From the Chelsea Hotel to Claridges: Patti Smith is Still A Shaman

We spoke to the punk legend about journalism, crime drama and her love of Rihanna's "Stay"

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09 April 2014, 10:48am

There’s something irrefutably spiritual about meeting Patti Smith. It’s a bit like an audience with the Pope but if the Pope were a woman who, in 1974, released a debut single called “Piss Factory”. I enter the pearly gates of Claridges and ascend to where Patti sits in wait. Now 67, with long, wiry, grey hair and a weathered face, Patti looks even more shamanic than she does on stage. I’d often wondered how a lifetime of living in the counter-culture plays out in your latter years. Is Patti still reading 19th century symbolist poetry in her SoHo apartment?

“I love ITV2 and ITV3,” says Patti Smith, in her thick New Jersey accent, reeling off a list of British crime shows that she watches: Wallander, Wycliffe, Broadchurch, Morse and her favourite, Luther. “He’s so awesome. And so handsome! But it’s so stressful, so stressful that I have to turn off sometimes.”

Patti’s in town to promote her friend Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Noah, for which she has recorded the title track, a lullaby named “Mercy Is”. Her love for lullabies is inspired by the work of her hero, William Blake, but her affinity to the form is also personal. “My mother sung them to me. I sung them to my children. I like the form of a lullaby; they’re comforting, pretty. These nice little songs that have such innocence, because they’re sung to the innocent ones.” Patti starts singing “Away in a Manger” to me, and I wonder if I am imagining it. I look around the room as if to see if anyone else is witnessing this.

I’m a huge fan of Aronofsky’s other films – Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Wrestler - but I can’t quite get on board with Noah. I’m also surprised by Smith’s involvement in a Hollywood epic starring Emma Watson, Russell Crowe and Ray Winston, especially as she tells me that her film taste spans Robert Bresson, Jean Luc Godard and Jim Jarmusch. Yet she’s seen Noah three times already, and claims to love it. She says that she wrote the title song with Crowe in mind “as her muse”. I stifle a giggle.

"Pissing In A River", an early Patti single from 1976

A painter and a poet, Patti Smith was a stalwart of both the art and music scenes in early 1970s New York. She ran between Warhol's crowd at the nightclub Max's Kansas City and the burgeoning music venue CBGB. She traded her artwork for a bed at the Chelsea Hotel, where she'd listen to Janis Joplin complaining about her love life, and stay up all night drawing and writing. Tall, dark and angular, she was the poster girl for androgyny; Allen Ginsberg tried to hit on her; Thurston Moore described her as "the hottest boy in New York City." She was a friend of the great American writer William Burroughs, the lover of playwright Sam Shepherd, and the other half of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s whole.

Back then her inspiration wasn’t Russell Crowe, but the French poet Arthur Rimbaud's Illuminations, stolen from the bookstore in her New Jersey hometown. Rimbaud, she joked, was “like a boyfriend”, and it was his work and William Blakes’ that inspired her to write poetry. In 1971 she began performing her work live at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery over future band mate Lenny Kaye's electric guitar. As she sung the words, "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine," it heralded a new dawn of punk rock, less a movement then than a sentiment, spawned from within Patti herself.

She released her first album, Horses, in 1975, with Mapplethorpe shooting the cover image of Patti against a white wall, jacket slung over shoulder. She went on to produce three more seminal records throughout the seventies but after marrying Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith from the band MC5, Patti unexpectedly moved to Detroit to start a family. It looked as though she had quit music altogether until, after Fred’s death in 1994, she decided to return, touring with Bob Dylan and recording with REM. She’s been playing virtually nonstop since.

She currently lives in a shabby building in Manhattan’s SoHo. I ask what she listens to around the house. “Neil Young, My Bloody Valentine, Jimi Hendrix. But sometimes a song I hear on the radio captivates me, like that “Rolling In The Deep” song. I listened to that like a hundred times, and Rihanna, “Stay”. Sometimes a certain song will be my song for the next six months and people will be like, ‘don’t you know another song to play!’ It’ll be the only song on my iTunes. I’ll have like four songs and I just play them over and over.”

