Patti Smith has never shied away from life’s tragic side. But when she calls up Rolling Stone in October, she’s in an upbeat mood.
“On the road, they have these LG televisions and when you turn them on, it says: Life Is Good. I love that,” Smith says. “Actually, I say it out loud when I turn it on: ‘Life is good.’ Because there’s a million reasons why we can say that things are terrible in the world, but when you get down to it, you know, being alive, I mean, it’s the best thing we got.”
This past September, Smith performed three intimate performances at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City’s Greenwich Village with her children, Jackson and Jesse Paris, and longtime collaborator Tony Shanahan. Later produced as an audiobook, Patti Smith at the Minetta Lane, the shows included poetry, passages from her critically acclaimed memoirs Just Kids and M Train, and nine songs spanning more than 40 years of creative output.
In a candid interview for Rolling Stone’s Last Word series, Smith opened up about motherhood, New York City in the Seventies and why she never gets sick of playing her hits.
What were your favorite books as a child?
An early favorite was Pinocchio — not the Disney version, Collodi’s Pinocchio. And I still have my battered copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses and Uncle Wiggily. And Little Women!
What do you think it is about Little Women and Jo March that every generation seems to fall in love with?
Well, for me, I saw myself in her; she was sort of an awkward tomboy who climbed trees and read books and wrote. I grew up in the Fifties, and gender was very defined. I felt very estranged from the expectations of my gender, and then I met Jo and she was much like me. It was an epiphany. She was responsible and she was loving toward her family, but she was also herself and she didn’t bend to any expectations of how she should dress or behave.
That idea seems a lot more accepted today.
If you look at the back of Horses, which I wrote in 1975, that was defying labels. It says “Beyond Gender” on [the album sleeve]. I didn’t want to be identified in terms of gender; I wanted to be identified as an artist.
You’ve performed Horses in full recently. Why does that LP endure for you?
Horses never even got a gold record, right? It was really the people that keep that record alive. I’ve performed Horses in a field in Poland for, like, 20,000 kids under 25 who knew all the words, and I find that so inspiring and touching. I don’t do records for myself; I do them for other people, and if they want to hear something — if I still can sing it or still can relate to it — I’ll do it. And also, I’m always hoping if I see somebody I really like, they’ll do the song that I like. I want to hear Neil Young’s old songs when I see him. So if people want to hear “Because the Night” for the 2,000th time, I’ll give it to them as long as I can give it to them with real enthusiasm. I am not going to fake it. If I can really access the original impulse that drove me to write it, I’ll sing it.
Are there any movies or TV shows that you love or watch every week?
Oh, I loved Phantom Thread, I saw it like six times. If I like a movie, really like a movie, I’ll watch it over and over. I watched Arrival a few times. I love movies, but I really liked Sharp Objects. I love Amy Adams; I thought she was awesome. Patricia Clarkson was awesome in it too.
I like to watch people work. So if I like the show, I’m watching it for two reasons: Because I’m compelled [by] of the narrative but often I just love to watch the people doing their work. And I like detective shows: Doctor Blake Mysteries, Father Brown, Endeavor, Vera and George Gently. I watch all the all the British detective shows. I never watched TV in the Seventies, Eighties, the Nineties either, but then I started getting hooked on detective shows, on the road mostly in Europe, and I kept watching detective shows in different countries.
I love The Killing, Linden and Holder. I actually I got to be on it. I got a small part. I was such a fan, I wrote them a fan letter and then they asked me did I want to come to Vancouver and watch them shoot at the end of the series. And then they said, “Well, while you’re here, why don’t you do a little part?” And I thought, “Well, I’m so unkempt, they’ll probably give me a like a stool pigeon part or a homeless person part.” But instead they gave me a part as a pristine neurosurgeon. And so that was a big surprise. I really loved working with Linden and Holder. In fact, I love them so much, I could never bring myself to call them by their real names. I hope they don’t mind.
What music still moves you the most?
