She was the angry, androgynous runaway who got chatted up by Allen Ginsberg and had a grand affair with Robert Mapplethorpe. And at 66 Patti Smith shows no sign of mellowing. We spend a gothic afternoon at home with the punk legend
Ping! The sweetest email arrives in my inbox from Patti Smith's assistant, Andi. "Patti will do interview at Simon's convenience since he is the traveller." Ping! Another message arrives. "Just call us when you get in. She has put the whole day aside." This is getting better by the email. I'm already picturing my day in New York with America's punk poet queen: we'll take afternoon tea at the Chelsea hotel, where she lived with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and hung out with writer William Burroughs; we'll visit the site of CBGB where the Patti Smith Group gigged and she spat her songs into life; we'll stroll in George Washington park and chat about her collaboration with Bruce Springsteen on Because The Night, the day Allen Ginsberg chatted her up because he thought she was a boy, the night she lay on her bed with then lover Sam Shepard and he taught her how to write a play. Everything.
"Hi, I'm here!" I shout enthusiastically down the phone to Andi.
"Great!" she says. "When d'ya wanna come over?"
"How about now?" I'm raring to go.
I hear a voice drawling in the background. "Not now."
"It's a little early," Andi says pleasantly.
"OK, how about in an hour?"
The same voice drawls in the background. "No, not then." Followed by a brief negotiation.
"Two pm," Andi says. "Two pm would be great. She gives me the address of a restaurant in SoHo. I don't eat, because I don't want to spoil my appetite.
I stand outside the restaurant, and after a few minutes the unmistakable Patti Smith walks up. Drainpipe-skinny, hair long and straggly, familiar jeans, boots and jacket. No makeup, face noble and weathered, features strong and angular.
She tells me she has just returned from Mexico and has an upset stomach, so it's best if we do the interview at her house. I prepare for a walk. She crosses the road, puts a key in the door and we're home. The house looks as if it's been squatted by a class of particularly manky art students. It's dark and dingy and stinks of cat. The ground floor is full of instruments and amps and recording equipment. We continue up the stairs. The second floor is Smith's office, dedicated to the visual arts. Silk screens, drawings, books, a 19th-century medicine chest that contains her Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters presented by the French government, an antique microscope, camera and typewriter, Mapplethorpe's ink pot and old pencils (his ashes are upstairs in her bedroom), hanging black webs. Everything is covered in plastic. The room could have been designed by Tim Burton.
"Sorry about the smell of cat piss. That's why we have to cover everything in plastic." She lives here, sometimes with her grown-up daughter, Jesse, and always with their cats.
A bright voice emerges out of the gloom. "Hi! How was your journey? D'you find us OK?" It's Andi, who is every bit as enthusiastic in person.
"You need some water? Tea?" she asks with a smile.
Tea would be great.
"Let's get him a glass of water now," Smith says. "We'll make him some tea in a little while. Or we'll go out and get some tea."
"I have tea and hot water in my…" Andi says.
Smith cuts her off. "Well, let's just wait, so we can get under way… OK."
"D'you want some light?" asks Andi, who has receded into the dark.
Smith doesn't answer.
"Do you need light or anything?" she repeats.
"Yeah, you can put a light on, and then let's try to keep it quiet."
"OK, you don't want the windows open?"
Smith is beginning to sound impatient. "No, just… just put the light on and that's about it."
"Which ones?" Andi asks.
"Yes, yes, that's good. OK, all right."
Patti Smith is a remarkable figure in pop history. She should be a footnote, really. She had one hit single the best part of 40 years ago (the rousing hymn to love and lust, Because The Night) and one successful album, and that was about it. She never even meant to be a rock star. And yet somehow Smith became a figurehead of American punk, and remains so – still one of the few women to give her name to an otherwise all-male group, memorable for those images on the cover of her first album Horses of her swinging a jacket over her white shirt with boyish insouciance, or her breast-clutching, armpit hair-flaunting poses on the shoot for Easter.
Then there was the way she announced her presence in the first line of the first song on Horses: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." She was such an iconoclast that she didn't even obey the newly formed rules of punk – rather than two-minute revolts against all that had gone before, Horses climaxed with a 10-minute, stream-of-consciousness tribute to the protagonist of a William Burroughs novel. She happily talked of herself in the same breath as Rimbaud, Whitman and Dylan.
Perhaps even more astonishing than the success was the way she turned her back on it. A year after the release of her most successful album, 1978's Easter, she married Fred "Sonic" Smith, guitarist with the radical band MC5, laid down her electric guitar and moved with him to Detroit to become a housewife. She brought up their two children, and didn't make another record for nine years.
