The punk-poet genius behind Horses is finally fulfilling her wish to play Hyde Park next month. She talks about life as an outsider, New York’s scuzzy past and why she loves Peter Pan
Before meeting Patti Smith, I receive a few pointers: “She’s not a chitchat person. Do not be any later than 11.30am. Find her in the lobby bar and introduce yourself.”
I don’t fancy getting on the wrong side of her. Smith first made a name for herself on the 1970s New York poetry circuit, giving both barrels to the men who would yell at her to get back in the kitchen. “Sometimes I’d say something intelligent,” she recalls. “Other times I’d just yell: ‘Fuck you.’” She developed into a fearless performer – confrontational, physical, refusing to conform to expectations of how a woman should act on stage.
I arrive half an hour early and nervously stake out the bar – but there’s no sign of her. And it’s not as if you could miss her – at 69 years of age, she still rocks a boyish black blazer, while her hair is now a tangle of shoulder-length grey. It gets to 11.30, then 11.40, and I start to panic. At 11.50, I get a call telling me that Smith has been waiting for 20 minutes. But where? I eventually bump into her in the lobby.
“Why didn’t you call my room?” she says.
I stammer something about following instructions.
“Oh my, I would never keep anyone waiting like that,” she says, aghast. “I am so sorry.”
Patti Smith at Glastonbury 2015 review – feeling her rage
The next thing I know, she has linked arms with me and is telling me about her jetlag (she’s just flown in from Japan) and how she is combating it by watching her favourite detective shows. As for not being a chitchat person … over the course of an hour and a half, we manage to cover everything from the work of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to the disaster zone that is Donald Trump, her fear of allergies, and the brief spell she spent in the early 70s working with albino blues musician Johnny Winter as a visual guide (“I would help him negotiate traffic”).
Even after I turn the tape recorder off, she is not going anywhere, offering me tips to assist my pregnant wife (“No salt, that’s my little tip, because your body retains water during summer”) and filling me in on her holiday plans. It turns out that she is actually on vacation as we speak, a three-day stint in London that involves watching her friend Ralph Fiennes in Richard III, visiting the grave of French philosopher Simone Weil in Ashford, and, er, speaking to me.
Officially, we are here to talk about Hyde Park, where she will perform on 1 July as support to Massive Attack. Playing there has been a lifelong dream – she remembers feeling heartbroken after Brian Jones, her favourite Rolling Stone, died, and recalls the concert the band held in the park afterwards.
“1969,” she says. “I was in Paris with my sister, busking. I didn’t have the money to get to London, but they had the pictures in the French papers that week and I remember Mick released all these butterflies. It seemed like all of youth was in Hyde Park that day.”
How is she going to prepare for the show?
“I’d like to get there early, so I can visit the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens,” she says – and then clocks my confused look. “Have you seen it? Oh, it’s so wonderful! He’s got a pipe and there are fairies about! I used to go and see it in the 70s. I still do. When I was younger, I wanted to be just like him and never grow up. So whenever I’m in London, I always go say hello to Peter Pan.”
‘It felt like the possibilities were endless. I was 20 years old, and sleeping in graveyards and subways.’
If the idea of Smith making pilgrimages to see a fictional flying boy during her punk heyday seems a little unexpected, then that is probably because Smith is on very casual terms with convention. By the time she was 20, she had already abandoned the life set out for her (she gave a child up for adoption when she became pregnant aged 16, and later quit a factory job) then moved to New York to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet. Back then, the city was gritty and dangerous – which was how Smith liked it.
“Much better than I do now, because it was nearly bankrupt, cheap to live in, and there was always action. It felt like the possibilities were endless. I was 20 years old, and sleeping in graveyards and subways.”
“Oh it was scary!” she laughs. “But no more more scary than sleeping the night in a field in south Jersey.”
The city’s heady mix of danger and creativity seeped into the art scene. Smith, who found most of the poetry readings she attended “very boring for a young girl”, recruited Lenny Kaye from a local record store to play feedback behind her verses. “I wanted to get across the energy from my generation,” she says, and sure enough, people started reacting – both positively and negatively.
“I didn’t have any fear in dealing with anybody,” she recalls. “I never left the stage crying, and if I was booed, I would stand my ground. Eighty per cent of the time, I could turn the situation around to my favour.”
Smith often ended her sets with Piss Factory, an autobiographical tale about finding the strength to escape a dead-end job. She says the same guys heckling her at the start would find themselves relating to it and on her side by the end.
Smith says she never intended to make a record, yet it was out of these performances that her debut album, Horses, was born. Even now, 41 years on from its release, it sounds like nothing else: snarling and snotty, yet transcendental and poetic, too. She asked Velvet Underground founder John Cale to produce it – not the sensible choice, given his unconventional working methods – and the pair clashed frequently.
Yet it was Cale who spotted Smith’s gift for improvisation and, rather than try to rein it in, pushed her to explore it further. The results included sprawling masterpieces such as the nine-minute, stream-of-consciousness epic Birdland, although Smith was unaware quite how important the freeform music on Horses was at the time.
She says she expected to return to working in a bookstore after finishing it, but instead found herself inundated with offers to travel the world: to London and Paris, Finland and Sweden. Taking what she had learned from the likes of Bob Dylan and Johnny Winters, she grew into a magnetic performer, full of energy and spontaneity.