I tentatively ask if she has any plans to slow down with her music career. “I’m 67 now and I want to spend a lot of time writing books. For me working is just relief. I’m not really interested in parties. I just want to go to the sea and sit in a café and write. I have a grandchild. I feel like I’ll always work, as long as I’m healthy and can do a good job. But it’s getting time for me to make some decisions. I thought I would quit by the time I was 60. Actually, I thought I had already quit by the time I was 35, so it’s really great to be here.” There’s a pause, and Patti looks out the window. I think rather selfishly about how, if she had quit, people like me, of generations after her first coming, wouldn’t have got to see her messianic live performances.

The original print ad for Horses

Smith’s planning a big tour next year, she tells me, to celebrate the fortieth birthday of Horses. Surprisingly though, she’s not one for going to see live music herself, “I never saw a lot of live music because I’m too impatient, I get too jittery. If go to a concert in just want to go on stage and grab the microphone and say, “my turn!” I can’t explain it. It might not seem very generous. I could go see Tom Verlaine play forever, or My Bloody Valentine, or Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But unless I really love the band, most of the time I’m too antsy.”

I tell Patti that last year I saw Neil Young and Crazy Horse play the night before my birthday and her on the day of my birthday. “Wow that’s so cool. And you saw me on your birthday? I love birthdays.” If she’s humouring me, she’s doing a really good job of hiding it. “Yeah and strangely, you sang me happy birthday, do you remember?” “I remember,” says Patti, “I didn’t know it was you.” I liked how Patti was acting like we’d known each other for ages. “What date was that?” she asks. “June 19th”. “Well, wherever I am on June 19th this year, I’ll think “It’s Milly’s birthday today.”

What I’ve always admired most about Patti is her rare intermingling of self-belief and humility. It makes for an overwhelming conviction in artistry, both others’ and her own. You can hear it on her records, long lyrical odes to the works of William Blake or Andrei Tarkovsky; you get a sense of it reading her best-selling memoir Just Kids, in which she extols the work of her contemporaries while navigating her own path to success; and I experience it first hand now, as we sit and talk about her appreciation of everyone from Idris Elba to Russell Crowe, and discuss the countless projects she’s juggling.

Just Kids told the story of her move to New York in the late 60s, her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe from lover to muse to friend, and his death from AIDS related illness. Patti's about to release her second memoir, which runs parallel, but places more focus on other things that happened in the same period, like her musical career and her relationship with husband Fred. She says she also plans to, “write a lot about the genesis of the songs,” what produced them and where the ideas came from.

Inspired by her love of British crime drama, Patti is also working on a detective story. “I was in London one day and I was sitting on the grass at St. Giles Church near Denmark Street and all of a sudden this whole story came into my head, the whole life of this detective. It was like watching movie. I wasn’t stoned or anything. I saw it and knew that I’ve got to write it. I even thought for a while I would move to Brighton. I just thought I could get a room in a hotel there and work on my detective story.” Patti’s such a big fan of detective stories that she was even on Criminal Intent once, “They were cancelling it and asked me to come on and do a scene. I was supposed to be a professor of antiquities talking to a class or something. It was fun!”

Before we go our separate ways, I can’t help but ask Patti for some advice. In the early 70s, she was a music journalist, writing reviews for Rolling Stone and Creem magazine. I ask her what makes a good music writer. “I think the most important thing is to focus on work.” She replies. “When I read so-called journalism and it’s just a bunch of snarky crap and they’re just trying so hard to be cool or put somebody down instead of giving you a real sense of the work that they’re writing about, I find that it’s not real and it’s not really serving anybody but the writer himself.

“The idea of being a critic isn’t necessarily to criticise, it’s to open people’s eyes. You’re sharing with people something that you find interesting, something that they might not see themselves. That’s why I would write something about Clifton Chenier, or the Allman brothers when they first came out, or Patty Waters. I’m not saying I was great or anything, I’m just saying that I knew what my task was, and the task of a journalist isn’t to show how cool he is. The task of a journalist is to serve the people and you want to give them something and elevate and enrich their lives.”

Noah is in cinemas now.

Follow Amelia on Twitter: @MillyAbraham

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