Now, at 66, and having outlived many of those she was closest to, she is more prolific than ever. In 2010, she won America's National Book Award for Just Kids, a touching memoir of her life with Mapplethorpe, and last year she made Banga, her finest album in decades. Then there's the photography, the drawings, the poetry, the political activism, the touring. Next month she plays a couple of nights at Shepherd's Bush in London, followed by an evening of song and poetry at Yoko Ono's Meltdown music festival.
Smith grew up in Pennsylvania, then New Jersey, in the 1940s and 1950s. Her father was a factory worker who read everything he could get hold of, her mother a Jehovah's Witness waitress. She was a frail child, desperately ill with TB, hepatitis and scarlet fever. She read the scriptures as her mother told her to and learned to challenge received wisdoms as her father did. By 12 she had lost faith in God – if it was really easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, how come the Vatican was so loaded? She decided that was hypocritical. She read even more voraciously than her father – and fell in love with any number of romantic heroes who lived fast and died young. At 19, she slept with a boy and became pregnant. She gave away her baby daughter, vowed to make something of her life and headed for New York to become a poet.
Before long she came across Mapplethorpe. She was working on a jewellery counter when he walked in and bought her favourite necklace. She made him promise he would give it to no other girl than her. A few days later, she was on a bad date when she bumped into him on the street. "Will you pretend to be my boyfriend?" she asked. They moved in with each other that night.
Mapplethorpe shaped much of Smith's life. He was her muse, she was his. They lived together in squalid conditions, in rooms that smelled of piss – often there would be no toilet, so they kept plastic cups handy. They made installations together, drew and photographed each other. They made money however they could – she working in a bookshop, he occasionally selling himself for sex to men on the street. Mapplethorpe told her they were special, that "nobody sees like we do".
Did she believe him? "Well, I've always felt outside of things, I've always felt different. I don't know if that always translated into special. Robert more than I felt we were both really special. His belief in us was unshakable." Smith has a strange way of looking to the side of you through narrowed eyes, as if squinting into a nonexistent sun.
They moved into the Chelsea hotel and surrounded themselves with junkie artists and authors. Everybody assumed Smith was as reckless as those she befriended. The director of a play she acted in was appalled to find out she was neither a heroin addict nor a lesbian. "Well, what do you do?" he demanded.
"I have never been addicted to anything except maybe my husband, maybe a boyfriend, maybe an idea," she says. "I have such a needle phobia. I could never be addicted to any substance because I've had too many illnesses that preclude me doing that. I'd die if I did that stuff. If Robert was here, he'd be the first to explain that to people."
Was her straightness part of what attracted him to her? "Yes. He liked that I was responsible."
Eventually Mapplethorpe told her he was gay, she was devastated and they separated. He went on to document the gay sex scene in an extraordinarily explicit way. They remained close friends; he told Smith that one day she should write their story.
Smith was almost 30 when she released her first album and became an accidental rock star. "When I was young, all I wanted was to write books and be an artist. I got sidetracked, almost as a mission, to give something to the canon of rock'n'roll in the manner in which people I admired had. In other words, forming a cultural voice through rock'n'roll that incorporated sex and art and poetry and performance and revolution."
She can be fabulously grand. "In 1974, when I started working with the material that became Horses, a lot of our great voices had died. We'd lost Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, and people like Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. There were so many losses so quickly. These people who were building a political and cultural voice. And it seemed that rock'n'roll was heading towards something different – something consumer-oriented and stadium-oriented. I felt new generations had to come and break everything apart. As Jim Morrison says, 'Break on through to the other side.' And I felt in the centre, not quite the old generation, not quite the new generation. I felt like the human bridge, and I just thought, you have to wake up. Wake them up."
Did she feel confident she would wake everybody up? "Yes. And then I felt I'd go back to my poetry or whatever I was going to do." She sees herself as a visionary, a seer.
Smith has always been a great live performer – frothing, raging and caressing by turns, and utterly fearless on stage. By 1978, she was heading towards mainstream stardom: Because The Night reached the top five in the UK and her Easter album the top 20. Then she gave it all up. Why?
Three reasons, she says. In 1977, she fell off the stage, fractured her back in four places and broke her skull (she needed 42 stitches in her head). She was never as mobile again. Then she fell in love with Fred "Sonic" Smith and married him. Finally, she says, she found fame too corrosive. "I didn't have time to read, I wasn't studying, wasn't writing. I was basically promoting, going to radio stations, performing, battling bronchitis because there was so much smoke in venues. I thought, I see a lot of potential fame and fortune, but I don't see a lot of human evolution. Nothing will stifle your human evolution more than fame and fortune." How? "It doesn't do a whole lot for making you a better person. I found myself being more demanding, or spoilt." Was she horrible? She balks at the suggestion. "No, just impatient, agitated. The main thing was I didn't think I was producing anything of extraordinary worth."