This wasn’t always to her benefit. One time, while playing with Bob Seger in Florida, Smith was lost in a performance of her song Ain’t It Strange – “spinning like a dervish” is how she puts it – and tried to bring herself to a standstill by slamming her foot on her monitor. The monitor, however, was balanced precariously on the edge of the stage and she fell 14 feet on to the concrete below.
“It was a bad fall. I fractured my skull, several vertebrae in my neck, my back, my tailbone. I broke some teeth. It was serious. And I still have certain repercussions – I never got my full eyesight back. I don’t have the range of movement that I used to.”
As she recounts the months of physical therapy it took for her to get back on stage, her phone rings and she checks it quickly: “Oh it’s my son!” she exclaims. “Can I just get this? Would you mind?”
Of course not, go ahead, I say.
“Hi, Jack!” she beams. “Where are you? I’m just doing an interview in London about our job in Hyde Park and I was just about to talk about you.”
From the other end of the line I hear: “Aw mom, you don’t have to talk about me again!”
The punk rock icon/embarrassing mum ends the call. “Sorry, I just love my kids. They lost their father really young, and he was a great musician, so it’s like music is a continual connective force between them and their father.”
Their father was Fred “Sonic” Smith, the MC5 guitarist whom she married in 1980. They had two children – Jackson and Jesse – and she retreated from rock’n’roll for the best part of a decade to raise them. The time off had its musical benefits, too, not least because Fred taught her how to sing properly, using her stomach and lungs rather than delivering her words through her nose. It is partly for this reason that, when Smith decided she would celebrate Horses’ 40th birthday by touring the record in full, she sounded even more impassioned than she did in the 70s. Anyone who was perhaps expecting Smith to dial down the energy in her 69th year was in for a shock.
“That’s just not how I work,” she shrugs. “I’m incapable of being stripped down!”
Instead, she updated the album’s lyrics as call-to-arms for people to rise up against corporate interests (“We are all being fucked by corporations, by the military,” she would spit. “We are free people and we want the world and we want it NOW!”) and ensured that even the quieter moments such as Elegie – where she recites the names of people who have died, including Fred Smith, who died in 1994 – remained intense and emotional.
‘I’m going to be 70 soon,” she says. “And I know I can’t sing like Amy Winehouse or Rihanna. I can’t rely on that physical beauty or certain things that you have when you’re young. But what I can rely on is that, when I go on stage, I am only there for one reason and that’s to communicate with the people. I don’t have any wishes for myself. I don’t care about career. I already have a place, and a good name … there’s nothing that I really want, except for us all to experience something together.”
When Smith first brought Horses back at Primavera, she encored with her 1978 song Rock N Roll Nigger. As a piece of art, Smith’s intentions are clear – the song is about the acceptance of outsiders – but in 2015, it seemed an uncomfortable choice of song to perform, not least because the (mainly white) crowd seemed happy to shout the N-word back at her in gleeful abandon.
“I don’t play it normally,” she says when I bring it up, “out of respect for our times. Just like I don’t play Gloria in churches. I’m happy to be disrespectful, but I’m also happy to be respectful. On the other hand, when I was inducted into the rock’n’roll hall of fame I performed Rock N Roll Nigger because I promised my mother I would – it’s her favourite song, because it’s our most high-energy song – and right in front of me was Clive Davis, with Aretha Franklin and Al Sharpton. I don’t know whether they liked that or not, but that’s what I did.”
Smith says that when she wrote the song she believed in our power to transform words – “Like how if you said ‘fuck’ you thought you were going to hell because it was so dirty … or how the worst word you could call an Irish kid was ‘punk’” – but she accepts that the song’s message doesn’t really fit in the current climate.
“Sometimes I still play it because it’s my favourite song to do,” she says. “And it was really about myself – ‘Baby was a black sheep, baby was a whore’ – the lowest things you could call somebody, because I’d been through a lot of derision in my life. And what the crowd sing back to me is the line “outside of society” because that’s what it’s about: gay kids, poets, people of colour, all of us. It was a big community of people outside of society. The song just means: ‘Kicked out of there? Come here!’”
Being on stage, says Smith, is like a microcosm of life. “All the same wonderful and embarrassing things that can happen in life can happen on stage, and you have to face them all with equal humour. You can’t think you’re a god or a queen because you have great moments, and you can’t think you’re a failure because you have terrible moments.”
At Glastonbury last year on the Pyramid stage, Smith slipped and went down on her arse. Her response says it all: she got up and screamed: “Yeah, I fell on my fucking ass at Glastonbury. But you know why? Because I’m a fucking animal, that’s why.”
“I thought to myself: ‘Well, there’s 100,000 people out there … I felt like a real asshole,’” she laughs. “And then I thought ‘What the fuck? It’s rock’n’roll! And what did I want to do more than anything in that moment?”
She bares her teeth: “I wanted to turn up my amp and just fucking rip the strings off my guitar … because I had so much energy. You can decide your own fate. Are you going to let it all fall apart? Or are you going to own it?”
Smith might be nearly 70 but she still seems to have retained both her anger and her sense of childlike wonder. When she talks about music and art and poetry, often with her eyes closed in rapture, it is as if she is impervious to ever becoming jaded.
“I always wished I could go to Hyde Park, and now I finally can,” she says, lost in dreamland at the thought. “For me, I can go all the way back to being 22.”