Patti Smith talks to Simon Schama
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It is safe to say that Patti Smith was the only person in Greenwich Village who knew that the date of our interview, January 6, was also the birthday of Joan of Arc. An image of Frémiet’s gilded statue in the Place des Pyramides, the armoured heroine holding the fleur-de-lys aloft, appears in her volume of black-and-white photographs. There is plenty in Patti Smith’s poetry and music to suggest an affinity with the Maid of Orléans: fellow warrior, possessed by visions and tuned to the music of the angels. But in the 12 Chairs café she was wielding the pen rather than the sword. When I arrived, she had her back to the door, bent over the loose pages of a manuscript (“my café ruminations”), her hand swooping across the scattered paper. Much energetic underlining was under way, so much in fact that it seemed impolite to interrupt the studious figure in her glasses and flannel shirt, long hair streaked with grey, more the literary professor than the hellcat howler of Horses.
I had met her once before, in England, in another bookish setting: the Charleston literary festival, which takes place in the Sussex remove of the Bloomsburys. Something about those Bells and Woolfs, perhaps their criss-crossing between prose, painting and partners, spoke to Patti Smith – as if Charleston was the Chelsea Hotel in wellies. Patti the still-life artist took lovely photos of Duncan Grant’s brushes standing in their battered paint pot. One evening, after a kitchen supper, she appeared like a phantom troubadour, hair swinging over her shoulders, and generously sang for the tipsy chatterers: a lullaby composed for her children. The grown-up kids, including me, melted with happiness. I remembered her as the wake-up witch; the queen of the frontal shout. But this Patti, soft and deep, was just as real. “It was always there,” she reminds me now. “‘Elegie’ in ‘Horses’ was a pretty tune.” So it was, but it was also a keening lament for all those who had gone too soon: Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin, the self-dosing ninepins of the ’70s.
She apologises for being dressed down but this hardly seems necessary. This is MacDougal Street; it’s Monday; I am not exactly a fashion plate myself. Besides, she is under the weather, stricken by the nasty bug which has colonised New York. I sympathise but she adds that she’s done four performances nonetheless. “It didn’t affect my voice,” she says. “It’s funny, you can be ill but on stage it’s the adrenalin and sometimes you can just tell the people; they’ll give you what you need and you crash later.” On February 5, London will hear that unmistakable voice – to judge by her latest album, Banga, more beautiful than ever, by turns raw and tender. She will perform with a small group including her guitarist son, Jackson. He lives in Detroit, once her own home but these days a tough place to make a living. So the European tour is pay cheque and family. Patti the mother (and now grandmother), liberated from the pressure of a full on big-band screamer, gets to hang with her boy.
These chamber concerts are called “An Evening of Words and Music” and feature poetry as well as song. But right from the moment when the nasally shouted chant of “Piss Factory” came before the world in 1974, the two genres have been inseparable in her work. It was through the compelling need to voice poetry rather than just have it sit primly on the page that she came to be a singer. Either way the words matter most. Anyone doubting that Patti Smith is in her own right a fine, strong, writer should open Just Kids, the memoir of her loving friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe in the late 1960s and early ’70s, before either of them was famous. Any paragraph will tell sceptics that the National Book Award jury wasn’t just giving her the prize out of astonishment that a rock’n’roller could string the odd sentence together.
When the award was announced, her publisher’s publicist told me, Patti cried for a solid hour. There was no self-congratulation in the tears; rather the deep satisfaction of a promise fulfilled. A day before his death, Mapplethorpe asked her to write their story and she had said yes. How could she refuse him? But without any experience of book-length writing, it took 20 years of struggle in and out of her own ordeals and tragedies to get it done. It was hard, she says, “because I wanted to write a book that would have real substance for the habitual reader but one which would also welcome the non-reader”, not least because Mapplethorpe never read much at all. To bring those non-readers into the story she tried to make the book “as cinematic as possible, like a little movie unfolding”.