As Smith talks, I notice she's eating a tub of something. It seems to have appeared out of nowhere. What is that, I ask. "Wakame. Basically seaweed and sesame oil." My stomach's rumbling. I could murder that cup of tea.
She's talking about their marriage. Fred was very private and a bit paranoid about the FBI files that he knew were kept on him (because of his political activism), but they were happy. Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Smith's life was blighted by tragedy. Mapplethorpe died in 1989 aged 42, followed a year later by 37-year-old Richard Sohl, pianist with the Patti Smith Group. In 1994, Fred died at 45. Smith's younger brother Todd, who had been head of the band's crew, died a month later. When Fred died, their son Jackson was 12 and Jesse was six. (Both are now musicians, and Jackson is married to Meg White, formerly of the White Stripes.)
How did Smith cope? "I had my responsibilities to my children and to myself and to my work. You have to honour your responsibilities. Oh, believe me, the things that people cope with. I don't consider myself so special." She stops herself and says if she's making it sound easy, it wasn't – and still isn't. "Sometimes you're doing really well, then, after three or four years, everything inexplicably crashes like a house of cards and you have to rebuild it. It's not like you get to a point where you're all right for the rest of your life."
As a young artist, though, she seemed to be half in love with death. As well as referencing poets who died young (Rimbaud, Plath, Baudelaire), she would often write about death. Her first poem, written at 15, was an elegy for Charlie Parker. Even Banga, released last year, though quieter and more reflective than her early work, covers similar territory – love, death and art. There is a tribute to Amy Winehouse and a song about Maria Schneider, who starred in Last Tango In Paris and died in 2011, in which Smith sings: "We didn't know the precariousness of our young powers. All the emptiness."
Does she ever feel she romanticises death?
"No! No, no. I know what you mean, but I don't think that. I was so unhealthy as a child, and at least three or four times my parents were told to get ready, that I would not make it. I always thought if that happened, it would happen to me, not people around me. I was perfectly prepared… That's why I said on the back of Horses, 'Charm, sweet angels, you made me no longer afraid of death.' I felt I had done my record, I'd done something. If I didn't live, at least I'd done that. I didn't expect to live a long time, but I have. I've outlived my brother and my husband and so many beloved friends. So that's a surprise. But I don't court death. I don't have a romance about death."
And when she was young? "No. I was drawn to people who did great work, who didn't live long. I've loved the Brontës… I didn't love them because they died young; I loved their work."
She does admit to spending much of her spare time at graveyards. "In the last some months, I've visited the grave of Sylvia Plath, the grave of Anne Brontë, the resting place of the other Brontës, Trotsky's grave in Mexico City. I visited Elvis Presley's grave and William Burroughs' grave."
You're a grave stalker, I say. She smiles. "No, I'm not a grave stalker. If I'm in a city or town and there's somebody I like or an old friend, then I'll visit their grave. Sometimes I photograph it, sometimes I just sit and contemplate their work or bring flowers. It's proximity. It's nice to visit where people are." Just because all these people have died, she says, doesn't bring the relationships to an end: she's happy to surround herself with ghosts, asking Fred for advice, discussing the book with Robert, laughing away with Todd.
"D'you want to see a picture of him? My sister just sent me a nice picture of him." He has a kind face, and looks happy. In Dream Of Life, a film made about Smith, she says she inherited some of his positivity after he died. When I mention it, she corrects me. "It wasn't positivity. It was goodness. He was a good person. A person can be positive but self-serving. My brother was more of a serving person, a very compassionate man."
How did the inheritance express itself? "More love for your fellow man. I'm not a very social person. Sometimes, because I'm so wrapped up in my work, you could say I was self-oriented. It's not conceit, it's just… I'm in my own world quite a bit. My brother was the kind of person who listened more. He'd stop what he was doing to listen to the needs or concerns of somebody else."
Smith is a strange mix. Caring and admirable in many ways, yet self-absorbed. I've rarely met anybody so unversed in the niceties of everyday life. For all her spikiness, though, there is a vulnerability. At times, she seems in awe of the talented men in her life – Mapplethorpe's art, her husband's music, Shepard's writing – and plagued by self-doubt. It took her 20 years to complete the book about her relationship with Mapplethorpe; she went through so many drafts, never feeling they were good enough. "I probably wouldn't have been able to finish it, except I promised him I would and I knew in my journey after death, if I bumped into him, which I know I would, he'd be so mad at me. You know, 'Patti, you didn't write our book. Why didn't you finish the book?' I could feel him scolding me, so I did finish it."
