Singer-songwriter Patti Smith

Rock icon discusses marrying her poetry with music and her critically acclaimed memoir about her early days in New York City.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Patti Smith to this program. The legendary singer, songwriter and performer has just released one of the most talked about books of the year, “Just Kids.” The heartfelt memoir traces her early days in New York City and her special relationship with renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Patti Smith, an honor to have you on this program.
Patti Smith: Oh, thanks. Thank you.
Tavis: I’ve been looking forward to this conversation, so I’m glad you put us on your list. Thank you.
Smith: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: First of all, Jonathan, put that picture back up, the cover. I want you to tell me about this photo, because it is arresting when you actually have the book in front of you, as I do. It’s a gorgeous photo. Tell me about it.
Smith: Well, it was – Robert and I met on September 1st, 1967, so this was our anniversary, September 1st, 1969. We wanted to go to Coney Island for our anniversary; we both loved Coney Island. In the back – in fact, when I later sold the picture I sold the words “heroes,” and I said, “Isn’t that great?” And he said, “Patti, heroes are a sandwich.” (Laughter) I was from south Jersey, and we called them hoagies.
But we were walking down the boardwalk and there was this old fella who had an old box camera, and for a few dollars he took your picture and you walked around and then you came back. So that picture documented which was a very happy day for Robert and I. When I look at it now, it still makes me happy.
Tavis: One more time, Jonathan. You talk about the fact that at one point in your career – and for the photo, thank you – you talk about earlier in your career at one point there was this attempt by the record industry to make you a harder-edged version of Cher.
Smith: (Laughs) Well, that was even before I signed with my record company. That was an earlier record company in 1971, actually, that offered me quite a good deal, quite a lot of money, if I went along with their image of me, and I wasn’t really interested in that.
So in 1975 I signed with Clive Davis, who had his own ideas about me, but Clive always had a weakness for artists, and let me be myself.
Tavis: I only raise that because that picture, with the headband and the hair, had that kind of Cher kind of look.
Smith: Well, they were talking more like they wanted me to wear a hard-edged – like wear a motorcycle jacket and sing rock and roll songs, but in 1971 I wasn’t ready for that. I did that in my own time.
Tavis: Can I just say at the outset of our conversation – and I read a lot of books in this chair – this is one of the most beautifully written –
Smith: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: You are a poet, obviously, but your writing is so – there’s a flow to it that I can’t even put words to, but I just wanted to tell you that I think it was so beautifully written.
Smith: Well, it took a lot of hard work, but also, I think if one loves their subject – I only wrote about things that I loved in that book. I didn’t waste my time on things that I didn’t love. I loved New York City at the time, loved Robert and the people around us, and I think when you have love and magic propelling you it’s helpful, but it also was a lot of hard work.
Tavis: See what I mean? Everything you say is poetic – “love and magic propelling you.” (Laughter) You speak in – I love the pentameter in which you speak. It’s just a beautiful thing.
Smith: Thanks.
Tavis: For those who don’t know who Robert was, one, tell me, and then I want to follow up by asking why it is that you think that there’s something for the rest of us to learn from, to wrestle with or to marinate on about your relationship. But first, tell me about Robert.
Smith: Well, Robert was one of these people that has a God-given gift. He was born an artist, and even when we met at 20 his abilities were fully formed. He was just – he’s an artist. I mean, that’s as simple as the word that I could use to describe Robert. Not a photographer, not – all of the different adjectives used for him can be distilled down to simply say he was a true artist.
What I’m hoping that the book will do, one, I promised Robert that I would write the book before he died. The day before he died I promised him I would write our story, and I was really hoping – I wrote it for Robert, but I also wrote it for the reader.
Sometimes when you’re writing poetry or doing something very obscure, you’re not so concerned with the listener or the reader. But I was really hoping that this book might inspire people, give them hope. It’s about two young people who started with nothing but believed in each other. All the evolution Robert had to go through to – his late awakening of homosexuality and how we had to deal with that as lovers and friends, and creating without money, struggling, not having enough to eat.
