The VICE Interview: Patti Smith
The punk poet talks last meals, crying all the time and reading every day.
This is the VICE Interview. Each week we ask a different famous and/or interesting person the same set of questions in a bid to peek deep into their psyche.
She's painter, a poet and a punk; a storyteller of every medium and a traveller of the world. Her creative life – which she evokes with fascinating detail in memoirs Just Kids and M Train – began in early 1970s New York as a young woman, where she traded her artwork for a bed at the Chelsea Hotel and hung out with Allen Ginsberg and Thurston Moore. Starving but surviving in a then-cheap city which welcomed dreamers, Patti Smith set about trying to capture energy of her generation.
She never intended to make a record but her debut album, Horses, was and is celebrated as one of the most important of the last century. Defiant and androgynous, she stares down the camera on the album cover, a photograph taken by her young love Robert Mapplethorpe. Her passion for other people's creative work and her own is infectious. After quiet years with her family, she thankfully came back in the 90s and has been making music and touring since. Her live shows are more a mass spiritual awakening than a gig. They're revitalising. Patti Smith is otherworldly and yet, the most human of people.
Ahead of her show in Hyde Park, she's recovering from jet lag in her hotel room in London, having just arrived from Tokyo.
How many books have you actually read and finished in the past year? Don't lie.
I actually couldn't answer that, only because I read every day. I don't know... at least 200? But sometimes I'll re-read a book. If I'm travelling I'll look for a bookstore that has books in English. I'm really happy to be in London because I can find plenty of them. I've been very taken by a French writer, Patrick Modiano. I got sort of entrenched in his atmosphere, so I wound up reading all of his books that are translated into English. I'm re-reading his book Paris Nocturne. I have a copy of The Wasteland with me and I'm reading a biography about Simone Weil by Francine du Plessix Gray. When I'm done here in London I'm taking a train to Ashford, Kent to visit Weil's grave, where she died during the war.
How many people have been in love with you?
Oh my gosh! That would be so conceited to say. I've been lucky to be in love, but I've never counted. My husband was my great love. I met him in 1976 and we married in 1980. I was with him until he died in 1994. And there was Robert Mapplethorpe, my great love when I was young. When I think of people being in love, I think of it in the highest possible way. We love all kinds of people we've never met: actors, actresses or writers because they're so wonderful. We use the term "love" in many nice ways, but truly being in love with somebody is very deep.
When in your life have you been truly overcome with fear?
Once, my husband and I were in a toy store with our little son who was about three. Suddenly, he disappeared. Like, so quickly. It was quite a large store, and we searched for him for 15 minutes. There had been kidnappings in Detroit at that time – a little girl had been killed. The mutual horror that my husband and I were experiencing in those 15 minutes was one of the worst things I've ever experienced in my life. We found him; he had hidden in a little children's tent. Of course, we were overjoyed, but no fear has been that terrible.
The second greatest fear was when the plane struck the World Trade Centre. My daughter, who was then nine, was going to school not very far from the Centre. In fact, I could see the towers fall from my house. For a moment, the selfish mother's horror something might have happened to her school was overwhelming. So, both of the greatest fears of my life came from when I feared danger for my children.
What would be your last meal?
I'd have to think. Well, would it be a shot of mezcal or a coffee? A coffee might win, but my last meal? That's so hard, because you know I love food. It could be something very simple like just the perfect spaghetti aglio e olio. I would like that.
What's the closest you've come to having a stalker?
I had a problem with a fan in the 70s who started taking my things. I'd go to a radio station and leave my book or something on a chair, and this person would always show up and steal my things – it took me a little while to connect it. I'm almost 70 years old, I don't expect to have any stalkers now! But also, I'm open and I live quite freely. I haven't really invited that kind of atmosphere. I don't need bodyguards. Even when I was at my most successful, when I was young, I was lucky enough to almost be able to keep in constant communication with my people and let them know that I just wanted to live a normal life. I wanted to be able to walk down the street and eat what I like.
What film or TV show makes you cry?
Oh, I cry at everything. I cry at most movies. The last TV show I cried at was the finale of Wallander, a BBC production. Kenneth Branagh as Wallander makes me cry. Almost every episode of that I wind up crying at the end, but I'm a very easy target for tears. Sometimes it's at films that just make me happy – when I saw Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, when she goes after the Jabberwocky at the end and says, "I try to believe in six impossible things before breakfast," I cried at that! You know, I cry when people prevail more than when something sad or tragic happens. Sometimes the happiest films make me cry, just to see some kind of joy or reunion or something wonderful happen to people, when our world is so dark and troubled. Joy will make me cry.
What memory from school stands out to you stronger than any other?
The day that I realised that I liked speaking in front of people. Socially I could be shy and a bit awkward, but we were studying Moby Dick in school and I was so bored with the teacher's presentation that – I guess it was obvious – the teacher got mad and told me if I thought I could present it better, to come up and do it. And I said, "alright" and I got up and told the class all about Moby Dick, in my own terms. Everyone really enjoyed it much more, and I thought that'd be something I could do quite well. I considered being a school teacher. I didn't, of course, but I am often now talking before people. I think of that day a lot.
I thought of it last year at Glastonbury because the crowd we had was so huge. The Dalai Lama came on our stage and I wanted to ask the people to sing him happy birthday. I looked out on all these people, close to 100,000 people, and if I ever feel a little nervousness, I just think about that moment — getting in front of the class and then just saying what was on my mind. Just speaking one-to-one and it all worked out fine. So that stays with me. That moment.
What have you done in your career that you are most proud of?
On our last tour we were in Poland and I looked out into the field of about 20,000 people. We were doing Horses, and I promise you, 70 percent of those people were under 25 and they sang the lyrics to the whole album. I was in tears because that, for me, is something. If you're going to feel pride, the fact that you can communicate that strongly with new generations. Right in the middle of a place I'd never been in my life, to have that many young people supporting what we were doing, giving their energy, and receiving. That's the kind of thing that I strove for when I was young. You know, communicating directly with people. That's something to be proud of, more than an award or something.
What conspiracy theory do you believe?
Conspiracy theories! I'm not a conspiracy theory person; more a person that looks at the strange humour of certain things happening that all link together. It makes me think sometimes that we're all happy or sad victims of a pre-designed world, because when I look at them, so many things seem like they're already written. My idea of conspiracy is trying to figure out how much of our lives are preconceived and how much of it is improvised. That's the kind of thing I think about.
These days we don't even have to be entrenched in conspiracy theories because many things are wrong with our world that our politicians, governments and corporations would like us to believe are theories. Climate change, pollution or pesticides, how the natural order is being destroyed. The collapse of the bee population. Frightening things that we're asked to believe are like conspiracies but the truth is our world is changing and not for the better.
Patti Smith plays Barclaycard British Summer Time at Hyde Park on 1st July.
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