Smith and Mapplethorpe made a beautiful couple. Was she aware of how good they looked when they were together? She laughs a hollow laugh. "Believe me, I've been made fun of so much in my life. In the 50s and 60s, people preferred really buxom females. For my generation, tall, skinny, pimply was not a good look."
As an artist, she says, she always felt inferior to Mapplethorpe. "My problem was, is my work good enough? I was a late bloomer. He had specific gifts and talents. He was an excellent draftsman. I had an intense, creative imagination, but I'm bad at grammar, I was never good at school. I always wanted to leap to the creative thing, so my skills were not as strong as I wanted. I questioned myself. I still do. Is this work good enough?"
These days, she has as much time to dedicate to her work as she could wish – her children are grown up and she has no partner. Would she like a new Mr Patti Smith? She looks shocked. "I would never have a Mr Patti Smith. To me, I'm happy to have the man as king. I would never consider a man in that position."
Now it's my turn to be shocked. After all, this is Patti Smith, rocker extraordinaire and feminist icon. "I wouldn't care if he was a gardener or plumber or physicist, he wouldn't be in second place in our household." She'd happily be subservient? "I don't mind. I have no problem with a man being in first place. I know who I am. If a man would need to be in first place, what of it?"
Did Fred need to be in first place? "Well, he was. Yes, absolutely. He was a king." Explain? "I don't need to. Just trust me."
Andi pops out of the shadows and mutters to Smith. "We'll be done in a couple of minutes," Smith says. Again, I'm taken by surprise. There's been no hint of the interview coming to an end and she had said she'd set the day aside.
I haven't even asked you about politics yet, I say.
"Well, we've been almost two hours, and I don't have much to say," she answers brusquely. Then she softens. "If you want to ask me something direct, I'll be happy to try to answer it."
During the Iraq war, Smith became an impassioned activist, urging the American people to throw Bush out of the White House. Is she still as angry? "I feel it's no longer just about an administration, it's about mankind in general. I just can't comprehend that people can be so globally stupid." She talks about Guantánamo, Afghanistan, the exploitation of child workers and, more than anything, the environment.
Has capitalism failed? "I have no idea. Human nature has failed. It's all about common sense. You have a family that is dumping chemicals in the river, so the river gets polluted and your children get sick if they swim in it, or the fish are dying. It's common sense to do something. Everything since I was a child seems so obvious to me. When the cold war was escalating, and I was a child, I thought it was a totally stupid game. Then, when all that fell apart, we need a new enemy. Now we have terrorism. It's a state of mind, not a tangible enemy. It's just a game."
The more she talks, the angrier she gets, and the more apocalyptic her vision. "It's just like the pharaohs. To me the Bible gives the best example: they were the pharaohs, they were the high kings, they had all of the wealth and all of the power, but when the plague came, the plague knows not pharaohs. The sons and daughters of poor people died of the plague, and the sons and daughters of the pharaohs died of the plague. So when Mother Nature gets sick of us stuffing her with all our chemical excrement and starts erupting on us, she's not going to just destroy the poor people on the fringes: everyone will go."
As I rise to leave, she apologises. "I know I'm not a very good host, not offering you anything. Part of it is because I'm not feeling the greatest, but part of it is because I'm not the greatest host." She pauses. "Just a minute. I'll give you a bag."
She returns with a goodie bag – a book of her poems and a couple of CDs, including Banga. "Do you have this? It's a special edition."
"No, thank you, I only have it on download."
She gives me a withering look. "Well, that's not very inquisitive of you, but anyway… Have one of these."
"Sorry," I say. "It's not inquisitive of me not to have that version?"
"Well, you can get it. It has been out for a year."
I don't know how to respond, so I don't. She tells me she's just joking, but I don't see a smile.
Andi arrives back, just as I'm thanking Smith for my bits and pieces. "Bits and pieces," Andi starts singing. "That was a song by the Dave Clark Five. I'm in pieces, bits and pieces. Since you left me and you said goodbye."
I join her in the chorus.
Smith stands up and we shake hands. I think she's going to show me out, but she walks away.
"So when do they send you back – tomorrow?" Andi asks. "Did you walk down here? Which street did you take? You went along Eighth? I'll walk you down. I'll come back up, Patti. I'll just walk Simon to the door." And as she does so, she suggests I walk through George Washington park, take the scenic route
• Patti Smith and her band play the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12, on 18 and 19 June. An Evening Of Words And Music With Patti Smith is at the South Bank, London SE1, on 21 June as part of Yoko Ono's Meltdown.