By Lauren Harris; Photos by Steven Sebring on December 10, 2008
Patti Smith is a gracious host. In the documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life, the multi-hyphenate artist sits in the corner of a room in her Detroit home. Strewn around her are articles of clothing, photographs, an urn, a feather—each an accidental symbol of some passage of Smith’s life. Once she picks an item up, it serves as a rabbit hole through time and place, where Smith—with the help of director Steven Sebring—tells the story of her life as not only an artist, but as a mother, daughter, lover, friend and collaborator through performances, interviews, archival footage and quiet observation. “I would find ways to entertain us by looking at my things,” Smith says of the interstitial scenes. “I would tell him about my tambourine, or my children’s clothing or whatever I was going through in my room. It wasn’t anything we planned. We were going to try to improvise something, and I think it worked quite well.”
It is during these object interludes in the film that it becomes clear that Patti Smith is impossible to define by a roomful of objects, a catalog filled with songs, even a film documenting 10 years of her life. Where others might recede into another article on the floor, Smith blooms, neither owned by her possessions nor shrinking from the weight of a past that encompasses everything from rock stardom to solo artistry, from forming the bedrock of an artistic community to intense personal loss (Smith’s brother and husband would die a month apart from one another in 1994). She sits amongst four decades of her life and stares squarely back, a look that many will find familiar. Though her face has aged, her hair is longer and her chin dipped slightly lower, it is the same look that both challenged and invited an audience 33 years ago from the cover of her seminal debut album, Horses.
Though Horses was the album that many view as the start of her career, Smith had been performing poetry since her arrival in New York in 1967, fleeing a life of South Jersey hopelessness and factory drudgery she would later document in “Piss Factory,” a searing poem turned B-side on her 1974 single debut. Smith’s immersion in the Downtown poetry scene served as an introduction to later collaborators like Sam Shepard, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and William S. Burroughs, with people coming from far and wide to see the slight, Rimbaud-loving androgyne growl, howl and spit through shamanistic sets. Soon Smith was performing accompanied by guitarist Lenny Kaye, and later, with the addition of pianist Richard Sohl, the trio moved further into the realm of music. “I would have to spend a couple of hours explaining how I went from writing poetry to having a rock and roll band, but it was an organic process,” Smith says. “I daydreamed of singing opera, and I wanted to be an artist. I was writing poetry and considered myself an apprentice poet, hoping to be a poet, but nothing that I was doing would have prepared me for this path.”
The trailhead of Smith’s path was the recording of Horses, the gender-blurring, proto-punk opus that embodied the emotional spectrum; from sneering adolescence to a genuine adulation of rock’s past. “I really wanted to tribute people, to remember the original energy of rock and roll. I wanted to get back to Bo Diddley, only in a new way,” Smith says. Radio Ethiopia, released the following year, would receive fewer critical accolades, but still trafficked in the same spirit of musical exploration and depth, with Smith playing guitar and singing with a more confident set of vocals. It was while touring behind Ethiopia that Smith would fall 15 feet off a poorly lit stage in Tampa, Florida, fracturing two of her vertebrae. This brush with death informed the themes of spirituality and resurrection on Smith’s third album, Easter, whitch would also contain the biggest commercial hit of her career. Co-written by Bruce Springsteen, Smith would record “Because the Night” for the 1978 album. “I knew that it would strike a chord. It had the components to be a very popular song in its structure,” she explains of the song’s iconic status.
Smith released one last album, 1979’s Wave, before retreating to Detroit to be with husband Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5 and raise their children. The period marked a great deal of productivity in terms of writing, the fruits of which would not be seen until much later. Smith wouldn’t emerge again until the release of 1988’s Dream of Life album, and then not until the death of her husband and brother, which forced her into action given the need to support her family. These circumstances also serve as the backdrop to Patti Smith: Dream of Life. “One of the things I like best about the film is even though Fred could not be with us, I felt his presence in the film. I felt his presence because of the loss of him. Because we lost him, we had to redirect our life.”
Since her reemergence, Smith has become a sort of punk rock fairy godmother, working with everyone from Flea to Michael Stipe, and inspiring new generations with each album she releases. In addition to her contributions to music, Smith has continued to publish books of poetry as well as exhibit her photography, most recently at the Cartier Foundation in Paris. “I can’t be confined anymore than I can be defined,” Smith says within moments after beginning our discussion. And apparent from the depth and breadth of her career, there’s no question that Smith speaks the truth.
A Conversation with Patti Smith
You’ve expressed discomfort with your “rock icon” status—how would you like to be remembered?
I just want to be remembered for doing good work, but I really don’t know what to say when people say, “You’re an icon.” It seems so funny. We’re all human beings. It’s nice to receive recognition—I do appreciate it—it’s just that sometimes it seems funny. I can’t say that I created anything. Hopefully my band is part of the lineage. I think it’s hard to really pinpoint who creates anything, but we all did our part.
Have you ever felt limited because you’re primarily recognized as a musician, yet you work in so many different mediums?