But I’m just hoping that it’ll be helpful to new generations, and maybe nice memories bring out nice memories for older generations.
Tavis: Well, you answered both questions in one answer, so thank you. No, I appreciate that. Tell me about how you navigated the pure nature of the relationship. You start as friends, you become lovers. To your earlier point, he discovers that he’s homosexual. Just tell me about how you rode that rollercoaster in the relationship.
Smith: Well, Robert and I started almost immediately as boyfriend and girlfriend. Back then in 1967, for 20-year-olds, we didn’t even use the phrase “lovers.” He was my boyfriend, and we had a very classic, traditional relationship, physically and emotionally. We were together. But after about a year and a half or a year, Robert – any feelings he had about this nature he had either suppressed because he was a Catholic boy, an altar boy, he was in ROTC, his father was a military man, and also, in the early ’60s and even the mid-’60s, people were still keeping their persuasions hidden.
It just got to the point where he couldn’t hide it or suppress it anymore, but he really didn’t want us to break up. We were really happy with one another. It caused us a certain amount of pain. We had our normal – it wasn’t a thing where we were fighting or yelling with each other; it was pain.
We sat and cried with each other many, many, many times, and he even, to his credit, in ’69, after exploring all aspects of his desires, really wanted us to try again, and we tried again for almost a year.
But he was who he was. His nature was what it was. But we had something so beautiful worth saving – the physical aspect of a relationship is beautiful, but we had something that was so much more enduring, that I still have. Without his physical presence, I still feel the confidence he gave me, the love that he had for me, I still – the things that I learned about myself and being an artist, I still maintain.
So it took us a while and it took a lot of mutual help. We helped each other to ride these things, but the fact of the matter was we had a lot to save – much more than a physical relationship.
Tavis: That’s where the book, for me, got really interesting, because I’m trying to imagine, just to be frank about it, how I would feel in a relationship with a woman that I absolutely adored and loved and discovered that she was a lesbian and was leaving me for another woman.
I put myself in the situation reading the book. I’m like, how would I have handled that? And here you are to this day, he’s gone, and you still love this man.
Smith: Well, yeah, but the thing is is that one can’t forget that I wasn’t the only person that suffered. Sometimes I think that it was more painful for Robert. Of course it was freeing for him to be able to express his deeper nature, and I’m sure that he blossomed because of it, but believe me, he suffered as much as I did. It wasn’t a simple thing.
We were also quite young. Again, because we had such a deep commune as artists and people that helped each other evolve as human beings, we were able to surmount it. If we hadn’t had that, perhaps we would have totally gone our separate ways.
Tavis: You spoke earlier, Patti, in this conversation about how Robert helped you find your confidence and there was a beautiful phrase that you uttered that I’ve been holding on to since I discovered it some weeks ago. It is that each of us has to dig down, down, down and find the confident part.
Smith: Yes.
Tavis: Tell me more about that, and how he helped you do that.
Smith: Well, I’ve always loved art. I’ve always felt a certain sense of myself. But I was skinny, I grew up in rural south Jersey, I had bad skin, greasy braids, I wasn’t real popular with the boys, and I wasn’t extremely – I wasn’t a prodigy.
Robert was a gifted draftsman, very gifted. I struggled with my poems, I struggled with my drawing, and I sort of was self-conscious. Robert, he was shy and sometimes inarticulate, but he did not lack confidence, and Robert would not rest until he infused his confidence that he had in himself in me.
His belief in himself was so unshakeable, and he equated his belief in me equally. So it sounds alchemical or something, but eventually he was successful in making me feel like I was really worth something. That I wasn’t – being a muse is a beautiful thing, but he accepted me as both muse and maker.
