Vive la différence
The poet, songwriter and performance artist
Patti Smith has been described
as 'a Rimbaud with Marshall amps [who] has transformed the way an
generation looks, thinks and dreams'.1 Third Way met her on tour -
Most people know you as a poet and performance artist,
but reading your recent memoir, Just Kids,2 it struck me
that your first compositions were prayers.
Well, prayer is an aspect of my daily discipline, and
the idea of prayer, I think, permeates everything. To pray is like
being a predator, in a positive way - you know, God is, like, just
having a nice day and here you are, seeking him out with your
thoughts. I would think there's an aspect of prayer in everything
one does - at least for me.
You could go through my records and find prayer after prayer
after prayer. 'Cartwheels' and 'Wing' are in a way prayers for my
daughter, 'The Jackson Song' a prayer for my son, and 'Elegie' is a
prayer in memory of people we lost and a prayer for the living. On
the new record, [Banga,3] 'This is the Girl' is like a
little prayer for Amy Winehouse.
Why did you write a song for her in particular?
I didn't know her, but when she died I wrote her a little
poem and my bass-player just happened to write a little piece of
music that fit[ted] it perfectly. It never occurred to me to write
a song for her, it just happened.
Writing lyrics to songs is a struggle for me. I can't just sit
down and say: I'm going to write something for this person. When we
did the album Trampin',4 I was so distraught that the Bush
administration [had invaded] Iraq, I wanted to write something in
response. A member of my band wrote a piece of music and we went
into the studio and I just stepped in front of the microphone and
began to improvise. And what I chose to do at that moment was not
to do an anti-war rant but to take the point of view of a mother
who was trying to comfort her children as the bombs were falling on
their city. That is not something I would have sat and
As you have got older, have you become more
More humanistic. My politics are really simple: I'm not
politically bent but I am Earth-bent, I am humanity-bent. I'm very
concerned about the human condition. But all human beings - I'm not
a nationalist, I don't have any interest in that and I never did,
even as a girl.
The things I was concerned with when I was young I am still
concerned with - human rights, our environment… I haven't really
changed that much. In Horses,5 my concern was my own
freedom. [The album's opening statement,] 'Jesus died for
somebody's sins but not mine,' was not against Jesus; it was
opposed to organised religion, to man-made rules and
You have said: 'Christ was a man worthy to rebel against,
for he was rebellion itself.' What did you mean by that?
He was a revolutionary. 'Rebel' is not the right word. I
mean, he came to people and said, 'Drop your nets and follow me!'
You know, as any great revolutionary does. Leave your material
things and come with me! We have to, you know, find a way to free
To me, his great contribution, even though it's been
misinterpreted and, as he predicted, false prophets have twisted
it in his name, really was two things: he made God more accessible
to the people and he gave the Eleventh Commandment, which is the
greatest commandment, which is simply: Love one another!
So, as I evolved, I understood that I wasn't rebelling against
Christ, I was rebelling against religion and its concept of Christ;
and when I finally understood that, I was able to appreciate him in
a more holistic manner and really understand more about him as a
You have said that you hoped that Horses might be
for people who felt alienated…
I was making a record for people of my own kind, that
felt alone. At that point, many young homosexual kids were being
disowned by their parents, especially boys; and other kids wanted
to be artists or wanted to be free or were sort of post-hippy kids
and had no real place. I saw those people as my people - I'm not a
homosexual but I also want to be free and I was always
marginalised. When I grew up, in the Fifties and early Sixties,
girls teased their hair and looked like one of the Ronettes, which
was beautiful and all but I wasn't interested in that. I dressed
different, I proceeded different, I had a different walk and a
different air - and I didn't care. It's like all I cared about was
doing good work.
There was religion in your childhood, wasn't there?
Yes, I was raised a Jehovah Witness. My father was an
agnostic, so he made things always interesting. Whoever came to
the door - Seventh-Day Adventists, Catholics - he would invite them
in and argue with them about the Bible. The Bible was very central
in my upbringing, because my father was searching and because my
mother sought to have structure and so I was raised till I was 12
as a Jehovah Witness.
Why did you leave the church?
I left of my own volition because I decided I didn't want
to be a missionary and I didn't want to be restricted by any church
or any religion, I just wanted to have my own relationship with God
and be an artist. Really, I was rebelling against the idea that I
had to choose between Christ's world and art. They wouldn't make a
young person choose now - the Jehovah Witness faith is much more
open-minded now - but back then it was very austere and I was
definitely told that I had to make the choice. And it was too
terrible a choice to make.