It was worth the long gestation. The result isn’t just a coming-of-age in Bohemia but a deeply affecting account marked by wry self-knowledge; clear-eyed, unsentimental yet loving. “We used to laugh at our small selves, saying that I was a bad girl trying to be good and that he was a good boy trying to be bad. Through the years these roles would reverse, then reverse again until we came to accept our dual natures. We contained opposing principles, light and dark.”
Passage after passage gleams with sharply nailed images: the “slivers of ice wrapped in brown paper” given to Patti as a child by the horse-drawn iceman; the gothic “oven crammed with discarded syringes, and the refrigerator over-run with mold” greeting her and Mapplethorpe in their first Brooklyn digs; the “hair jigs, feathered lures and tiny lead weights” bought from a fishing tackle store and, along with lobster shells, used to make punk necklaces since even without a dime to rub between them, they both knew how to fashion a striking look.
Patti Smith’s memory bank is a cabinet of keepsakes, each object trapping a moment or a place. “Some serve you, some are magical,” she says. A number appear in her photographs and in Dream of Life, the documentary made by Steven Sebring: a favourite childhood dress; the goatskin tambourine Mapplethorpe made for her 21st birthday. For Patti no object is ever completely inanimate. When it was time for her mother to buy her a new toothbrush, little Patti, “heartbroken”, asked, “But what do I do with the old one?” “Throw it away,” came the reply. “But I can’t,” she said. “It took such good care of my teeth.” “You thought its feelings would be hurt?” I ask. “Yes, exactly,” she laughs.
But she also remembers with uncanny exactness the words that passed between her and her soulmate. She tells me that this is because Mapplethorpe not only didn’t read much, he didn’t say much either. “He was a listener, so when he did speak it seemed like a whole world of something . . . When he finished a piece of art he wasn’t interested in any sort of spatial analysis or anything like that. It was just, ‘Is it good or is it not?’ It seems simplistic but that’s what it comes down to after all.” When he was drawing and it was going well, he would tell Patti he was “holding hands with God”.
If Mapplethorpe’s comment sounds a bit William Blake, it’s no accident. These days Patti Smith is full of literature. Even the jaunty foot-tapper “April Fool” on the new album is a nod to Gogol, whose comic genius arrived in the world on that day. Our talk does the rounds of her mentors and champions: William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg (who gently hit on her until he discovered she was a girl), Bob Dylan as well as her long-time paragon, Arthur Rimbaud. But no one in the pantheon matters more to her than Blake. She has photographed his death mask and visited his grave.
The devotion to Blake began early when her mother gave the eight-year-old Patti a copy of Songs of Innocence. This was in rural south New Jersey, in a landscape of swamps and pig farms. Two generations back her paternal grandfather – “small, bullish, Irish” – had run a steel mill in Pennsylvania while her mother’s father played honky tonk piano. A year before his daughter was born in 1946, Patti’s father had come back “broken” from a brutal war in New Guinea, where he had contracted malaria. To put food on the table for their three children, he went on the production line at Honeywell while her mother worked as a hatcheck girl and waitress.
But like so many American families who had come down in the world, the Smiths made sure their children got the treasure of words along with what in Just Kids she calls “the radiance of imagination”. Silver Pennies, an anthology of poems, became a precious possession. Its pages included poems by Yeats and his correspondent Vachel Lindsay, “the Prairie Troubador”, for whom poetry was nothing unless it could be sung. In her turn, Patti performed for her brother and sister, embroidering on stories she had read, for “I was the little ghost haunting the library . . . I was the shepherd of my siblings,” she says, smiling her big sister smile, “taller, better read, their guardian . . . My mother and father were away working so I tended to my little sheep.”
Already she was won by the “rough simplicity” of Lindsay and Blake, their amplification of the common voice. And there was something else about Blake she admired: the painting and drawing in which the words were set, the homespun determination to do everything from setting pen to paper to printing the result. “I had a penchant myself for doing several things at once. I wanted to draw, write, speak.”
