There’s something extremely unnerving about picking up the phone and hearing the voice at the other end say, in a Jersey accent, “This is Patti Smith.” Smith is, after all, one of the coolest people in the entire world. William S. Burroughs described her as a shaman; this does not strike me as inaccurate.
Her life has been extraordinarily lucky and extraordinarily sad. She chronicled the first part in her 2010 National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids. Born in Chicago, she was raised in Pennsylvania and south Jersey. She moved to New York as an impoverished 20-year-old in 1967, where, by chance, she met Robert Mapplethorpe, who became her best friend and artistic coconspirator. The two moved to the Chelsea Hotel and made a pact to stick together until they were strong enough to stand on their own; they held to it until Mapplethorpe became a renowned (and controversial) photographer and Smith became, almost by accident, a rock star. Her first album, Horses, released in 1975, evolved from performances of her poetry. It was demanding and transcendental, and it remains a classic. But her biggest hit was “Because the Night,” which she cowrote with Bruce Springsteen. In 1979, Smith married Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, moved to Detroit, and retired from music until after his death in 1994. Since then she’s been touring, writing, recording, and creating visual art.
She’ll be in town this weekend for the Chicago Humanities Festival, where, on November 1, she’ll accept the Chicago Tribune Literary Award. Then, on Sunday, she’ll perform a pair of shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music. She talked about rituals, artistic identity, shifts in culture, even her love of detective shows—and I tried not to feel too intimidated.
Your shows at the Old Town School are going to be part of an All Soul’s Day celebration.
I always loved the idea of this day, and I often celebrated in my own way, so it was a nice opportunity to remember a lot of people. Coincidently, November 4 is the 20th anniversary of my husband’s passing, so I wanted to do something in his memory.
What are you planning to do? And what do you do when you’re not performing?
There will be a lot of songs dedicated to our own friends, people like Lou Reed. We quickly remember Lou Reed by a Lou Reed song, John Lennon by a John Lennon song, a song for my husband, you know, a song for—it could be anyone—Amy Winehouse, or it could be a song for my mother. So we’re going to be doing a lot of songs that are specific to certain people and then other songs that are general, and people can remember who they wish to remember. It will be my bass player and pianist, Tony Shanahan, and my son, Jackson, who’s a beautiful guitar player, so it will be mostly music and some poetry. And what do I do when I’m not performing? I am self-managed, so I take care of the things that need to be taken care of in terms of my band and my operation, which is not very big but it’s, you know, it’s my operation. And I read a lot, take walks. Reading and watching detective shows on television are my two favorite pastimes, other than walking by the sea. I love detective shows, especially British detective shows.
Do you have one that you recommend?
I love the BBC’s Wallander, I love George Gently, I love Lewis. But of the old reruns, I like Horatio Caine on CSI: Miami and I love Vincent D’Onofrio on [Law and Order] Criminal Intent, and my favorite two detectives, I think, are Linden and Holder on [The Killing on] AMC, which I finished on Netflix. But that was one of my favorite shows, and I love Detective Linden. I think she’s awesome.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Vincent D’Onofrio. I was such a fan of Criminal Intent that he let me have a very small cameo part and I was able to do a scene with him and played an antiquities professor. And it was Vincent D’Onofrio! And I love The Killing so much the producer gave me a very small part playing a neurosurgeon, and I was able to do a scene with my favorite detective, Linden. You can’t imagine how exciting that was, even though I had a bun and was holding a clipboard in a white lab coat.
What I meant to ask you about is how you commemorate people when you’re not doing a show.
Oh, daily. I mean I’ve lost so many people that I love. Robert Mapplethorpe was my best friend, I lost my young pianist, my brother, my husband, my parents, so many people in my life that I just find myself remembering them, sometimes writing about them, writing poems for them, saying prayers for them, or sometimes just talking with them. I still consult my mother for guidance and my husband when I’m working on something like a visual project or a photograph and I have trouble. I often think of what Robert would say. We can seek guidance from our departed, you know, as long as we listen. It’s a matter of listening. So, it’s not necessarily a dramatic thing or a sad thing, it’s just a part of my daily practice. Sometimes in my travels I see a lot of churches. I really like to sit in churches, and if they have candles, I’ll light candles for everyone from my father to our ailing cat. It’s just integrated in my life. It’s not connected with any particular religion or anything, it’s just something that I do.
Do you have any rituals besides lighting candles?