That confidence that he instilled in me at 20 years old, I’ve never lost it. I’ve had tragedy in my life, I’ve not wanted to get out of bed, I have gone through a lot of difficult things, but I’ve never lost that confidence that he instilled in me and it’s, right now, blossoming.
Tavis: Let me take the inverse of your comment a moment ago that there are days you have felt like not getting out of bed. I was fascinated by your confession that the day – and I’m paraphrasing here – the day isn’t complete for you unless you create something.
So before you go to bed at night, you have to look back on that day and see something that you have created in that day. Unpack that for me.
Smith: Well, I’ve just been like that since I was really young. It’s almost I made a vow with myself. I have to do something every day to sort of prove my worth, because even though I’ve worked in a factory, in a bookstore and certainly labored as a mother, I don’t tend to gravitate toward those tasks. I feel that every day I have to show some human worth, something that I’ve done. If I’m not doing something politically or to help my fellow man, at least that I’ve written a good sentence, I’ve taken an interesting photograph.
That this gift that I feel I’ve been given – because I believe gifts are God-given, however you want to express God, whether it’s nature or something metaphysical, it’s a special thing, and it has to be exercised, it has to be nourished.
So I just always try to write a paragraph or work on a book or take a picture or at least express something that says, “I was alive today.”
I always think of this Jimi Hendrix line, which I love. I forget which song it’s in, but he starts out, “Hooray, I wake from yesterday.” I feel like that every morning. It’s like, “Wow, I’m here again. Great. I got another day; I got another day to experience something. I’m going to see ‘Alice in Wonderland’ soon. I’m going to read another book; I’m going to experience something wonderful.”
Tavis: I always say, “Another chance to get it right.” Another chance to try to get it right, at least.
Smith: Yeah.
Tavis: You mentioned God a moment ago. When you say that you believe that each of us has the capacity to animate God, you mean by that what?
Smith: Well, I believe that it’s sort of a Blakeian concept, but I believe that all of us have a creative impulse. Of course, sorry, but I have a sort of – maybe it’s a snobby attitude, but I do believe that being a true poet or being an artist, a true artist, is a special, God-given thing.
But that doesn’t mean that the creative impulse is just there for artists and poets. It’s there for every man, and how we animate it is up to us. We all have it, whether it’s nature, God, whatever you want to call it, and that’s why I love rock and roll so much.
Because rock and roll is the one art that America has also given the world where it’s a people’s art. It’s really so accessible to everyone to write a song or to feel it or to express themselves. We also live in an era where a lot of people are expressing themselves.
Tavis: Indeed we do. There was a point in your career – and I’m going to go back to the earlier part of your career in just a second – but you arrived at a certain point in your career, I think it was around the time of the Springsteen collaboration – but there was a point in your career where your fans thought you had sold out, and you basically said to them that, “I’m not selling out. Punk rock, if it’s anything, is just another phrase for freedom.”
Smith: Yes.
Tavis: When I saw that, I wondered whether or not you meant that specifically about punk rock, or is music, any kind of music, soul music, just another form of freedom?
Smith: Well, of course it applies to everything, but I was saying specifically, because some people, they had – because I had success with the song I worked with Bruce, people would say, “Oh, you sold out,” or something like that, and I thought that was so stupid.
I was the same person working on that song and singing that song as any other song, and I was specifically reacting to them saying that that song isn’t punk rock. And for me, punk rock is a state of mind, but it’s also just a phrase.
I myself don’t really like to be tagged with any phrase. I want to be free of all phrases, including punk rock. I’m a worker, and I’ll do what I want. Not without conscience and not without a sense of responsibility, but I’m going to do the work that I want to do the way that I feel – the way I see fit.
Tavis: That’s why I like you. (Laughter) I’m trying to animate that in my own work. Back to the beginning – when did you really feel like you were moving at the pace you wanted to move at where your music is concerned? I ask that against the backdrop that Robert teased you about the fact that you became famous first, because of your music, in part. Tell me about when you thought you were moving in the right direction on your music.
