NEW YORK (The Washington Post) – Patti Smith stands near the shoreline, a block from her Far Rockaway bungalow, Jimmy Choo motorcycle boots wedged in the sand, as she gazes at the Atlantic.
“I wanted to be something great, to be like Madame Curie,” she said. “Rock-and-roll, it just happened.”
In the early years, in the Lower Manhattan clubs, “I was this mangy-looking girl who was very well-read, with this south Jersey truck-driver accent, delivering sometimes very sophisticated poems, and then singing these little R&B songs,” she says, now 72, her voice still seeped in Deptford Township. “There wasn’t any place for me, really.”
So Smith, once she discovered her formidable talent, blasted one into the firmament. “I loved rock-and-roll, and I felt like I had a responsibility,” she said.
“To add something, to be the best I could be at it.”
Smith was deemed the godmother of punk, and later the high priestess of punk-poetry, and then the grandmother of punk. (She is, literally, a grandmother of a five-year-old.) But she wanted to transcend mere rock stardom. She nurtured a passion for 19th-century French poetry. She filled journals in her elegant script. She adored the Declaration of Independence as a child, and copied it over and over. She harboured grand dreams of being a literary writer. Why be great in only one arena? And now this accidental rock legend, in late middle age, has finally achieved what she yearned for all along.
Her latest book, Year of the Monkey, published this week, is a collection of reveries – she concedes to veering more toward fiction with each book. Smith includes some of her ethereal Polaroids, mostly of places and things. This volume follows 2015’s M Train and 2010’s Just Kids, the latter winning her accolades and the National Book Award, and establishing her as a literary force.
In her early 20s, the child of a machinist and a waitress moved to New York to box with giants, living at the Chelsea Hotel, hanging out with Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan – basically, everyone. She took up with Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard and Tom Verlaine of the band Television. Still, she says as she smiles, a gate of crooked teeth, “I’m not so bad myself.”
Smith became a rock icon – truly, there’s no other word – in 1975, when she torched the music scene with Horses. Rolling Stone judged it the 44th greatest album of all time (of 500). Its opening line, a salvo delivered in a guttural keen, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.”
Her former lover, roommate and partner-in-art Mapplethorpe shot the searing Horses cover portrait, when album covers contoured identity. Smith poses insouciantly, in black and white, with a jacket tossed over the shoulder like Sinatra. She looked like no one else, unless you count Keith Richards. Smith resembled a lost Stone.
She performs like a punk banshee, in a fevered state, fearless, cursing, flailing, falling from the stage in 1977, fracturing several vertebrae and requiring 22 stitches. Every gesture, every image commanding, ignore me at your peril.
Smith speculates that she has may have sold fewer records than any artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her sole hit, Because the Night, co-written with Bruce Springsteen, peaked at 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978. Smith collected her only gold records overseas, where she routinely draws larger crowds than at home.
Rock-and-roll, she jokes, is her other gig, the one at night. Her website lists concerts as “jobs.” The books are the opposite of her music and damn-the-torpedoes performances: quiet, inward and elegiac, like the Nobel-worthy authors she pockets in oversize black jackets.
Smith published several volumes of poetry before Just Kids, which recounts the early years with Mapplethorpe. “We had nothing. Robert always worried about me. He asked me to write this book on his deathbed” in 1989 at age 42, while he was suffering from AIDS, she says. “The responsibility of that book was so intense. I would have never written that book if he hadn’t asked.”
At the time, Smith was married to the late MC5 musician Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. He joked about her “five fields” of interest. She lists “writing, photography, painting, drawing, music, reading, studying”. Which is, indeed, seven.
She basically dropped out of music during her 14-year marriage to Smith, raising two children, now in their 30s. She moved from New York to Detroit to be with him and would have taken his last name, she says, had it not already been hers. She still wears her thin gold thread of a wedding band.
“I was heavily criticised,” she says, “when I left public life and my so-called career to be a wife and then a mother, as if I had betrayed, you know, some kind of ideology that I never embraced,” she says. “My art never suffered because I had a husband and children. Having the experiences I had magnified my work, magnified me as a human being.”
After her children got older, and Fred died in 1994 at age 46, Smith found more time to write. It took 20 years, and almost as many drafts, to complete the memoir. Surprisingly, she earns more money from writing these days, she says, than the blistering music that made her famous.
Seven years ago, Smith bought her one-room cottage, to write, to create, to be by herself. “Seduced by a piece of abandoned property,” she once wrote. “How quickly it had charmed me.”
“My Alamo,” she calls the property, a sanctuary filled with beloved objects and souvenirs placed just so – a photo of Baudelaire, a desk gifted by Johnny Depp, Jack Kerouac’s copy of Saint-John Perse’s Anabasis.
She purchased the property before ever glimpsing the interior, which seems such a Smithian act. “I just knew,” she says.
Smith is great company, prone to laughter, an epic talker, six hours of chatter, generous and warm. Our interview was preceded by days of calls (“Hi, hi, hi, it’s Patti”) and emails, and began and ended with enveloping hugs. But she’s also prickly, known to abruptly end interviews when questions displease her. In Just Kids, she shares that she gave up a child for adoption when she was 20 but declines to discuss it further. Before our meeting, she cautioned that she didn’t want to talk about her husband, Mapplethorpe and Shepard.
She talked about them all.
Smith’s life has been soaked with profound loss, which reverberates in her written work. “Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead,” she writes in the new book. “Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow.” For all the pain, she says, “my path has been strewn with magic.”