only window. And his.”
She thinks he didn’t have any idea? “He didn’t and then he did. And when he did I’m sure he felt this nature burgeoning inside of him. Don’t forget he came from a strict Catholic family. His brother was in the military and he was groomed to be in the military or be a priest so there was a lot of pressure he was under. When we lived together he shed all of their expectations but in shedding them he kept shedding and found his true nature. I think us being together was probably helpful in that he could be himself but I had no idea… It was hard for Robert to let our relationship go. Robert shed as many tears as I did. I had a lot of difficulty grasping and accepting. He was always there for me. in my romanticism I thought maybe I was different but he was very, very careful to constantly tell me that this had nothing to do with me not being a good enough girlfriend.
People thought that Robert and I was a relationship of convenience (they also accused her androgynous looks with being a lesbian). This was not true. If anything it was inconvenient. We were two people who really cared about each other who were destined to part but who really mourned parting. We stayed together probably longer than we should, not out of convenience at all but because it was painful to go our separate ways. And when we finally did it was only by a few blocks.”
He must have been tortured. Does she think that all those S&M pieces he did was his expression of being pulled apart? “I never read that into it. Robert was not a verbal person. We didn’t have to talk about the meaning or why.”
Mapplethorpe did find fame and fortune. His work was overt. His work represented a time of gay free spirit. A celebration of coming out of the darkness and then the darkness came back. Even his most famous images themselves became sad with the onset of AIDS. An epidemic. A metaphor for the death of sexual freedom. His images that celebrated this time became even more of an anachronism when he contracted the disease and died with AIDS related complications. I’m not sure his work would have flourished in this century.
“Robert told me at the end of his life in 1989 that he was glad he took his pictures when he did because ‘I could never take them now.’ Because of the climate, because Robert had AIDS and he was dying of AIDS, many of his friends, many of his models, many people that we knew either had died or were dying of AIDS and he was well aware that it would not be the climate to do these photographs so he felt very privileged and grateful that he took them when he did.”
There’s a pause. Not a sticky one but a sad one. She’s looking into mid distance as she often does. Not because she’s afraid to look people in the eye, but that it’s like a little meditation descends over her, where she’s connecting with something higher, maybe even Robert himself.
“I always feel Robert is with me. I hear his voice. I feel him. When I was working on the book I could feel his encouragement and his impatience.
The phone rings and it’s her daughter Jessie. She tells her she’ll call her back and tells me she’s an awesome girl. And suddenly she’s back in the 70s where she was in this very studio recording Horses.
“I had no expectations or knowledge of what was ahead of me but I knew I wanted to be with Fred and Fred wanted children so we had them. I had never imagined having children. I wanted to be an artist. My whole childhood I was so sickly I never thought I’d be living very long. I’d been coughing my whole life. It wasn’t on my radar but I’m so glad I did because I love my kids. I loved them when I had them and being part of their life. I love them now. They are such great people and great friends and they magnify their father. They even have his annoying traits which I see and love.
Fred would take hours to choose a tie and my daughter will also take hours to choose something that she’s going to wear. I’m the kind of person that well, will just put on anything (including the T shirt that she’s slept in). I have worn these jackets from Anne Demeulemeester for years since she saw me in a concert in Belgium in the 70s. She fell in love with the picture on the cover of Horses (with the Catholic schoolboys blazer bought from a thrift store). She told me I was her imaginary muse. Women’s jackets have too many darts. They were so fussy. Anne sent me a huge box of clothes when my husband died. She sent me this blazer about nine months ago. I haven’t changed my style since the 70s. Jessie found a picture of me from the 70s wearing a striped polo neck shirt and black pants and I was actually wearing the same thing that day. I’m sorry I didn’t dress up for you and I’m wearing the shirt I slept in. I mean, I was exhausted.”
She’s wearing a pink ruby ring around her neck. “It’s an Indian ruby. It’s a Talisman. I’ve been a widow since 1994 so I buy myself jewellery once in a while. When I finish a major work I’ll buy a present for myself. It’s not that I care about money. If I have to live simply I will but on the other hand if someone books my into a five star hotel with Italian sheets and porcelain from France I will enjoy it. But also if it’s not cold or raining I can sleep on a park bench. And that’s how I work. I can go in front of 100 people and do poetry or 100,000 and rock and roll. Either one.”