I say prayers but I say my prayers differently sometimes. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in church. I can pray walking down the street or standing by the sea having a quiet moment. I really believe that prayer depends on not only what you’re saying, but emptying yourself and listening or feeling things, but I don’t have any specific rituals. For me it’s just a normal part of who I am. It might be something as mundane as sitting in the back of a taxicab, you know, and going from one place to another, or it might seem to have more beauty being in it, like, a beautiful cemetery or in a very quiet church. For me it’s the authenticity of your feelings that are important.
Does that relate to the making of art?
I approach things in a similar manner. It’s sort of a mix of common practice and high concentration. I might write in a train or in a cafe in the morning or sit at a desk or while I’m going to the bathroom. I might have an idea, and I need to write it. I have notebooks and pencils all over the place because I suddenly have an idea and I need a pen and a piece of paper. My pockets are filled with hotel stationery because I didn’t have a notebook or I had to use a napkin. But these are daily practices. I’ve just learned to get things down when I can.
The shower is always the awkward place for me.
I can’t write in the shower. I just try to use the shower as a good place to practice singing. I know it’s a cliche, but the sound with water and the echo in the shower is very, very good, and it’s a good place to practice scales. I like to pretend I’m an opera singer and sing things I wouldn’t normally let people hear that I’m singing. But I try not to get ideas for writing in the shower because if I do they’re almost always forgotten.
This sounds different from the practices you describe in Just Kids, when you and Mapplethorpe were young and trying to be artists. You seemed to work more erratically, or fit work in between jobs and spending time with other people. Did those habits evolve?
A person can’t really try to be an artist. I think that it’s a calling. What you can try to do is become better at your craft, to become more disciplined and, by practice, become a better draftsman, but I think people are artists or not. I think that if you’re an artist—well, whatever your vocation is, it doesn’t have to be an artist, if we’re really called towards something, it could be towards being a chef or a doctor or a parent or poet—you cannot not do it. You’re compelled every day to do it. And that seems to be what your vocation is, a vocation sometimes that chooses you before you choose it. But we were disciplined in that we worked every day. We didn’t have disciplined hours. But when I got married and when I had children, I had to become much more disciplined, and I learned to write early in the morning when my husband and children were sleeping so I could have time to myself. I would wake up around five in the morning and work until about eight in the morning. I did that for so many years, about 16 years, and I found that I’m now very comfortable writing early in the morning. When I was younger I thought artists worked at night, I was going to write poetry all night, but now I tend to like to when I wake up have a cup of coffee, then I like to do my writing.
I read that you just handed in your second book?
Well, I’ve finished a draft of it, but I’m still working on it. But I am finishing a book, yes. I can’t talk about it yet, but when I’m ready, if you want to hear about it, I’ll call you and tell you about it.
I’ve heard from writers who work in the morning that dreams tend to factor in.
Oh, absolutely. I’ve been recording my dreams for much of my life, and many of them find their way into my work. Sometimes I have dreams and sometimes they just give me ideas for the plot of a story or somehow they just infiltrate the narrative. But yes, one thing that I’ve done all my life is record my dreams as much as possible, and they’re often useful.
Do people come to you in your dreams?
Well, I consider myself lucky if I get to see my mother in a dream or my husband or father. After Robert died, he was in my dreams continuously. He’s in them less, a lot less, now, but I’m always happy when I see him. But often it’s just an area of strange landscapes and people I don’t know, and sometimes I’m not even in them, I’m only an observer of somebody else’s trials and tribulations. But I try to remember them, and sometimes remember them just because I had the pleasure of spending time with my late husband and I got to see my brother in a dream, and it always seems magical, because you wake up and you feel like you spent time with that person, and it’s always a happy visitation.
Are they as you remember them?
Well, my husband was only 45 when he died and Robert was 42, my brother was about 42, many of my friends died much younger than I am now, so they all seem young. They don’t age in my dreams, they sort of stay where they were. My parents seem to stay somewhere in their 70s or something.
Do you still believe that an artist has to live outside society and make the same sort of sacrifices that you and Mapplethorpe did?
I don’t think that there’s any rules or regulations about being an artist. I think that the nature of being an artist often places you outside of society no matter what your income is or what your level of fame is because of your mind. It’s hard to live in the absolute present because you’re always translating everything. You know, say, a beautiful sunset or look at beautiful flowers or whatever happens in your life and you immediately feel compelled to take a picture of the flowers or to translate the sunset into a poem or write a song about your joyful relationship or the breaking down of a relationship. Artists are always translating the present into something else, and that always makes you more removed. In terms of being a misfit or outside of society, it’s not always just being an artist that puts you there, it could be because of your political ideology, because you’re against your government, or because your lifestyle isn’t traditional. But I don’t think there should be any real rules. Someone could be a great artist and be a very conservative person or be a great artist and not be a very political person, and I think that’s an individual choice.