It's funny, because this dilemma is re-enacted in the
improvisation on [Banga], 'Constantine's Dream'. I
didn't plan to write that and I was very surprised to see that I
am still wrestling with these ideas after all this time. I'm sure
I'll still be wrestling with them when I'm a century old.
What was it that attracted you to the arts?
I lived in a rural area and never saw much art except in little
pictures in books, but when I went to an art museum - my father
took us when I was about 12 - and saw face-to-face all these
paintings, whether it was Whistler or Thomas Eakins or Sargent or
Picasso or Duchamp, I was overwhelmed by the way people exercised
their imagination. I was drawn to books before I could read - my
mother taught me to read when I was very, very young. Because I had
such an expansive imagination, I was hungry to keep feeding it and
as soon as I was old enough to understand that people just like me
wrote books, I wanted to write.
Was your family life austere?
I was very lucky, I had a really wonderful family.
My mother was a waitress, my father was a factory worker and
they were struggling - they had four children and sometimes we
didn't have enough money to eat. I had to start working as soon as
I was 10 years old, in the blueberry fields or babysitting, to help
pay for food. I had a lot of responsibility for my three
My parents were not highly educated but they were both very
intelligent and well read, and both of them were extremely
open-minded. I mean, they would sit and talk to me about things -
my mother was very strict about, you know, no cursing, no smoking,
no sex before marriage - we had the normal moral codes of the
times. But our house was open to anyone, of any faith, any colour,
any sexual persuasion - my parents had no prejudice, you just had
to be a good person.
I didn't even know until I was a teenager that there was so much
social strife in our country. I didn't really understand the need
for the Civil Rights movement, or know of the terrible injustices
You had a black boyfriend quite early on, is that
Yes, when I was 14 or 15. I started to understand that
the world beyond my father's house was a lot different.
When you 'fled' to New York in 1967, were you trying to
Not from my family, no. The reason I fled was because
there wasn't a culture around me that I could identify with, and,
more importantly, there was no work at that time in South Jersey
for a 20-year-old girl who had no real skills and who couldn't -
who didn't finish college.
My parents were not opposed to any of my aspirations, it's just
that we had no money. I was not a brilliant student, so I had no
scholarship and so that meant that if I wanted to go to college for
a while, I had to work. I was on waiting lists for a job at
bookstores, at factories - funnily enough, the Columbia
record-pressing plant was just walking distance from where I
lived, but the waiting list was too long. So, I went to New York
looking for work.
And you went into a phonebox and found a handbag with just
enough money in it to get you there. Your memoir is full of these
kind of moments…
My life is filled with them. I seem to have walked with
such strife and tragedy on one hand and such wondrous luck and
beauty on the other.
Some people would see nothing but coincidences, but
someone more spiritually inclined might talk of destiny or fate.
Where do you stand on that?
Oh, I'm definitely fate-oriented. I mean, of course I
believe in our ability to make our own decisions, but I also
believe in the Great Design, because I have seen so much evidence
of design. I don't even think that the Great Design is specific to
anyone sometimes, it's just that we're all so threaded together
that things that happen to one person criss-cross to another.
Someone had the bad luck to leave their bag and it became my good
luck, you know? Really I don't try to analyse it, but I have
learnt in life that if you're willing to be pleased with the good
luck that fate hands you, you have to accept the bad luck as well.
You have to work on a system of checks and balances.
That sounds kind of Buddhist…
I don't know, it's just the way I operate.
Also, how can we know what it all means? I don't know what it
means, for instance, that Robert Mapplethorpe6 died on the
anniversary of when my husband7 and I met. And my husband died on
Robert's birthday. So many things like that have happened where the
'fearful symmetry' of [William] Blake seems part of life.
You have written songs about Blake, and your
spirituality seems to me very Blakean - the idea that everything
that has breath is holy, that kind of thing…
A lot of Blake is too complex for me - it's so dense. But
I try to learn and all of our great teachers and mentors and
visionaries have something. All the philosophies and religions,
even if I don't buy into them as a whole and don't want to be
confined to their teachings or practices, have something wonderful
to teach you, to help you on your way, if you keep your eyes, or
your ears and your heart, open.
It's often observed that people you have identified as
influences, such as Rimbaud and Jim Morrison [of the Doors], seem
to have had some kind of death wish…
People often say to me, 'You always choose people who
were self-destructive or who died young,' but that's not true. One
of my first heroines was Jo March, the girl in Little Women who was
the survivor, and the writer.
Look at Jesus Christ, you know? He had a tragic end but it
wasn't self-destructive. Self-destruction in itself doesn't
interest me, it doesn't attract me, and I actually view it in some
ways with a sorrowful contempt. I was not drawn to Jim Morrison
because of his self-destruction but because of his abilities,
because of the work that he gave us. I was attracted to Amy
Winehouse because she had an unbelievable voice.