When she starts her UK tour (June 2ndBrighton Dome and All Points East in Victoria Park on June 3rd) it will be the latter. Jackson will be with her onstage. Jessie will be doing climate change activism in Paris.
“My children didn’t even know I performed but I had to come back. For a start, we were living in rural Detroit and I don’t drive. I can’t legally drive as I have a neurological problem where I can’t tell right from left.”
Was she ready to get back into rock and roll? “I was ready to get reacquainted with people. It was really writing the book Just Kids that helped me. It’s the most successful thing I’ve ever done, which I find very funny. Robert always wanted me to be successful. I didn’t care. I was conceited. I wanted to be great. I would have rather been unsuccessful and poor but be great. All I ever wanted to do was great work. Robert asked me to write the book the day before he died and I vowed to him that I would.”
In this book she also reveals that when she was 19 and living in the laundry room of her parent’s house in South Jersey because there were not enough bedrooms, she became pregnant and decided to give birth to the child knowing she was going to give it away.
“Yes, it was very difficult. But I had my goal and I was determined. I was still living in a very poor situation. The father was younger and poorer than me and I wanted the child to be brought up in an atmosphere where they could get a good education.”
She would have to give up art college and her part time factory job that she took to support herself through college. “At 19 it was the best decision I knew how to make. I was on my path to be an artist. I couldn’t even find a job in this area. It was the right decision at the time. The child was always in my thoughts and I said a prayer for the child every day and continue to do so.”
It’s as if the tumultuous ordeal was a suffering she had to make worth it. She had no choice but to be a great artist after she’d given up her child and as for the praying, I learned that it really is part of her life.
“The way we pray is almost like saying Grace. If we’re having a little dinner with some people Jessie might say ‘will you say a prayer?’ and I’ll say of course. As a Jehovah witness we don’t go to church but Jessie and I often go to churches to light candles for our loved ones. We sit and contemplate… although the individual candle thing was getting very out of hand. The beautiful thing about churches is these are things where people bare themselves. There might be prayers of gratitude or sorrow, for forgiveness or for the sick but they vibrate with the energy of people in prayer. Often I just sit there and think about things.”
She often has this other worldly look as if she’s being transported somewhere spiritual and I wonder how the inner works with her outer aesthetic. She’s always liked a specific look.
“I’ve never worn make up. I grew up in the 50s and early 60s where girls used tons of make-up. Cleopatra eyes, tons of hairspray and I couldn’t stand it. I don’t like perfume or nail polish. I even did theatre for a while. I was good on stage but I couldn’t stand the pancake make-up.”
That didn’t stop her doing a cameo a few years ago in The Killing, one of her favourite TV series. “But they didn’t make me wear make-up. but I’m not an actress. I learned that very quickly. I’d have loved to have been an idiosyncratic detective.” She’s also a big fan of Wallander. “I just don’t have those skills but I admire them. I also admire people who are good bricklayers or bakers. The things that people do that take an enormous amount of work, concentration and sacrifice.”
Sacrifice again. Still a big theme with her. She’s also become more politically evolved, particularly with environmental issues. “Environmental issues because of all the toxins in our water and our food. Our children are getting sicker. I’m looking at the rise of autism, the collapse of the bee population, neurological diseases in children and the Great Barrier Reef dying. 20 years ago, I remember Adam Yautch of the Beastie Boys meeting the Dalai Lama and asking him what was the most important thing that young people could do and he said ‘looking after our planet.’ That was 20 years ago and it stayed with me. There are many important causes to embrace but basically I’m a Humanist and the fate of our planet is at the top of the spectrum. It’s probably the most difficult time I’ve seen in my lifetime but life is still beautiful.