That’s like the way that you were very straitlaced even though you appeared not to be? In Just Kids, you write about how people expected you to be a lesbian or a junkie and were disappointed to learn you had boyfriends and went home at night and wrote poetry.
Well, I mean I’m straitlaced in the way that I’m responsible. I’ve been working since I was 12 years old, from babysitting to factory work to bookstore work. I’ve always had a work ethic, so in that way I’m fairly straitlaced, I’ve never had any vices, real vices besides, like, coffee or things of that nature. I’m not self-destructive, but I was a very sickly kid, and I don’t really have the nature or the physical makeup to be self-destructive. I mean, I like to work. I love being alive. Life has dealt me some rough blows. I can’t say it’s always been a happy life, but I like being alive, and I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that. So if that translates into straitlaced, that’s fine. I don’t mind the term straitlaced—it is a nice term—I just don’t know if it’s totally applicable. But in some ways it is, absolutely. I think it’s not a bad term, really, if it’s colored in the right way.
If you were in the same situation that you were in 1967—young and poor, and wanting to have the compulsion to make art—where would you go today?
Today? Well, I didn’t go to New York City to become an artist. I went to New York City to get a job, because in ’67 all the work had dried up in my area. There was no work in south Jersey, no work in the Philadelphia area because the New York shipyards had closed down and, like, 30,000 people had lost their jobs. For a 20-year-old girl with only minimal college education, I really wasn’t qualified for anything, so I went to New York City because there were a lot of jobs and really cheap housing, so I could get a job at a bookstore and then get a really cheap apartment. What would I do now? I would probably—I mean, I can’t say because we live in a completely different culture. For instance, we had nothing—Robert and I had no cell phones, no television sets, no fax machines, no computer. If we wanted to make a phone call, we saved our money and went to a telephone booth. People live differently, it’s an entirely different culture, and it’s a culture that’s being formed around a lot of technology that’s expensive. Also, we had no credit cards. I wouldn’t want to have to buy into that culture. I wouldn’t want a credit card, I wouldn’t want to have to live on a credit card, I wouldn’t want to get in debt. I’d have to find a cool squat somewhere like in Detroit or somewhere by the sea or go to find some abandoned places—you know, these old military bases where they leave a bunch of little houses usually by the ocean—and try to squat. I would try to find an interesting squat society by the sea, wherever it was. But I can’t really speak for the new generation because I have no idea what it’s like to have to be fettered with all of the technical needs of living in the 21st century.
The way you lived seemed so free and almost magical, more spontaneous. Visitors would stop by your apartment, you would run into people.
It was a different culture. We also didn’t have all the surveillance. Nobody had cameras in the late 60s when I lived at the Chelsea Hotel. Almost all the people of our cultural voice stayed at the Chelsea. The Allman brothers stayed there, Janis Joplin stayed there, Jimi Hendrix stayed there, Bob Dylan lived there, Nico—all these different people you saw at the Chelsea Hotel. This is where I lived. And nobody took these people’s pictures. Nobody was stopping them every five seconds for their autograph or wanting to take selfies. That culture didn’t exist. These people were obviously of high status, but the rungs of their ladder weren’t so far away from ours. We all spoke the same language, we listened to the same music, we were against the same war, and so it was different, you know. I didn’t think so at the time, but it was obviously in certain ways a simpler time. I’m not saying things weren’t complex and difficult, but we knew who we were as a generation, and this is a different time. It’s also a really interesting time. It’s like pioneer days, it’s like the wild west is the Internet. It’s being invented—we’re living in times that never existed. Some of the things are terrible. No, I never would have anticipated the times we’re in, ever. I wouldn’t have anticipated I would’ve lived to see them. But, you know, here we are.
Did you think you would see 2014?
Well, when I was younger I didn’t. When you live a life one childhood illness to another—I really didn’t expect to live a long time, but now I expect to live until I’m 100 or so. I’ll be 68, I might as well live to be 100. Why not?
Will you still be singing and performing?
No, I don’t think so. But I’m sure I’ll still want to write, or if not, I’m sure I’ll find something interesting to contemplate.
One more question: Are there any places in Chicago you like to go?
I want to go to the Field Museum! There’s lots of places. I always go to Logan Square because that’s the first place I ever lived as a baby, at Kedzie next to Logan Square. I was baptized next to Logan Square. But I really love the Field Museum. I’m looking forward to our performances. I almost never do two shows in one day. It’s a special day, a special time in my life. It won’t be a sad occasion. A remembrance doesn’t have to be sad. It can be filled with jubilation.