I don’t feel confined as a worker. I think sometimes the media will confine you. It does agitate me so much sometimes, but it doesn’t really affect what I do or my self-image. If people act like I’m a musician who’s dabbling in poetry and art, I try to explain to them that I was doing drawings and working in those fields in the mid ’60s and didn’t record until the mid ’70s. The truth of the matter is that just because one isn’t in the public eye, doesn’t mean they’re not doing anything. In the end, the important thing is to do good work. You can’t expect everybody to understand or embrace it all. I just do the best I can.
Do you remember when you realized you wanted to be an artist?
I wanted to do something creative for as long as I can remember. I wanted to write when I was very young. I wanted to be something special; a poet. When I was 12 I wanted to paint like Picasso. It’s been a consistent drive since I was a child.
“Piss Factory” is one of the most beloved poems you’ve written, and is also from a very early period in your career. What were the circumstances surrounding its creation?
I believed I had a choice. I was just determined to get out of [a South Jersey toy factory]. I was extremely driven and extremely arrogant, and I did get out of there. I was young and I just took off. I didn’t have any money or prospects, but I had guts and I had my dreams. It was a really horrible place to work. I detested all the people that I worked with, but as I got older and learned more about life, I developed more respect for them than I had when I wrote the piece. I see it from a different perspective now; the women that worked there never got out. Whatever their situation was, it was something they could not pull out of.
Tell me about your first night in New York City.
I wound up sleeping in a doorway of an apartment near Pratt Institute because I was hoping somebody I knew would let me stay there and they weren’t there. It was early July, so I just fell asleep in the doorway of their apartment. That was my first night in New York. And the next ones weren’t much better. But I loved New York when I came. I felt extremely free. I didn’t regret coming. I just figured I would eventually find my way.
You started out performing poetry, and then forayed into music. Was this a conscious transition?
I wanted to perform poetry, but I didn’t want to perform it in a boring way. I wanted the delivery to have blood and energy. In pursuing that mode of performance, after a time, it merged with the simple aspects of rock and roll and that grew. I loved rock and roll, and it seemed to me that we were heading in a very materialistic, glamorous and stadium-esque way of presenting rock and roll. I wanted to remember the original energy; strip away all the glamour and limousines and tons of drugs. I wanted to get back to the revolutionary ideas, merging poetry and rhythm and rock and roll. Making records and performing, especially performing with a rock and roll band, was an entirely unpremeditated, organic process.
Was there ever a moment during the recording of Horses that you felt the magnitude of what you were creating?
No. I was only 25 or 26. I was trying to deal with commenting on my present. I don’t think those kinds of thoughts. One’s focus is: “Are you communicating what you want to communicate? Does it sound the way you want it to sound? Have you gone far enough?” Sometimes it might occur to someone that they’re involved in a special moment or a special song. When I was recording “Because the Night,” I knew it would be a very popular song. Bruce Springsteen wrote the music and he knows how to tap into public consciousness. I knew that the Horses album didn’t have those components. It didn’t have the components to be a Top 20 song or a great dance song, because I knew what those songs were. But I also knew that it was the best that I could do.
The Johnny character has figured into your music throughout your career, from Horses on. Who is he?
There’s probably a bit of all kinds of people. Certainly myself, and maybe a little of Robert [Mapplethorpe], and a little bit of the dark side of Peter Pan as well. He’s the boy within us all. I was inspired to use the character Johnny from William Burroughs’ book The Wild Boys. William gave me a copy in 1971, and I know that my Johnny was a response to his Johnny. So he’s like Peter Pan with sores, a little bit of The Wild Boys, and a little bit of my own high school experiences. He’s innocent youth that is thrown into the world and is challenged by his peers. He can’t walk down the hallway at school without being challenged or made fun of or violated. He has to rise above all the stuff that’s thrown at him. Even though I’m 61, I still remember what it tastes like to be that kid. Johnny’s like the black sheep; he’s the outsider but he prevails. He’s not broken. My Johnny prevails.
You’ve always paid homage to different artists throughout your career by covering their work, from “Gloria” to 2007’s Twelve. What is it that you get out of it artistically?
I just love the work that people do. I always have. Nothing is more exciting than a new book, or to uncover a new writer or see a great painting or a piece of architecture you haven’t seen. It excites me; the work that people do. It’s one of the great things about being alive—what our fellow man produces. It’s not always that I want to possess the work myself, or cover the work myself—I bathe in it. I learn from it. I’m inspired by it. I might extend it or improvise on it. I think that all artists do this. And to be a part of this chain of being is beautiful. You celebrate and remember your ancestors, and you give and you become an ancestor yourself.
You recently released The Coral Sea, a poem you wrote about Robert Mapplethorpe that you recorded and set to music by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. How did that collaboration come about?
I met Kevin while I was curating the Meltdown Festival in London. You can design your festival, and one of the nights I decided I wanted to perform The Coral Sea in memory of Robert. I wanted to improvise with somebody, and the person that I most wanted to do this with was Kevin Shields. He’s quite reclusive, and they didn’t know if he’d come out to do something like that, but he accepted. We met, and we didn’t rehearse or anything. We sat together and talked. We immediately liked each other and trusted each other—we both seemed to speak the same language so we just got up there and did it. And a year later we did it again. The [recordings] are very different. One is more classic and the other was very aggressive because it was very loud; very strong. We had these two performances and we had taped them, and we decided to offer them to the people. It’s fantastic to work with Kevin. I’m very proud of that.