I’m hoping America will develop a new party because the old guard has not done too well. I’m exactly the same age as Donald Trump. My generation had so many dreams and hopes, things we wanted to do… Donald Trump and I were both living in New York and I met him at a dinner party when I was about 30. He was one of the most horrendous people that I ever met. Bullish, conceited, full of himself. I was invited as an artist and he was there as an investor. He was developing Trump Tower then. He was there with his then wife Ivanka. I didn’t like him then and I don’t like him now. My generation had dreams of peace and making our environment better so it’s like having the anti-Christ in charge. At the same time all these young people have given me so much hope so I don’t wake up and think about what he’s doing. I think about what the young people are doing to help make a change.
We have an environment which is hurting our children so I try to focus on that.”
She has always stressed that she prefers to deal with human issues rather than women’s issues and therefore is not particularly connected to the #metoo movement. “For myself I don’t have any stories to offer. “There are many things that concern me but we have to choose what to put our energy into. I haven’t had to suffer what some people have had to suffer. My fight all my life has never been with that focus. Even if there was a gender issue I never recognised it as such.”
Does she think that women have become more vulnerable? “I’m in a different time in my life so I’m not preoccupied with that. I’ve never been to therapy. I’m not self-analytical. I’m a work-based person. I have to put my energies into things that I think are important with the time I have left.
My issues were all over creative control issues, career ending decisions like doing a song called Rock n Roll Nigger or having armpit hair on the cover of the album Easter. I had no idea it was controversial. I don’t shave my armpits. I never thought about it. They refuse to rack it in many states in America. On the cover of Horses they wanted to airbrush my hair because it was messy. They wanted me to wear make-up and it was a simple thing for me. I didn’t want it and if there were repercussions I didn’t care.”
She wasn’t doing this as a feminist. “But as an artist, as a person. Women have never had anything handed to them. Whether it was the right to vote, the right to have abortions, nothing is handed to women. Women have to fight for everything. I know that we have many feminist movements. All of these movements are necessary for change. I have never been a person to align myself to any movements. I find myself confined.”
She’s soft spoken still, yet such defiance, such passion all within her. Does she miss not having a man to make King? “I do. I miss him, I missed him, I still miss him. I miss Robert. I miss Sam Shephard, a man who has been a friend my whole life. I have men friends, I enjoy them. I like female friends and I like my children. I’ve never been a gender based person and at this point in my life at 71 I’m even less gender based. I have some male friends who like to make me feel pampered but not in a romantic way. In a neo romantic way.
All the men I’ve had the strongest relationships with have all died but I still have a rewarding life. I have my band, my friends, Lenny Kaye has played with me for many years. He’ll come to the UK on the tour. I always play Brighton because I love Brighton. I’m writing another book, a sister book to Just Kids, which is more focused on me and not Robert. Fred will be the King of this book. People ask was Robert the love of your life? Robert was the artist of my life and Fred was the love of my life. I still feel both of them but I feel them differently. My husband in my daily life because he was my daily life and through my children. I can’t even watch the shows we watched. We used to love watching the British Open together. I tried but I can’t. It just makes me miss him. I’ve always kept him with us. My children and I talk about him. We laugh, we go to his grave together.
Does she think she’s going to die? “No but if I live to 90 I’ve still only got a certain amount of time and a lot of work to do. I’m not talking in a morose way. I never talked like this until I turned 70. That’s a number to be reckoned with. Before that I had been a Peter Pan type person, disassociated with chronology.”
How could she not be after going through so many deaths? Does she think about death itself? I’ve read various philosophies about what happens after death but I’m just focused on living as long as possible so I can be here for my kids and my projects. I’m working simultaneously on five book projects so I need all the time I can get to continue working.
Aware that we have spent several hours together I sense it’s time to go. She points me in the direction of a cab uptown but afterwards calls me, worried that it was the bad time of day to get a taxi and am I back safely? Still out there, still edgy, still defiant, still rock and roll and still saying her prayers.
June 2nd 2018 Brighton Dome
June 3rd 2018 London All Points East, Victoria Park
June 5th 2018 Manchester Apollo
June 11th 2018 Cardiff Church of St John The Evangelist
June 12th 2018 Cardiff Festival of Voice, Wales Millennium Centre
August 4th 2018 Cambridge Folk Festival