‘I experience joy very easily’: Patti Smith on Springsteen, the climate fight and the meaning of punk

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<span>Photograph: EPA</span>
Photograph: EPA

The singer, poet and writer answers your questions about playing music with her children, being at her friend Allen Ginsberg’s deathbed and maintaining hope in a troubled world


Which bits of Because the Night were written by you, and which were by Bruce Springsteen? palfrey-man

Jimmy Iovine was producing [1978 album] Easter and had given me this tape. Bruce had already put the song together and “Because the night belongs to lovers” was the chorus, but he had no verses. At the time, my boyfriend Fred “Sonic” Smith [of the MC5], who I later married, lived in Detroit and I lived in New York. Long distance calls were expensive and we weren’t rich, so we’d set a time and speak once a week. One night, Fred didn’t call. I was restlessly pacing about and I remembered this tape Jimmy wanted me to listen to. I thought: “Darn, this is a hit song.” But it was very relatable. Fred finally called at midnight, by which time I had finished all the verses and the reprise/coda. That’s why it says: “Have I doubt when I’m alone / love is a ring, the telephone.” It’s a love song to Fred. I couldn’t talk to him, so I talked to him through the song. Bruce later wrote his own lyrics but always praised my version and the last time we sang it together, he sang my words instead of his, which was very nice of him.

Your 1975 masterpiece Horses features one of the most iconic album covers ever. Did you anticipate its cultural impact – and what is your favourite album cover? VerulamiumParkRanger

I wanted Robert [Mapplethorpe] to do the album cover because he wasn’t known and I wanted people to see his work. But no, I had no idea that it would have such impact. How I was dressed was how I always dressed. Robert took 12 pictures and I think it was the eighth and he just said: “This is the one with the magic.” I wish he could have lived to see the impact it made, but boys like Michael Stipe or Bono and many, many girls have talked about Robert’s photograph and that makes me really happy.

[Bob Dylan’s] Highway 61 Revisited is one of my favourite albums and I love the cover photo with the camera behind him. Then Blonde on Blonde came out in the gatefold sleeve and, oh my gosh, it was so great.

Pattit Smith with portraits of her taken by Robert Mapplethorpe
Smith stands in front of portraits of her taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, at a 2014 exhibition in Paris dedicated to the photographer. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

I return to Horses endlessly because of its lethal combination of drama, poetry, danger, love, sex and rock’n’roll. What’s your favourite of your albums? poopoo

I like the longer improvised pieces such as Radio Baghdad, Memento Mori or Radio Ethiopia, but as a whole album I like the last one, [2012’s] Banga. Constantine’s Dream, the long improvised piece at the end, touched a lot of things that concern me – art, the future of mankind, climate change, the horrors done to our indigenous people, and love. I love the cover, which was shot on the fly by my friend Stephen Sebring. That record feels like me, like Horses feels like me.

It’s been too long since Banga. Are there any plans for a new album? Punkawallah

I do have plans and I’ve written a lot of songs. I’d like to do one more album and my record company, Columbia, has very generously left the door open.

What’s it like to play/make music with your children? BlueHorseFilms

My son [Jackson, 39] never got to hear Fred, his father, play, but he has identical guitar tones. My daughter [Jesse Paris, 34] is more of a composer, and even though piano was Fred’s second or third instrument, she has the same touch. So in playing with them, I feel not only close to them, but close to him. They’re both better musicians than I am and sometimes I’ll hit a wrong note and see the audience laughing because the two of them are making little faces at each other. They have a great sense of humour and we’ve grown together onstage.

Do you have any unrealised dreams? If so, what are they and what do you intend to do about them? Huw_Morgan

There’s nothing I love more than books. I’ve written some and I’m really happy with them but I just want to write at least one that I feel deserves to be in the canon of books to endure. I basically want to write something as good as Pinocchio and, yes, I’ve started it.

