It may surprise you to learn that Patti Smith—a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame whose 1975 debut album, Horses, Rolling Stone ranks as the 44th greatest of all time—doesn’t consider herself a musician. “I didn’t evolve as a musician, and I don’t have the consciousness of a musician,” she explains in her low, rich voice, which still has a trace of her native New Jersey. “My husband was a great musician,” she adds, referring to the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, lead guitarist for the MC5.
It’s a warm late-summer afternoon, and Smith is sitting on a couch in a Downtown Manhattan loft owned by a member of the Soundwalk Collective, her frequent musical collaborators. Wearing black jeans and an Electric Lady Studios T-shirt, her long, gray braid falling over one shoulder, Smith, now 72, has outlived most of her loved ones, and increasingly regards herself as a more solitary breed of artist—a writer. Just Kids, her 2010 memoir of her early days in New York with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, won the National Book Award, an act she followed with M Train (2015), a more dreamlike weaving of memories and travelogues.
Published this fall, her third memoir, Year of the Monkey, took shape over the course of 2016, a turbulent year when she faced the death of her friend Sandy Pearlman—the producer and music critic who proclaimed, after watching Smith’s first poetry performance, that she should front a rock band—and the decline of her old boyfriend and longtime collaborator Sam Shepard as he contended with ALS. Meandering from Shepard’s Kentucky bedside to desert diners to a seaside inn she calls the Dream Motel, the book walks the line between fiction and nonfiction, memoir and tone poem. “It’s its own little animal,” Smith says, noting that she envisions writing a third “M” book to make a loose trilogy.
A few days after our conversation, she’ll set off to perform in Europe, but in the loft, she’s absorbed by the world of her book, holding forth about where she seeks inspiration, why she doesn’t fear death, and how to find hope in dark times.
Why did you decide to write this book?
Well, I didn’t decide to write this book. I decided to write M Train as a conscious experiment, but I started this book by writing in a notebook on New Year’s Day. I had a lot of dark premonitions about 2016. I’m by nature an optimistic person, but I was concerned about Sam, about Sandy, about the political state of our country, and the fact that I was approaching 70. When you turn 70, that’s a real number to look in the face. How much time does one have left? How many more years will I have to be lucid and do my work? I never thought like that. So those were new things to negotiate.
Are you at a point where you’re thinking more deliberately about how you’re using your time?
I don’t have a sense of wasting time as long as I have a daily practice. Every day I write, unless an emergency happens. I go to the bathroom with a piece of paper and a pencil in my pocket, in case I have ideas. The movies, I’ll be writing in the dark. I write in trains and planes and hotel rooms. But sometimes I’ll just write one paragraph that I feel like, that was good. So I did something today. But it doesn’t have to be just writing. It can be “I helped my neighbor today.” Or “I walked for four miles.” Does one waste time because you put all your work aside because your neighbor was in crisis? The idea of wasting time—it’s really a state of mind.
At the end of this book there’s this epilogue where you connect this idea of personal loss with larger losses, like climate change and the loss of American identity. Do you feel as an artist it’s your responsibility to respond to the politics of your time?
I don’t think an artist has any more responsibility to respond to political situations than any human does. Everyone should vote, everyone should speak out against injustice, everyone should do their part for climate change, everyone should help their neighbor. I don’t think artists are born with a magnified responsibility. I think an artist is born to do his work. In my own work, I react as a mother and as a human being to the injustice around me. Year of the Monkey is more permeated by our political situation than any other book I’ve written. It’s visceral, and it says what it has to say. But what we need is everyone—social activists, humanists, environmentalists. Art is only one component of how we make change. A great song can rally the people, but the next step is action. There’s no substitute for action.
Do you read the news, or do you avoid it? Does it change depending on what you’re working on?
I’m attentive to the news. There were different points in the book where I avoided the news for a while, could be a week or a few days, because—especially in our current climate—it’s so difficult. There are certain things that I don’t have the ability to change. I can speak out about them, but I don’t have the tools to change our situation. I can’t go through every day with my mind filled with so many of these different things that I can’t do my work. And I have work to do.
It’s a hard thing to negotiate, finding that balance.
The Dalai Lama once said, “I can’t save Tibet. What I can do is work to save our culture, our wisdom, work toward saving our planet.” Basically, he was saying, I can’t focus on what I can’t change. I might feel sorrow or pain about those things, but I have to use my energies in a positive way. So it’s not a question of turning a blind eye, it’s a question of finding, “What good can I do today?” And not letting it be undermined because of all the things happening in the world that we can’t control.
Reading Year of the Monkey, I thought about the community of writers and musicians and artists in which you forged your identity. Do you feel like that community still exists?