I do love opera; I like to listen to Wagner and Puccini. But when I’m writing, I like music often that doesn’t have words. So I might listen to some Glenn Gould or, right now, my favorite writing soundtrack is the soundtrack to Ghost in the Shell, not the movie — which I really like — but the animated movie. I ordered it from Japan. I find that that’s really inspiring to write to. I just get hooked on the same thing. I like soundtracks. I like the soundtrack to Mishima by Philip Glass. I might listen to that again. I like to listen to My Bloody Valentine, Fleet Foxes and Jimi Hendrix, a lot of Jimi Hendrix, Coltrane. So a lot of the music I listen to is music I’ve always listened to for a long time. I like the soundtrack to Phantom Thread. Naked Lunch had a good soundtrack — Ornette Coleman did it — so that’s the kind of music I listen to.
What are you reading these days?
Murakami has a new book coming out that’s awesome. I was given the opportunity to read it. I really like Murakami. Roberto Bolaño, I love him. And I love Patrick Modiano. I like fiction, you know, I’m a fiction reader and most of the books I read, it seems, have been in translation, but luckily a lot of these great writers have wonderful translators.
When I was young, I gravitated toward French literature. And now I spend more time with, say, German or Japanese literature, like Akutagawa or Dazai. I read a lot of Japanese literature. I’m a reader, I always have been. When I travel. If I forget my toothbrush or my socks or underwear, I can live with that. But if I forget a book, it’s impossible for me to sit still.
At the Bowie exhibition, they displayed a piece of his luggage that was basically a little library that he would bring around with him. I don’t know if you got to see that …
No. I think Bob Dylan also was known to carry a trunk of books. I just pick one or two because I like traveling light. I mean, I’m the lightest traveler in my band and I just have a small little Rimowa suitcase. It’s really small and I can sit in the plane and if it doesn’t fit in there, it doesn’t go. I’m a very light traveler, but I think would be wonderful, you know, for to have a little library. But you can also scout and find books wherever you go, you know, you can scout out and find books wherever you go.
What’s the best advice you ever got?
When I was quite young, like in 1970, 1971, I was offered a lot of money, first to do a film and then to do a record, but it was someone else’s vision of how they wanted to shape me. I didn’t have any money; I was working in a bookstore. And I sat and talked to William Burroughs about it, and he said, “The best thing as an artist you can do is keep your name clean.” That became my own private mantra.
You’re very closely associated with the New York of the Seventies. What do you miss most about that time?
Well, I miss the economic structure. And I also miss some of our former architecture. And I miss pizza! Because pizza used to be 25 cents a slice and it was all-natural ingredients, everywhere you went, and it was awesome pizza. Now, it’s like $4 a slice and it doesn’t even feel real. I know that’s a small thing, but it’s indicative of many other things.
How has being a mother affected your work?
As a young artist, you become the center of the universe in a certain way: You’re very … not conceited, but self-concerned. It’s just part of the hubris of being an artist. And once you have a family, you realize you’re not the center of the universe. So that was a good lesson to learn. Because I still was able to do my work — I just had to be more disciplined.
You often perform with your children. What’s that like?
I like it — we’re a family. We all have professional responsibilities, but I’m still their mom, you know, and they’re my kids, and sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s very comforting. I always told them, “Don’t worry if you mess up or if I mess up — just do the best you can and stay in communication.” I also love working with them because both of them have aspects of their father [former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith], and he was a great musician. They both magnify him. My son has guitar tones that sound just like his father, and my daughter has a composing manner on piano so much like her father, and I really feel his presence with us when we’re all playing together.
Is death something you fear?
No, I don’t fear it. I mean, I’d like to live a really long time because I have lots of work to do. I want to see my children as they continue to grow, and I have so many ideas. So I’m just hoping that if I take care of myself, I’ll have a good amount of time to do these things. I’ve never really had any vice problems. My only addiction was to love and coffee. You don’t have to worry about me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.