The sentinels of The Watchtower, the Jehovah’s Witness teachers of her Bible school, did their best to knock the dreams out of her. Predictably, their austerity had the opposite effect. At “12 or 13 . . . I fell in love with art as a calling” and made a “conscious choice” to reject organised religion. Already she was possessed by the need to write “not egotistically but as a kind of thank you . . . to put one more spine on the library shelf”. (No surprise, then, to learn she is not a Kindle reader.) In New York, making do on the pittance from a job in a bookstore – “I was very resourceful; Robert was always worried about money” – she had moments of doubt about making it as a poet. Mapplethorpe, on the other hand, was certain of his artistic destiny; what he was uncertain about was his sexuality. The two parted. Patti went to Paris stalking the ghost of Rimbaud. When she saw Mapplethorpe again in New York, he was a walking ruin. They reunited after a fashion and moved into the Chelsea Hotel, which became for them, as it did for so many others, the seminary of possibilities. She kept running into people who believed and who helped: the actor-playwright Sam Shepard, Burroughs and Ginsberg who embodied for her the poetry of direct address; verses from the gut. While she began her own reading in hospitable grunge-holes now canonised as the nurseries of punk – Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s – she noticed audiences getting restless as the poets droned on. “It was kind of boring.” She would not be boring.
She speaks of that moment in the mid-’70s as a vocational awakening. “There was a movement, a direct line through rock’n’roll in the ’60s and ’70s drawn by people who wanted to raise its level – Jim Morrison, Neil Young, Hendrix, Lennon, Grace Slick. They all had so much intelligence and they took what Bo Diddley had started and lifted it and lifted it . . . When I started singing I didn’t do it to be a rock star but to keep that thread going. Hendrix and Morrison had died. Things were changing and shifting; I was worried the torch wouldn’t pass, the light would dissipate. I know this sounds conceited, a bit lofty for a girl from south Jersey, but those people, what they did, was so important, it was the great American contribution. I wanted to be the kid with the finger in the dike holding things together until someone came along.”
“That someone was you,” I say, “you and Springsteen.” “Oh,” she says, “Bruce was off doing his own thing. Look, we come from different parts of Jersey; he’s from mid or north of the state, I’m from south rural Jersey – the starter homes and the pig farms.” When I ask her if she’d consciously fashioned the voice of Horses and Easter – the hooting and drawling and in-your-ear wailing – she laughs again and says, no, she didn’t know any better. She sang nasally because “I was a shallow breather” and it was just south Jersey banging through. “They all thought I was a hick.”
But a hick who had taken Blake and Whitman and Yeats to head and heart. She credits her hookup with the pianist Richard Sohl for putting the whole Patti together, not least because, like her, he was not a rock’n’roll snob or for that matter any kind of snob. Classically trained, he “loved show tunes. He’d play Bo Diddley and he’d play Mendelssohn.” She too has always lived in a broad universe of music. “I loved R’n’B.” “I work to Glenn Gould in the morning and go to sleep listening to Parsifal. But I’ve listened to “Rolling in the Deep” a million times.”
She was herself rolling along. In 1980 she married Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5, took a more political turn and wrote with him, “People Have the Power”. Politics didn’t come naturally to her, she says, but she had worked for Robert Kennedy’s senatorial campaign. When he was assassinated, she withdrew from the political world and it took the more activist Fred to quicken those combative political instincts. “In my usual way I consulted Blake and the Bible. ‘The meek shall inherit the earth.’ I certainly got that.” Becoming interested in St Francis and making an informal pilgrimage to Assisi, she thought it something of a miracle when a pope came along who adopted the name and, apparently, the social evangelism that went with it. “They said there would never be a Jesuit pope nor a Franciscan one. Now they have both.”