Smith: Well, it wasn’t – I’m not a musician, I’m a performer, and in the course of performing I have learned how to sing and I have a pretty good ear. But I don’t call myself a musician. I didn’t have any real goals in terms of being a musician. My goals were really sort of aesthetically political.
What I wanted to do was merge poetry with rock and roll in the way that Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison or Bob Dylan had. I wanted to continue that tradition, but also we were moving in an era where I really felt that rock and roll as our cultural voice was being taken over by moguls, by rich rock stars, by the idea of celebrity, and I wanted to help remind people that rock and roll was our cultural voice, belonged to the people, and that we all could animate that aspect of ourselves.
So I felt that I had achieved that already in “Horses,” and then I thought, well, that’s it. I did my record. But Clive Davis had offered me to do more records and he believed in what I was doing, and I wound up doing a few more.
But certainly by “Easter” I had accomplished what Robert really wanted from me, was to have a hit record, because Robert was joking that I got a little famous before him, and he certainly caught up with me. (Laughter) But I was so happy for him, really, because he wanted that for me.
But I felt that I had – my band and I had created a certain amount of space for the new guard, and that lyrically I had presented songs that I hoped would be freeing, would give people some things to think about, and so between “Horses” and “Easter” I felt like I had done my job.
Tavis: You may have just answered this, but let me dig a little bit more here. I suspect, with all due respect to every artist who has come on this program or will come on this program, that every songwriter thinks of himself or herself as a poet of sorts.
But let me ask you to set your modesty aside for just a second. What do you think that you did uniquely different – because we celebrate you for it all these years later – what did you do uniquely different, Patti, in terms of marrying your poetry with music?
Smith: I think that working with people like especially Richard Sohl and Lenny Kaye and later all of the people that I worked with, was building and keeping and maintaining a sense of improvisation.
Right from the start, Lenny Kaye, Richard Sohl and I started working with three chords and a little rhythm, and they allowed me to improvise language. In “Horses,” “A Lot of Land” is improvised in the studio. “Birdland” was improvised in the studio. There’s a lot of improvisation and I’ve maintained that right from the beginning to the last record, “Tramping,” which has a 14-minute improvisation called “Radio Baghdad,” where the language is completely improvised in the studio.
I think that that’s as much credit to my people who are willing to go anywhere with me, and also people that have given me the opportunity to make records to give me the space to present songs like this, that aren’t structured, where I use people like Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix for my inspiration.
They’re not Smokey Robinson songs, because God bless Smokey, I don’t have his gifts to write songs like that, but I do have the ability to riff for quite some time and to go out there and hopefully speak to God a little and then come back and give it to the people. I think that that’s what I and my musicians have done that’s unique.
Tavis: There you go with that poetry again. (Laughter) I’ve just got 20 seconds right quick, but I’ve got to get this out – there were a few publishers left along the way in trying to get this thing eventually out.
Smith: Yes, yes.
Tavis: The lesson for you that this is out now, it came when it was supposed to come, the lesson for you in that is what in this journey?
Smith: Well, I don’t even know what lesson. It’s just the truth. Robert asked me to do this 20 years ago and just fate and design, whatever, my own difficulties have brought it out now, and the people are welcoming it and it just makes me really happy.
Tavis: And you should be. It’s a wonderful read. As I said earlier at the top of this conversation, I’ve never read anything that is written more beautifully, but when Patti Smith puts her fingers to it, that’s what you get.
Smith: That’s so nice.
Tavis: The new book is called “Just Kids” by Patti Smith. Patti, an honor to have you on the program.
Smith: Oh, it was so nice to talk to you.
Tavis: Thank you.
Smith: I’m so happy. Sorry. (Laughter)
Tavis: No, I’m happy having you here. So we’re both happy. Hope you’re happy at home. That’s our show for tonight.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm