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Patti Smith Reflects on Power of Words, Rock ‘N’ Roll

December 29, 2010 at 4:57 PM EST
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Rock legend Patti Smith speaks with Jeffrey Brown about her book "Just Kids," a look at her friendship with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1960s and '70s before their careers became part of America's pop culture palette.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the story of lifelong friends: an artist and a rock star. Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

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 a backdrop of cultural change.

Mapplethorpe went on to become one of the most honored and controversial photographic artists 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 into 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.

PATTI SMITH, author, “Just Kids”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this is a book that goes back to this life before you were you, the public figure.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Why did you want to go 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, you know, working with him in the best way I could.

And — and then he said, “Well, you tell our story.” And he said, “You’re the only would that could tell it,” and because the story, our stories, started, of course, when we 20 years old.

And 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 — 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, you know, achieve acclaim. He saw his…

JEFFREY BROWN: He knew that, or he felt 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 how chemically we traded off. He instilled his confidence in me, and I helped take care of us. So, we — we both helped each other find our paths.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a lot of famous people who move in and out of the story. Sometimes, they are in the background. Sometimes, they’re — and there’s rock stars — Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix — and then there’s artists, like Warhol, of course.

But there’s a passage where you write, “I was — 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, huh?

PATTI SMITH: Well, it’s true.

I was sitting at the feet of Janis Joplin as Kris Kristofferson was teaching her “Bobby McGee,” and preoccupied with a poem I was trying to write. You know, it’s — 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 — from the people who were creating our cultural voice, because we were also trying to add to it simultaneously. And — 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: Mm-hmm. At one time, you described your work as “three chords merged with the power of the word.”

PATTI SMITH: Well…

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, what does that — what does that mean? How do you see what 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, that — and our rock stars, the people who were building that voice, whether it was John Lennon or Neil Young or Bob Dylan, or whoever it was, they were infusing politics and — and political ideology, social justice, sexual energy, poetics, all within the canopy of rock ‘n’ roll, and striving to make this a universal language.

It was a real mission. And I — I wanted to add to that. Writing poetry is beautiful, but, when I was young, I wanted to be 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 a Thousand Dances,” with my own poetry, that kind of fusion is what propelled me on, my band on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And — and you said at — it was very interesting — at the awards ceremony when you were given the National Book Award, you — you looked back, which is also talked about in the book, to the days when you were a clerk at a bookstore.

PATTI SMITH: Yes, Scribner’s.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you said you had always dreamed back then of writing your own book.

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

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

PATTI SMITH: Always. Always.

JEFFREY BROWN: And was it — I mean, it comes out — so, it seems like it was your way into another life.

PATTI SMITH: Oh, I begged my mother to teach me to read. My — my poor mother was a waitress, and did ironing, and had four children.

And I begged her to teach me, and she would come home and labor and try — and do her best. And she did. She taught me to read. And so I — I just devoured every book in sight. I have 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 — 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 feel — I’m just so happy. It’s — 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 is — it’s — it’s — well, it’s exciting. It’s — it means it — the other thing is that it — more than ever, it means that 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.

(LAUGHTER)

PATTI SMITH: Thanks.