Interview: Patti Smith

by / Apr. 14, 2015 10pm EST

When she played the last-ever show at the storied CBGBs, Patti Smith went on a riff in her version of “So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star.” You can watch the video online; it will make you want to make something.  “This is the era / Where everybody creates,” she shouts.  “It’s all open / It’s all open to you / It’s all up to you / What are you going to fucking do with it?”

So, just do it— but really, do it. Get up at five in the morning, like Smith does, and write until the shrieks from a nearby school drive you away from your keyboard. Learn to take photographs. Do some art, write a book, sing a song. Work for a politician. Perform your poetry. Make a record. With a little help from your star-spangled friends, or if they’re gone, by yourself. This is the era where everybody creates. Save the world.

What Smith has been creating is a followup to her humane and lovely memoir Just Kids.  That book won the National Book Award in 2010, and reminded anyone who needed reminding how spectacular a force Smith has been for all our lives. In the meantime, of course, she has been doing everything else: touring with her beloved band; writing Oscar-nominated music for the movie Noah; playing the Vatican. Though she’ll tell you that she dropped out of rock and roll to raise a family, she never quit being an artist or reading poetry or writing, writing, writing. 

Smith will be the last of this year’s speakers in Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel Series, at 8pm on Friday at Kleinhans. General admission tickets are still available, but going fast; visit or call 832-5400. Students with ID get in for $10. They’ll also be announcing next year’s lineup, so get ready to swoon.

Just Kids struck me as so gentle and so kind and so full of love. How do you handle being a rock star without the fury? And being a writer, it seems, without much cynicism? 
Well, first of all, the way that I handle being a performer is that I never think—I don’t have any image of myself as a rock star. I might have had a brief image of myself as a rock star when I was young, you know, in my 20s, and it was exciting, and I had that sort of frontal, idealistic energy. I still maintain my idealism, but at this time of my life, I think of myself more as sort of a friend, or a performer; I hardly think of myself as a rock star, you know. I have children, I’m 68 years old, I don’t live that kind of lifestyle, you know. I live in my own way fairly simply, and have since 1979, when I left the public arena. 

Last time I thought of myself as a rock star was probably then, 1978…and it was exciting, but now I just think of it as the work that I do. And it doesn’t make me any different, any better or in any way more exciting than any other person. I just have command of my discipline. You know, when I go on stage in front of 100,000 people, or 10 people, I go with the same intent, and that’s to communicate. And when I get off the stage, I’m just myself, you know, going about my day. So I think that it’s not only healthy, mentally and emotionally healthy, it’s actually, you know, I think in all ways has added to my longevity as a performer and singer. I’m physically healthy, I haven’t destroyed my voice, I’ve never had a real, what people would imagine a rock-and-roll lifestyle would be. Because if you actually take away the glamour that people attach to it, or the sex and drugs and things like that, what you really have is a very grueling job. Sometimes you’re on a tour bus, I’m on a tour bus with nine guys, driving from Poland to could be some other country, and it takes 11 hours on a bus and a lot of it is tedious, it’s long, you have long waits between sound checks and going on stage, the technical difficulties. It’s not really a glamorous life; it’s kind of an innocent military-style life. It’s like boot camp. You get in your bus.

But it’s a lifestyle I actually like. I’m not really attracted to a glamorous lifestyle; I like a work-ethic driven lifestyle. So, sorry my answer’s so long, but I think the short answer would be, I focus on the work. I don’t focus on the ephemera around the work, or a lifestyle around the work; I focus on the work, and that’s what keeps me grounded.  

And in terms of writing, writing is a solitary, you know, it’s completely different than performing. Performing, you’re constantly in the public eye, you’re giving, you’re extending yourself, and writing is very solitary, and you’re basically your own mirror, so you know you have to stay healthy to do that as well. I think writing is in some ways more grueling than performing.

How, at this stage in your career, do you surround yourself with community? You know, I wonder where artistic community comes from.
Well, I’ve had to, by necessity, create my own community. When I left New York and went to Detroit in ’79, my community became my husband and my children and my private work, the work I did by myself. At this stage of my life, a lot of what my community—the people who made my community—many of them are dead. My brother and Robert [Mapplethorpe]…my pianist Richard Sohl, Jim Carroll, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs—the people that I considered my community, I would say 70 percent are gone. And still I’m very lucky, because I still work with Lenny Kaye, I still work with Jay Dee Dougherty, and I have Tony Shanahan, so my band presents a continuing community. And now the people that I work with, my editor Betsey Lerner, who I worked with on Just Kids. So really my new community is my children, who I often perform with, and the people I’m working with now. But at this point of my life, I have to rely a lot on myself for my community. It has to be a community of memory and discipline. It’s not the same as when I was young, and we were all working together, and all together, all kinds of people, and everywhere there were struggling poets and writers and musicians, all living in cheap apartments, and all a walk away. The landscape has greatly changed.

But you know I’ve worked all my life. I’ve written since I was a child, so I rely on my internal community, the memory of former communities, and my new communities.

In a way, I guess, that’s an inevitable product for all of us. We’re getting older, our lives get clarified in certain ways. But how do you keep a mirror that is other than just yourself? Who are you bouncing ideas off of?
In some ways, I’m really a 20th-century worker. I’m not so connected with the 21st century; I’m not really connected with social media; I don’t have the same goals as socially-media-driven artists. My goals are really the same as they were when I was 20, and that’s to do something of value, to do something new, to take people some place they haven’t been before. So I don’t have 21st-century goals; I really have the same goals I had as a young person. And so I just continue to work like that. I’m my own critic. I hope when I put my work out that other people will find value in it, but I’m self-reliant. It would be exciting if I suddenly had some, one of these things, and they said, “One million people are following the words that you say,” but I can’t judge—that has little value in terms of the worth of your work. I keep my eye on the work. And all of these things that happen have their excitement or value, or they bring you prosperity or they bring you more readership, but in the end, the core of it is your work.

How do you choose your medium? You’re somebody who can work in a whole lot of genres, and does, all the time. How do you opt for the hard one? Which you do: Writing is the hard one.
I write consistently, whether I’m publishing or not. I’m always writing. When I say writing is the hardest, it’s when you commit to a certain things, you have a deadline, you have to finish a book and bring it out into the world. I write every day, but I don’t necessarily do anything with the writing that I do. In terms of choosing my media: They usually choose me. It’s like having four or five good horses, and which one are you gonna ride? Sometimes, I’m driven to write songs and I make a record, and sometimes I just want to be on my own, on the streets with my camera, and I take photographs. Or I might decide to take out a piece of paper and put it on the wall and do a drawing. But writing has consistently been my one consistent medium. Recording and all of the other mediums come and go. Writing is the one thing that stays.

Do you have a time when you write? Every day, like some people?
I like to write early in the morning. I just finished a book, I was on deadline; I wrote morning, noon, and night, I woke up at four in the morning ’cause I couldn’t sleep and then would start writing again. But I mostly like to write in the morning; I developed that discipline when I had my first child, because I had no time to write. You know, when you’re young, you might stay up all night writing, or you can, you don’t have any time frame. If I worked in a bookstore, when I came back I could sit up all night and write. When you have children, of course, everything changes. So I found my niche: From five in the morning till eight in the morning was when my husband and children were sleeping, and I started using that as my writing time.

The magic quiet hour…
It took several months to get used to that. At first I’d just stare at the page, or stare at the typewriter, but then through the years I got used to it, and it just developed as a happy discipline. My children are grown, but I still like to get up early and write in the morning. The mind is…because we come out of a dream state, and often we’re working things out in a dream and we get up and have a little breakfast or a coffee or something and we’re in this very lucid state. I find it a vey good time to work. The city is asleep.

It helps. No interruptions.
I live across the street from a school, so around eight o’clock the screaming and carrying on and the playing and the sound of kids, so it’s just like, you know, in a way, my living in Michigan.

So there’s a nice rhythm, a really human rhythm. I guess what I meant when I talked about the rock-and-roll lifestyle was: How do you just be human?
[Laughs.] Because that’s what I am! I was never… you know, I was from a lower-middle-class family, the oldest of four kids. I started working very early, when I was 12 or 13, babysitting, picking blueberries, working in a factory. I’ve always worked; I never became like a rich rock star. I left rock and roll before I entered into that phase. I had garnished a certain amount of fame and a certain amount of recognition, but I left too quickly after that to build on that. I didn’t squander a fortune; I didn’t make a fortune. I know how to live simply, and I know how to live well. 

So how is it that your favorite writer, Rimbaud, is somebody who’s so troubled? He’s like the anti-you.
Well he’s one of my favorite poets, not necessarily my favorite writer. I love Herman Hesse, Roberto Bolano, Murikami, Louisa May Alcott, JM Barrie—I have a million writers that I like. I loved Rimbaud when I was a young girl. I embraced Rimbaud as a teenager. He was beautiful, he spoke for me. And I actually didn’t find Rimbaud any more troubled than…I mean, was he more troubled than Jim Morrison?

Probably not. I think Rimbaud would have lived a long life had he not died of cancer, or whatever he wound up dying from. He died at 37, but not because he wanted to die. He wasn’t self-destructive. He went through a small self-destructive period when he was a teenager, but as a man, he was a hard worker. And why I loved Rimbaud was because he was a great writer. I didn’t love—I never love a writer or an artist because they’re troubled, or because they died young, or because they committed suicide, or because they drank themselves to death. Those things might be part of the package, but what always attracts me to them is their work. If I didn’t love his poetry, I would have gotten over him as I got older. I could have fallen in love with Rimbaud because he had a beautiful face, and I would have then fallen in love with Bob Dylan. It’s the work. I’m still reading Rimbaud’s poetry with the same enthusiasm as when I was young—perhaps even more. But I also like many writers who lived a long life. I don’t associate…when I think of rock stars, the… 

Live fast, die hard?
The typical fantasy of what a rock star lifestyle is, it doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s troubled. If someone just gets rich, famous, takes a lot of dugs or squanders a fortune or rides a lot of limousines with a lot of girls, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re troubled; it might just be that they’re spoiled. Or that that’s what excites them. Someone like Kurt Cobain obviously was troubled. But I didn’t gravitate toward Kurt Cobain because he was a troubled boy; I gravitated toward him because he was great. He did great work, he was a great performer, he wrote great lyrics.

Even when you were young? I feel like that has less of a pull on me now, but when I was 20, I was certainly was drawn to the melancholy, the dramatic.
Because at 20 we’re all melancholy! We’re all filled…it’s beautiful and painful to be young, so I don’t think there’s any—there’s no mystery about why young people are drawn to troubled souls, because we’re all going through so many things. I was the same way; we all suffer when young for various reasons. It could just be because we fall in love with someone and they don’t love us. Or we get ditched. Or because we’re lonely. Or because we feel that our work is not understood, or we’re misunderstood. Whatever the reasons are, we look to people who mirror our sufferings and articulate them in a way that we couldn’t articulate ourselves. That’s what our poets do for us. That’s what rock and roll songs do for us. People look to artists to articulate things they couldn’t articulate themselves.

I work with high schoolers, and they tend to have a hard time understanding that grownups don’t wish they were 16, since that seems to them, first of all, the apotheosis…but I don’t think they have a sense of how relaxing it will be to come out of the trauma. 
It’s nice that they think that, in a way, because they’re still enjoying the beauty of being young. When they’re 23, only 23, looking for a job, unable to pay for an apartment, finding their degree doesn’t mean a whole [lot], they’ll think different. So if they have a happy moment, where they think being 16 is beautiful, and everyone should want to be 16, they should be let to have that moment. It’s funny, because when I was 16, I was working in a factory, and it was horrible, and I hated being 16. My first record, Piss Factory, reflected my world of being 16, which was trying to help my family, working in this factory, trying to make my way through college or save up money for college—it just seemed like toil. We all have different thoughts about all of that.

But anytime a young person can feel happy, we should let them feel happy if they can, because there’s so many twists and turns around the corner—loss and illness and responsibility, and also al the great things. It’s a hard road ahead. We who have been through it know all the great things, but know how hard it was to get from one great thing to the next, and maybe, perhaps, don’t want to have to repeat it. And memory is a beautiful thing as well. We have that.