Conversation: Patti Smith

BY Tom LeGro  December 17, 2010 at 4:22 PM EDT

In late 1960s and early ’70s New York, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were unknowns, young friends setting out to make themselves artists against the backdrop of cultural change. Mapplethorpe went on to become one of the most honored and controversial photographic artist of his time before he died of AIDS at age 42 in 1989. Patti Smith went on to fame as a musician who merged poetry with rock ‘n’ roll. She was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. She tells the story of those early years in a memoir titled “Just Kids,” which won this year’s National Book Award for nonfiction.

Watch Patti Smith read from “Just Kids”:

Read the transcript after jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: In late 1960s and early ’70s New York, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were unknowns, young friends setting out to make themselves artists against the backdrop of cultural change. Mapplethorpe went on to become one of the most honored and controversial photographic artist of his time before he died of AIDS at age 42 in 1989. Patti Smith went on to fame as a musician who merged poetry with rock ‘n’ roll. She was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. She tells the story of those early years in a memoir titled “Just Kids,” which won this year’s National Book Award for nonfiction. Patti Smith joins me now. Welcome to you.

PATTI SMITH: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this is a book that goes back to this life before you were you, the public figure, why did you want to back and look at that?

PATTI SMITH: Well, just the day before Robert died, we both knew he was dying and, because we had collaborated for so many years, I just asked him what he wanted me to do, to continue working with him in the best way I could. And he said, will you tell our story, you’re the only would that could tell it. And because the story, our stories, started of course when we 20 years old, it began, you know, the two of us were, as you said, unknown. We were both sort of outsiders, and we evolved as artists and human beings together.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did the two of you try to do, this sort of idea that you could see it coming through, the sort of aspirations to art but trying to channel it somehow.

PATTI SMITH: Well, both of us had a mission. Robert really believed in himself. Robert was a very interesting boy, because he was quite shy yet absolutely confident in his abilities and that he would someday achieve acclaim.

JEFFREY BROWN: He knew that?

PATTI SMITH: He felt that absolutely and I had a lot of bravado in that I could make a living, I had no fear, but I didn’t have as much confidence in myself as an artist and I think somehow chemically we traded off. He instilled his confidence in me, and I helped take care of us, so we both helped each other find our paths.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are a lot of famous people who move in and out of the story. Sometimes they are in the background, and there are rock stars — Janice Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix — and then there are artists like Warhol, of course, but there’s a passage where you write this is a quote, “I was there for these moments but so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments”. It’s kind of interesting that we don’t recognize our moments as we’re living them.

PATTI SMITH: Well, it’s true. I was sitting at the feet of Janice Joplin as Kris Kristofferson was teaching her “Bobby McGee” and preoccupied with a poem I was trying to write. And I think that that’s normal for young artists. These people were only a few years older than me. It was a time where the cult of celebrity wasn’t so big and we weren’t so separated from the people who were creating our cultural voice, because we were also trying to add to it simultaneously. And we were all living in the same house: the Chelsea Hotel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Which was quite a place in itself, right?

PATTI SMITH: Oh, absolutely. A landmark.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you went back to look at what you did, did you recognize this person that you were back then? Did it seem to you like it’s been a fairly straight-forward arc, or was that almost like looking at someone else?

PATTI SMITH: No. I really, I can access myself. I can access myself when I was 11, but I also understand how I’ve evolved as a human being. Especially becoming a wife and mother, you certainly learn when you have children you are not the center of the universe. But there was a certain amount of continuity, and I think what keeps the continuity is that I’ve always worked. I’ve always written. I’ve always had a work ethic, whether it was a job or a creating art, so I can trace my whole evolution just through my work.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that work became music, became writing in this case, but at one time you described your work as “three chords merged with the power of the word.” What does that mean? How do you see the power of rock and what did that become for you?

PATTI SMITH: Well, I began, of course, as a poet, but the power of rock ‘n’ roll, rock ‘n’ roll was really the canopy of our cultural voice, and especially in the ’60s, late ’60s and early ’70s, and our rock stars, the people who were building that voice, whether it was John Lennon or Neil Young or Bob Dylan, whoever it was, they were infusing politics and political ideology, social justice, sexual energy, poets all within the canopy of rock ‘n’ roll and striving to make this a universal language. It was a real mission and I wanted to add to that. Writing poetry is beautiful, but when I was young I wanted to be a part of this important cultural voice. And so merging the simplistic aspects of rock ‘n’ roll, three chords, classic three chords, songs like “Gloria” or “Land of the Thousand Dances” with my own poetry, that kind of fusion is what propelled me on, my band on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you said it was very interesting at the award ceremony, when you were given the National Book Award, you looked back, which is also talked about in the book, to the days when you were a clerk at a bookstore. And you said you always dreamed back then of writing your own book.

PATTI SMITH: Yes. Well, I’ve dreamed of writing a book since I was child reading “Little Women,” reading “Pinocchio,” “Moby Dick.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Books meant something to you from the beginning.

PATTI SMITH: Always.

JEFFREY BROWN: It comes out. So it seems like it was your way into another life.

PATTI SMITH: I begged my mother to teach me to read. My poor mother was a waitress and did ironing and had four children. I begged her to teach me, and she would come home and labor and do her best, and she did, she taught me to read. And so I just devoured every book in sight. I’ve always loved books.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so how much did it mean to not only write a book, but then win this major award?

PATTI SMITH: I was so excited. I mean, I could hardly speak. I really, I just burst into tears, and still when I walk down the street all the sudden I start smiling. I’m just so happy. It’s not why we do our work. We don’t do our work to achieve accolades; we do our work to do good work. But to receive them it’s, well, it’s exciting. It means the other thing is that, more than ever, it means this story, which my motivation was to give Robert to the people, really give the people a more holistic image of Robert, is even more possible, because it makes the book more accessible to others.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is called “Just Kids.” Patti Smith, it’s nice to talk to you.

PATTI SMITH: Thanks.