Most of the people are gone. Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard, Sandy Pearlman, Jim Carroll. My pianist, Richard Sohl, who in the ’70s was so important to my development as a singer, died of heart failure when he was only 37. My husband, all of these people—they’re with me, but physically, on earth, they’re gone. My community is in the past. That’s another reason why I spend a lot of time by myself. I was lucky to be part of some rich scenes—the Chelsea Hotel in the early ’70s, CBGB and the burgeoning scene of punk rock in the later part of the ’70s. But I don’t have the need at this time of life to be part of a burgeoning community. I leave that to the new guard.
At certain points in this book, it’s so much about loss, I wondered, Do you ever feel like the sole survivor of those years?
Well, I don’t feel like the sole survivor. But I’m certainly one of the only ones. I thought Sam and I were gonna be sole survivors together. I fully thought that I would know Sam till we were 100 years old.
Speaking of Sam Shepard, your relationship with him is such a big part of this book. You helped him complete his final work of fiction, because his illness meant it was no longer physically possible for him to write. What was it like working with him toward the end of his life?
Sam was his own man. And he knew exactly what he wanted to say, and in a certain way, I was there to serve him. Sam and I collaborated together when we were young—we wrote [the play] Cowboy Mouth in the winter of ’71. We’ve known each other for so long and shared so many books and learned from each other, laughed with each other—all our experiences as friends allowed us to have this delicate, trusting relationship at the end of his life, and allowed me to do my part in helping him to complete his manuscript.
How was your relationship with Sam different from some of the other collaborative creative relationships you’ve had?
Sam and I were always close. Whatever configurations we went through, as a young couple or whatever, we were always friends first. We were able to salvage the trust and mutual respect and camaraderie that we had when we first met. So we had in our later life absolutely no loose ends. No baggage. No emotional problems. No resentments. We just accepted each other as who we were as human beings, and who we were together. And he was my buddy.
How has your relationship with music changed over time, specifically your relationship with your voice?
When I was a little girl, I used to dream about playing piano and being an opera singer. But I was never going to be an opera singer, and we didn’t have a piano. It was just dreams. I perform as a singer, but I would never call myself a musician. When I first started singing, I had no idea what I was doing. I was just a real emotional performer, and I sang a little because I come from a generation where everybody sang a little. When I was a kid, everyone sang on street corners.
My husband helped me, toward the end of the ’70s, in working with my breath. He taught me to play a little clarinet, which strengthened my breathing. And more recently, a fellow named Tony Shanahan became our band’s bass player, and eventually sort of my vocal coach. I also learned a lot listening to opera. Even if I don’t understand an aria, I can feel the trajectory of the narrative from the dynamics they use. Soft, very soft, then a little stronger, then a burst of energy. Also, it’s easier now for me because they don’t smoke in clubs anymore. All through the ’70s, I got bronchitis from singing in places where the smoke was so thick you could hardly see. Now that I don’t have to face that, I do a lot better.
You still devote so much time to performing and touring. What do you get out of it?
Performing with my son or daughter is a great pleasure because they so magnify their father. Sometimes I’ll be onstage and look at my son, and he so reminds me of his father, in his mannerisms or tones. And my daughter has a lot of her father’s soft, soulful touch on piano. I don’t really perform for myself. I get things out of it—a certain amount of joy or a sense of accomplishment. But I really perform for the people—to present them with a couple of hours that are transformative, or rejuvenate them, or make them feel like certain things are possible. I will do almost anything for that to happen. I’ll change a set list. I’ll sing a song twice. If things are going rough, maybe I’ll talk about that with them, or joke around, or tell a story. You have to stay with the night, because some nights are a bit rocky. And some nights are explosive. But whatever the night is, you have to stay with it until you feel that people have a release.
You seem like someone who’s always been very loyal to yourself and your work. Is that the way it feels to you?
When I was young, in the early ’70s, I was very close with William Burroughs, and he often gave me counsel. I asked him what was the best advice he could give me. And he said, “Keep your name clean.” I was joking, and I said, “William, my name is Smith, what am I gonna do?” He just said, “Keep your name clean. Make sure that, good or bad, whatever decisions you make, it only reflects what you really thought was the best thing at the time.” That made complete sense to me. There are times when I’ve had to make hard decisions, and I still think about that.
What in the world right now inspires you, or makes you feel hope for the future?
Young people. My son and his family. My daughter is a climate change activist. She has a nonprofit called Pathway to Paris. This little girl Greta Thunberg—her mission is food for hope every day. In terms of my own little world, I was traveling, I think it was in France, and I passed a field with so many different colors of wildflowers, as far as the eye can see. It was a moment of happy wonder. We have to allow ourselves to feel some measure of joy. You asked about death. I think it’s important that people never feel that they can’t laugh anymore. That it’s not right for them to feel happy or feel pleasure because they’ve lost a loved one. We still have to be ourselves, and to express the full spectrum of emotions that equal being human.