Really, the people that I am drawn to, whether it's John
Coltrane or Jimi Hendrix, it's always their work. Always. Yes,
perhaps Jimi Hendrix was beautiful and it would be easy to be drawn
to him just because he was beautiful; but I was really drawn to him
for his powers, for his philosophy, for his humanistic approach to
You do visit a lot of graves, though…
Well, I'm interested in the person, believe me. Amy was
the same age as my children, so my reaction is a maternal one, not
as one who found what led to her death exciting and interesting. As
I saw that girl's trajectory, I wished I could have actually spoken
to her and been of some avail to her, because I worried about her.
I worried about Kurt Cobain. I feel for these young people, because
as a young person myself I saw Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison do the
same thing to themselves.
There's only one end to someone hell-bent on self-destruction.
You know, I don't suffer the same pain as these people, so I
couldn't possibly know what drives them. I feel that I'm lucky
because I'm more driven by my work than my sorrow - and, believe
me, I've had my lion's share of sorrow.
Do you think it is more difficult today for an emerging
young female musician?
It wasn't difficult for me because, first of all, I'm not
a musician. Yes, I can sing, but I don't really think like a
musician. I think like a writer, really - but I'm a performer. I
think I'm just a natural performer. It's very easy for me to go on
stage and joke with the people or speak to them or sing for them.
The only thing that tortured me when I was young in terms of work
is: Was I good enough? Was the work that I was doing worthy? And,
also, was it right for me to be indulging in writing poetry all
night when people were starving, or dying by the thousands in
Vietnam? I mean, as a young girl all of these things haunted me.
It's been very hard for me sometimes to reconcile these
I was thinking more about the demands the industry places
on young women, to look and act a certain way.
I didn't ever expect anything from the music business, so
everything that I got was more than I ever expected. Every
biography I'd ever read about artists and poets, they all suffered:
William Blake, you know, Van Gogh, they died in poverty, unknown or
almost forgotten. I didn't expect anything more than that.
Actually, I never expected to be in the industry. I never wanted
to make a record and I didn't know I was going to, so when it
[happened] I was thrilled.
When Clive Davis signed me [to Arista Records in 1974], he saw
that I was very wilful and wanted to do things my way, dress the
way I wanted, write the kind of songs I wanted. He pretty much told
me that with his know-how he could transform (as he saw me) a
diamond in the rough into a shining star and help me have a very
big career, or I could have an interesting trajectory underground
if I went my way. So, of course I went my way, because I never
cared about being a pop star, or rich or famous; I just wanted to
do something great. I wanted to write a great book, to make a great
record, you know? Not that I wanted to sell a million books (though
that would be wonderful) but that I would write a book that
everyone would want to read, or sing a song that everyone would
want to hear. But I had to do it my way.
Once in New York, you lived for a while at the Chelsea
Hotel, with Robert Mapplethorpe and many other hugely creative
people. Was there a very competitive spirit among them?
No. At that time we were developing a cultural voice - it
had begun in the Sixties, of course - the evolution of rock'n'roll
simultaneous with Abstract Expressionism and Coltrane and then Pop
Art. America was exploding and all these great artists - Jimi
Hendrix and Bob Dylan and John Lennon - I mean, you could go on and
on. We had such depth, whether it was physical and personal like
the Animals, or Neil Young writing of what was happening in our
country politically, or Jimi Hendrix moving into the more spiritual
aspect. I met these people when I was young and though they were
more evolved than me - they were all a little older than me but
back then a couple of years was crucial and they seemed like they
were 10 years older! - we were all like kin.
You give the impression that everyone was very generous to
Absolutely. I mean, the only thing they weren't
generous with was probably, late at night, who would get the last
of the [cocaine]… But in terms of our cultural voice, everyone was
creating it and everyone was inspired by each other. It was so
expansive! I mean, people like Jimi Hendrix and the MC5, they
didn't talk about America, they talked about the world. They wanted
to change the world. And why? For peace. For our ecology. You know,
they weren't just rock stars, they were visionaries.
What does 'punk rock' mean for you?
It doesn't mean anything to me. It's like, what is
rock'n'roll? You know, these are just labels.
Jackson Pollock used to be very frustrated because people called
him an Abstract Expressionist. Yes, it's an interesting term, but
he did not want to be confined to being an Abstract
Expressionist. And I don't want to be confined to - you know,
people get very disappointed that I'm not still making punk-rock
records. I mean, I'm 65 years old! I wrote 'Rock N Roll Nigger' 35
years ago and to me the idea is to keep evolving, keep exploring.
That's true freedom.
Some people look at punk rock and say: It's three chords
and it's ugly and there is no artistry or craft in it.
Yeah, well, that's why rock'n'roll is traditionally the
art of the people. It's always been like that: Hank Williams' songs
are all three chords, most of Bob Dylan's songs are. Look at 'A
Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall': beautiful poetry, three chords. For me,
rock'n'roll is like the true Blakean art, because Blake believed
that all humans could animate their creative impulse, and all
humans can create rock'n'roll. It's simple. It's physical. It has
no real rules and it can go from the lowest common denominator to
People would say the same thing about Jackson Pollock as they
have said about punk rock. And I of course don't agree with any of
it. I think there is beauty everywhere. When I first came to London
and met all of the English punk-rock kids and saw the way they
dressed and the clothes that they designed and all, I thought it
was a wonderful world. It was free - and not without
You are known as 'the godmother of punk' -
If we [had been] having this conversation in '78, you
would have said 'the queen of punk rock'. Now I have become the
And how do you feel about that?
Well, I mean, it's fine by me. I don't really require
being queen of anything.
How did motherhood change your life? It is said that you
took a break from creative work, but that's not true, is it?
Oh no. I took a break from the public eye, but actually I
wrote much more in those 16 years [1980-96] than any other time in
my life. It's funny, the conceit of it, to imagine that I would
stop being a writer or an artist simply because I was not in the
public eye! I was prolific.
I studied, I read continually - and I also learnt how to be a
mother. You know, I had to cook, I had to take care of the house, I
had to wash all the clothes…
There's a lovely bit in [the 2008 documentary] Patti
Dream of Life when you say you were a really diligent
laundress but you wouldn't use bleach. Did you see things
differently when you became a mother?
I did switch certain things off as soon as I got
pregnant. My only addiction ever in my life has been coffee, but I
immediately stopped drinking it because I perceived that it's
probably not good for a baby. I didn't smoke pot any more. I had to
really think about everything that I did - even my frame of mind,
to not be depressed, to try to stay in a strong and positive state
I was never the maternal sort but I found that I was just in
love with my children, and there wasn't a moment that I resented
the time spent taking care of them. We stayed close to home and we
lived very modestly on any royalties we got, and some small jobs;
and I was very, very happy with that. Occasionally I'd have to turn
something down - Godard asked me to be in a movie, things like that
- and I would have a twinge, but…
It kind of sounds like rock'n'roll growing up - unlike,
say, Mick Jagger, still playing Jumpin' Jack Flash at the age of
69. And yet I hear that only the other day you smashed a Fender
guitar on stage.
No, I just pulled the strings off of it, I didn't break
it. I have broken guitars in my time, but not now. I've already
done it, so maybe I do something different now.
I never broke a lot of them, and I broke them out of some kind
of anger or high adrenalin.
Aren't you too old to be still doing rock'n'roll?
I know my age - I'm old enough to be a lot of the
audience's grandmother - but essentially I think of myself as a
worker: I'm communicating with people. When I was young, I
communicated with people through ideas and humour, and I still do -
you can do that at any age. A more sexual communication, OK, that
has changed, absolutely. Not that I don't have any sexuality, it's
just not paramount in the way I communicate with people.
But there are moments when I'm on stage when I don't feel any
different than I did. At all! I still feel as awkward, I still feel
as enraged, I still feel, you know, as flawed. I don't feel like
I've improved. I know that I'm not as - not that I was ever
beautiful, but I was certainly better-looking when I was younger,
and a little sexier, or more interesting to a young feller.
I still feel a strong connection with the audience, and if I
didn't, I wouldn't do it. I don't want people to spend £20 or £30
to come see us if they're not going to get something out of it.
I know that you write something every day. Is it true
that at the moment you're writing a detective novel?
Yeah, I'm working on a few things and a detective story
is one of them. To me, a detective is like a poet in a way. They
work alone, and they're either creating a design or trying to break
through a design that's already created.
I always imagine I'm the detective. I always identify with the
hero, ever since I was a child - I can't help it. I always want to
be the person that's going to save the damsel or…
Save the planet.
Yeah, save the planet!
Patti Smith was talking to Simon Jones
1 In the citation for the Polar Music Prize, which was
presented to her last year for demonstrating 'how much rock'n'roll
there is in poetry and how much poetry there is in
2 Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010
3 Columbia Records, 2012
4 Columbia Records, 2004. The track she refers to is 'Radio
5 Her first album, released on Arista Records in 1975
6 The photographer she met in New York in 1967, with whom
she had an intense romantic relationship. In Just Kids, she calls
him 'the artist of my life'.
7 Fred 'Sonic' Smith, formerly guitarist with MC5, who she
married in 1980