Every so often the old fury of “Radio Baghdad” comes back. She remembers with quiet contempt a virtual conspiracy of media silence when a protest rally against the Iraq war, a hundred thousand strong, received barely any coverage. Though she rejoiced at the election of an African-American to the White House, like millions of others on the left she has not forgiven him for keeping Guantánamo open and prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. “To me he’s just like a good Republican.” The “celebrity-driven, materialist” culture saddens her, especially when she sees “three-year-olds being comforted by cellphones and video games instead of being told stories”. The ongoing destruction of the environment fills her with yet more bleak sorrow. With a little sigh she returns to Blake. “More than ever as I get older I can feel what it takes to be him – a casualty of the industrial revolution while he sits at home hand-colouring prints of shepherds.”
But then, she says, resolutely, pushing back the gloom, “I am still a very optimistic person. I continue to do work with joy.” The Beethoven strain comes through. The first opera she saw was Fidelio, a work so perfectly fitted to her temperament that she wanted to make a film of it. “I know the opening shots. I am Leonore/Fidelio, with waist-length hair. I pick up the scissors and cut it.”
It takes a bit of getting used to, the gentle humanism and eager child’s delight in life that is as much a part of Patti Smith’s make-up as the visceral fury. But then anyone surviving the succession of hammer blows that hit her with merciless brutality from the late 1980s onwards was bound to come out the other side, either lost to the darkness or bathed in new light. Mapplethorpe was just the beginning of a series of losses. In 1990, at the age of 37, Richard Sohl, apparently in perfect health, died suddenly from the failure of an undetected faulty valve in his heart. In 1994, her husband Fred succumbed to a long illness, leaving her a widow with two young children. Hardly had her brother Todd offered to take care of her and the children when he was killed by a stroke.
How much disaster can any one person take? Only the imperative of looking after Jackson and Jesse gave her the strength to endure. But that was all she could do. Creatively she dived into a void. The Mapplethorpe memoir was still unwritten but that too was an invitation to pain. “Anything I tried took me back to the centre of grief.” But a little light leaked back, through the lens of a Land camera. It was an instantaneous, almost effortless art and it began with a photograph of a pair of Nureyev’s old ballet shoes. The music of things and then of places began to tune up gently for her. But she was stuck in Motown with the kids – possibly the only grown-up in Detroit who hadn’t learnt to drive. She had never been rich. Now, in every way imaginable, she was in bad shape, needing to find some way to make a living. Enter an angel: Zimmerman. In 1995, Dylan was touring and he asked her along. Was she nervous? “Oh sure. I didn’t know if the audience would welcome me back; whether they would even remember me.” They did both.
At 67, Patti Smith’s purchase on life and art has never been more secure. Her voice has developed an astonishing range that can suit whatever poetic tone her words call for. A bluesy, rhythmic elegy for Amy Winehouse (“This is the Girl”) is the kind of thing the lost soul herself would have loved singing. “Nine”, written for her pal Johnny Depp, has an air of Irish pipe drone in the music. The women of the ’70s and ’80s – Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry too – have taken better care of their voices than the men. Dylan is scarcely more than a performing adenoid; the range available to Tom Waits’s razor-shredded larynx is getting down to the last rasp. But Patti Smith – who once wanted to be an opera singer – has developed the depth and subtlety of her voice, and when she needs to, it can summon a velvety vibrato. She can roam the vocal range when she speaks that poetry as well. “On the edge of the world in the desert heat/One shining star, sweet, indiscreet”, she sings in another elegy, for the actress Maria Schneider. It’s not that she’s gone soft. She was never that hard. Tough, fierce, strong, sexy and forceful, but not hard.
When she was a little girl in south Jersey, dreaming wordy dreams and telling stories to her brother and sister, her mother would sing to them in a smokey voice the Doris Day ballad, “Que Será, Será”. And that, notwithstanding all that’s wrong with the world now, and all those dear ones she has seen come and go, seems still to be the way she grips the world. Whatever will be, will be.
Patti Smith performs at Cadogan Hall, London SW1, on February 5; cadoganhall.com
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