Patti Smith: 'I resented being labelled as a female artist'

Neil McCormick
·7 min read
Trailblazer: Smith poses for a portrait c1976 - Michael Ochs archive
Trailblazer: Smith poses for a portrait c1976 - Michael Ochs archive

During the week of the US elections, Patti Smith went busking on the streets with guitarist Lenny Kaye singing her 1988 anthem People Have the Power. She sounds relieved at the outcome, with reservations. “We have hope of at least having a moral, empathetic person as president. It’s a certain kind of salvation. But the country’s divided, it’s breathtaking how divided we are. So we have to keep working, keep fighting, keep lobbying, it never ends.”

Smith is 73, and her work as a songwriter, bandleader and author has contained elements of both the idealistic hippy movement of the Sixties and fierce political activism of punk in the Seventies. She was a published poet and collaborator with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and playwright Sam Shepard before releasing four influential albums of hallucinatory rock between 1975 and 1979 (beginning with the seminal Horses). At the height of her fame, Smith surprised fans by retiring to a life of domesticity, raising two children with Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5. It was only following her husband’s death, in 1994, that Smith made a comeback, every bit as creatively uncompromising as she had been in her youth.

“I am exactly the same age as Donald Trump,” she notes. “We were born in the same year, six months apart. There’s two sides of the generational coin. Some of us wanted to change the world, some wanted to reap profit from it. We make progress, and we go backwards.”

Smith proves a wonderful person to talk to on a transatlantic phone call, as articulate, passionate and thoughtful as her work might suggest, full of humour and humility, laughing often, asking questions, and apparently delighting in the very act of conversation. Of course, like a lot of us, she may be going a little stir crazy. “The only people that call on my landline now are those recorded voices telling me my auto insurance is expiring. I’ve never had a car and I don’t know how to drive, but still they call three times a day, which is nice.”

Smith admits to having found the pandemic personally difficult. “I’m very anti-social, as a human. But I love people abstractly,” she laughs. “I had my bags packed for a year of touring. I should be in London now for two nights at the Royal Albert Hall, walking around Covent Garden, having a nice meal at Punjab. I have a dual nature, one that’s very solitary, and then the part that embraces public life, which for me is performing. It’s a completely different head space, and I was ready. So it was very challenging to wind up rooted. I lost 100 per cent of my performance work, concerts, book tours, lectures, everything is gone.”

She had trouble adjusting to working at home, and despite her assertion that she is anti-social, it was human contact she craved. “I miss my son [Jackson Smith plays guitar with her], I miss the camaraderie. It has been a very solitary time.” Smith’s daughter, Jesse (a musician and environmental activist, founder of Pathway to Paris), lives close by and makes sure she has everything she needs. “I’m very fortunate to have her. I’m trying to make the most of it.”

Smith, as photographed by Stephen Sebring, for the 2020 Lavazza Calendar
Smith, as photographed by Stephen Sebring, for the 2020 Lavazza Calendar

This week, Italian coffee makers Lavazza release their 2021 calendar, for which Smith has created a new piece in collaboration with photographer Stephen Sebring. “If we be blind, if we turn away from Nature, garden of the soul, she will turn on us,” is the opening line of Supplication to Nature, a prose poem accompanied by stark pictures of Smith with a dead insect hive. The piece is filled with apocalyptic imagery of blazing rainforests and smouldering peatlands.

“I am worried and angry about climate change, but also optimistic,” she says. “I really love Greta Thunberg. I feel that she is such a voice of reason. My generation wanted to change the world. Now young people talk about wanting to save the world. Those words represent a big shift, from change to save.”

Proceeds from the calendar will go to Save the Children. “I’m not doing a commercial for their coffee,” Smith points out. “I thought it was an honourable project.” Then she laughs. “But I do like their coffee.”

Smith has a pioneering status as a female rocker in a very male dominated field. Bob Dylan was a fan before she was famous. “He saw me play in a club and I guess he liked me. One night he asked me to come to a club around the corner from where I lived in Greenwich Village.” Footage of Smith performing extemporised poetry to an audience of folk rock stars including members of The Band and The Byrds features in Martin Scorcese’s 2019 documentary Rolling Thunder Review. “It was very daunting. When Martin showed me that footage for the first time, I realised I hadn’t changed all that much. The flaws are still there. There’s a moment when I go, ‘uh, what a mess!’ But I had a strong sense of self, and enough bravado to pull it off.” She compares it to performing at a Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, in 2016, to honour Dylan’s Literature award. Singing A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, Smith stumbled over a lyric, stopped, apologised, laughed and carried on. “In some ways we move really far from our younger selves but as an improvisational performer, it’s still the same girl.”

Force of nature: Smith with Iggy Pop and James Williamson of the Stooges in 1974 - Michael Ochs archives
Force of nature: Smith with Iggy Pop and James Williamson of the Stooges in 1974 - Michael Ochs archives

Smith has often bristled at being categorised as a feminist icon. “One of my goals was to create space for women, but I also was hoping that we didn’t have to label ourselves as a ‘female artist’. I resented that. To me I was an artist. We don’t use the expression ‘male artist’.”

She expresses huge admiration for contemporary women in music, namechecking Billie Eilish, Adele, Rihanna and Beyoncé. “I think we’ve made tremendous strides. When I was young, I never saw any girls playing electric guitar, but now girls do whatever they want. But in terms of equality, I’m more concerned, truthfully, with the equality of people having water, people having food, people dying of starvation all over the world. I don’t worry about whether rock and roll is equal for one gender or another. That’s a fight each musician can fight on their own. I have sympathy for mothers who can’t feed their children.”

Smith may conduct herself with humility but points out “I had my time of being a real arrogant little s--- when I was younger. I tend to be self-centred, the way artists have to be. I’d rather die unknown and poverty stricken having done great things, than be celebrated for mediocrity.”

She hopes that she has at least one more album in her. “I’m going to be 74, and I need to restructure some things in my life, but I’m not retiring. I have enough songs, and we would have gone into the studio next year. But I really don’t know what’s going to happen. What I do know is I can keep writing through anything.”

Our conversation turns, again, to her spirit of fiery optimism. “I’m always optimistic because what’s the alternative? I’ve lost so many loved ones: my husband, my parents, almost all of my best friends. So I know about sorrow and loss and strife. But I’m also so grateful and happy every day to be alive.”