Could you please share a memory of Vali Myers? Piramiddo

When I was a young girl, I found pictures of her in a book called Love on the Left Bank. She was one of the early beautiful gypsy beatnik girls. Living in rural south Jersey, I aspired to look like that or be free like that, to go from Parisian cafe to cafe, writing poetry. I was living in the Chelsea Hotel with [actor/playwright] Sam Shepard and one day Vali Myers walked in with a baby fox on her shoulder, which matched her wild red hair. I was amazed. Vali had tattoos all over her face, so I asked her if she would give me a tattoo of a small lightning bolt on my knee in honour of Crazy Horse, which she did with a big sewing needle in ink. To this day, it’s on the inside of my left knee, so I think of her every time I look at it.

Smith with her son Jackson and daughter Jessie
Smith with her son Jackson and daughter Jessie Paris at Philip Glass’s 80th birthday celebration in 2017. Photograph: WENN Rights Ltd/Alamy

How do you cope with some of the harder realities of life such as war, bad leaders or illness? How do you maintain hope? joverexcited

I feel terrible for young people because, in all my years, these seem like the worst of times, in terms of war looming, the pressures of social media and the environmental crisis, which is frightening. My main personal challenge in life has been illness. I was always a sickly kid, but I got through tuberculosis, scarlet fever, measles, chickenpox and an earlier pandemic. Then I had to go through losing childhood friends, my brother, my husband and my fellow musicians. I’ve found that as people we have the power to endure a lot of things and also to make things better. I don’t have any answers, but I look to the young, someone like Greta Thunberg or my daughter, who is a climate change activist. Every human being has responsibility to make things better, every action gets reaction and even in the smallest of ways we can all do something useful.

What brings you joy? VKK1989

One of my favourite lines in music is from Jimi Hendrix’s 1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be). “Hurrah. I awake from yesterday.” I live by that. Another day, I’m still here. A chance to do something useful, read a book, see a film, see my kids. I just saw The Power of the Dog – such a great movie – and The Batman. I just made myself peanut butter toast and black coffee, one of my father’s favourite things, and I suddenly had such a sense of him. I experience joy very easily.

How did you end up working with Terrence Malick on Song to Song? HaveOneOnMe3

Terrence Malick screen tested me for Days of Heaven in ’75 or ’76. He really liked me, but I was fairly unknown and he couldn’t secure the part for me, but he remembered me. Forty-five years or so later I was doing a concert in Austin, Texas, where he lives, and he asked if I would improvise with his actors. Michael Fassbender and Rooney Mara were there and he just asked me to improvise in certain scenes. I actually never saw it, so I don’t know how I did.

I love the Jerry Week essay. Did you know all those dates or did a ton of research go into that piece? karlrgibson

I’m not good at remembering faces but I’m very good with dates. The Jerry Week essay starts on 1 August, Jerry [Garcia]’s birthday, and ends on the 9th, the day he passed. 2 August was William Burroughs’ passing. My son was born on 5 August and Hiroshima was bombed on the 6th. These are things I just remember. My next project is a book partly inspired by 365 days on my Instagram, called The Book of Days. I’m convinced that there are certain days when things happen. I met Fred on 9 March 1976 and on 9 March 1989 Robert passed away. It’s also the birthday of many people I admire – Ornette Coleman, John Cale, Bobby Sands, Bobby Fischer … and 4 November is Robert’s birthday and the day my husband passed away. It’s uncanny, especially if you’re me living through it, but it helps put things into perspective. Life has great joys and great sorrows and we have to take the whole package.

Could you talk about your collaborations with Blue Öyster Cult? Bellewitch

My first public performance was a poetry reading in the bookstore where I was working in February ’71. Sandy Pearlman was there and he managed Blue Öyster Cult, who were just forming and still called the Stalk-Forest Group. He was very excited about my performance and he asked if I’d like to audition to be the lead singer. I said: “I don’t know anything about fronting a rock’n’roll band. I’m a poet.” But I met them and wrote several songs that they recorded, such as Career of Evil. The keyboard player, Allen Lanier, became my boyfriend and played on Horses. Sandy Pearlman produced the Clash, who I’d seen when we were performing Horses. I called Walter Yetnikoff at CBS and he sent Sandy to London to see them. They got signed, but they would have done anyway, because anyone who saw them would know that this band was important to the future of music.

Is it true that you and Philip Glass kept Allen Ginsberg company as he was dying of cancer? Viennesewaltzer

I was very close with Allen. In his last days, he was in his loft in the East Village, listening to Big Mama Thornton, then he went into his last sleep. There were monks on the floor chanting, his Jewish relatives, young poets and people that loved him. Philip Glass and I kept alternate vigils along with Robert Frank, Larry Rivers and Gregory Corso. Peter Orlovsky never left his side. At the end it was myself, Peter, the poet Oliver Ray and a couple of young acolytes. I can’t say it was sad. It was more like an honour to sit by the side of a great friend but also one of our greatest poets. My song Don’t Say Nothing is about my thoughts as Allen died. When I first met him in my 20s he thought I was a very pretty boy, because I was in a long grey overcoat and a cap. We always laughed about that.

Patti Smith in 1975 at a poetry reading night in New York with Allen Ginsberg
Smith in 1975 at a poetry reading night in New York with Allen Ginsberg. Photograph: Richard E Aaron/Redferns

You have often spoken and written at length about your lifelong love for Arthur Rimbaud, notably in your memoir Just Kids. Didn’t you buy a derelict farmhouse in the Ardennes that once belonged to his family, with a view to turn it into an artists’ residence? auroreborealis

During the first world war, the Germans bombed the Rimbaud compound, so his sister had another house built on the same spot using the debris. A very old woman lived in this house until she was in her 80s; it was in disrepair and she couldn’t take care of it. This is the land that belonged to his mother, where he laid in the grass and looked up at the stars, where he wrestled with [his poem] A Season in Hell and where he suffered when he lost his leg at the end of his life. This old woman found me, and I can’t just go and buy houses, but it was at such a reasonable amount that I bought it to be the guardian of the land for the future. I’ve repaired it to turn it into a writer’s residence for one person. That was delayed by the pandemic, but it will happen.

Your Soundwalk Collective collaborations are a thing of wonder. Are there any more planned? DJSteve

Funnily enough, during the pandemic we did six major pieces, all original, around 14 minutes long. One is dedicated to the children who got pancreatic cancer after the accident at Chernobyl, another to the underwater drilling that is killing our whales. I’m quite excited about it.

In retrospect, do you feel you should have gone harder towards the written word and that music was a diversion, or is artistic expression one big ball of fun? Haigin88

I would never call artistic expression a big ball of fun. Whoever said that it is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration was exactly right. It’s work. When I go on tour, I call them jobs, but also it’s a sacred struggle. I’m not a very social person, so the heart of my sociability is in performing. When I left public life from ’80 to ’96, I didn’t do one live performance, but along with raising my children I was completely immersed in writing and studying. I was able to write Just Kids because of 16 years of intense practice – writing, rewriting and really honing my craft.

Smith performing live in the 70s
Smith performing live in the 70s. Photograph: Dick Barnatt/Redferns

How long before you semi-retired from music in 1980 did you know that you were going to stop, and was it scary to stop and then return? Haigin88

In 1979, I wasn’t huge in America but in Europe the last job I did was in an Italian arena for 80,000 people. I was at the pinnacle of real success and financial success, but I wasn’t growing as an artist or human being. Not due to drugs or anything – that wasn’t part of my lifestyle – but attitude. A lot of hubris. I was a really demanding asshole sometimes and I wasn’t writing as much. Plus, I had a bronchial condition so playing in smoky halls was physically debilitating, and I was away from the person I loved. I’d only ever intended to do one record and hopefully create space for other people, which I felt Horses did. So withdrawing felt liberating. Coming back was very different. After the deaths of my husband and brother, I was alone in Michigan. I had two young children. I had financial difficulties. I had to go back to work and it was scary, wondering if people would remember me. I returned owing to a set of terrible circumstances, but I met Michael Stipe, who was like my guardian angel. Bob Dylan gave me my first tour. Allen Ginsberg was there, William Burroughs, Jeff Buckley … So I wasn’t alone. I had evolved, but there was still part of me that might put her foot through an amplifier or tear the strings off a guitar.

What is your definition of punk rock? alexHD

Freedom.

• Patti Smith’s summer European tour begins at Bearded Theory festival, Derbyshire, 26-29 May. Subscribe to her Substack and read the serial The Melting at pattismith.substack.com.

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