What has your reaction been to seeing a decade of your life condensed into a two-hour film?
Even though it’s a film that I now know very well, it still draws tears from me at times. But it also draws smiles. It’s a film shot after great personal trial, a climbing-back-up type of film. It wasn’t shot at pivotal, cultural times. It was just Stephen’s portrait of me, since he really didn’t know me that well, and was learning about me. It was a period of my life where I was pulling up my bootstraps and trying to make a living and take care of my kids and get back in action.
Was it difficult to document this period of your life, given that it was after losing your husband?
One of the things I like best about the film is even though Fred could not be with us, I felt his presence in the film. I felt his presence because of the loss of him. Because we lost him, we had to redirect our lives. And the redirection of our life is what this film is. I walk with the people that I lose. I walk with people that I didn’t even know. I walk with Blake, with Arthur Rimbaud—to me these people are my ancestors. I draw from them as if I drew from a grandparent. I’m almost working on behalf of the people that I love and lost. I do a lot of collaborations with Robert Mapplethorpe, or work in a way that magnifies him. The film would have never been made had we not lost Fred. It obliged me to redirect my life, figure out how to make a living for my children, where I would live, and how I would conduct myself. It’s life after Fred. But he is always present.
How do you think the period when you were out of the public eye raising your children affected you as an artist?
There are ways that it filtered that are literal, like writing a lullaby like “The Jackson Song” or writing a song for my daughter, “Wing.” But I think just having children, one becomes more in tune with humanity. One becomes less self-oriented. Artists are always somewhat self-oriented, it’s hard not to be—you have to continually create a universe. You have to be a little god and continuously create, but I also think that it magnifies one’s compassion and empathy for human suffering. Because once you’re a mother, and you see a starving child, that child is yours.
What was the process of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame like?
I was nominated I think seven or eight years in a row, so by the time I was inducted, I went through a humbling process. By the time I was welcomed into it, I felt I was welcomed in by degree, which I don’t mean in a bad way. I don’t need institutional verification about myself, but if I’m given an honor, I accept it wholeheartedly. I used to be very cynical about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I’ve inducted people, and it means a tremendous amount to these people. You see how important it is to them. So I accepted this honor in that spirit. Also, it’s an honor to be recognized in the same breath as these people that I have such esteem for.
In recent years you’ve used your music as a platform to discuss your concerns with the direction our government has taken our country, and you’ve been an outspoken critic of this administration. Where does your sense of patriotism come from?
I was brought up in the Philadelphia area. I love Independence Hall. I love the story of the American Revolution. I love Thomas Paine. I love the Declaration of Independence. I was very taken with these things as a child. I loved how our country was built, and I still love our country. I just think that we’ve made some bad choices in terms of who we’ve elected. Between the media and a corrupt government, we’re not in the best place right now. I think Americans are good people, and we’ll pull together and hopefully make changes and rediscover ourselves and try to do better.
To me, nationalism and patriotism are not the same; that’s why the Bush Administration and this whole post-September 11 nationalistic spirit that’s permeated our country are very unhealthy. Nationalism breeds colonialism, and what happened? We became a nationalist country, and we invaded Iraq. It’s not patriotic to agree with everything your government says. The Bush Administration has never understood our organic law. Jefferson clearly lays out that a true patriot does not say “yes.” A true patriot questions his government, and will protest and rise against the government. What our country is built on is quite beautiful, but how it’s been interpreted and twisted is quite ugly.
Throughout your career you’ve worked with so many people—are there a few people that stand out as having taught you the most about your own process as an artist?
Every single person I’ve worked with I’ve learned from. I wrote a play with Sam Shepard [Cowboy Mouth] and learned about improvising and writing dialogue. All the people I’ve written songs with I’ve learned from. In recent times, working with Flea, I’ve learned a lot. Of course I learned from Robert. It just depends what I’m doing. I’m learning working with my son and daughter—both of them are gifted and performing with them is extremely interesting. Their sense of timing and choices; their ability to focus. I worked with people I don’t even know; that I never saw again—people that stopped by and came up to do a song. You just keep open, because you can really learn from everyone—even people that you don’t really like that much. I like to work alone. I like to take photographs and write poetry, and that affords me a lot of solitude. Rock and roll is completely collaborative. In performing, you’re working with and off the people’s energy, their mental energy and concentration. I’m lucky because I have both options.
I just did a concert in Bilbao, and I had completely lost my voice in a big club. I told the crowd, I got this situation but I’m with you. And if I can’t sing, or if I can’t hit my notes or get the chorus out, do it for me or with me, and know that I’m thinking of you. And we had a great concert. People filled in the blanks. They were there. It’s amazing. If you keep your mind open, you’ll learn something every day.