Patti Smith

PBS Premiere: Dec. 30, 2009Check the broadcast schedule »

Patti Smith on Art

Anthony DeCurtis: One of the really interesting things about the film is that it's very much a portrait of an artist. You're talking about and engaging with William Blake and Jackson Pollock and Arthur Rimbaud. It made me think of the quote that's on the back of your album Radio Ethiopia, "Beauty will be convulsive or not at all," and reminded me of the tradition of artists that you're drawn to. Could you talk about the first time you read Blake, the first time you read Rimbaud, the first time you looked at a Pollock painting? What did you draw from those experiences, and how did you use those experiences?

Patti Smith: Patti on the stairsPatti upon the stairs. Chelsea Hotel, New York, 1996. Photographer by Steven Sebring.

Patti Smith: I remember all of those experiences, actually. I was an avid reader as a child, and my mother gave me a copy of "Songs of Innocence" by Blake, so that was my entrance into Blake. The first time I saw art was when my father took us on a trip when I was 12. My father worked in a factory, he had four sickly children, my parents had a lot of money problems and we didn't go on excursions often. But there was a Salvador Dali show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that included the painting "The Persistence of Memory," and my father found Dali's draftsmanship just astounding, so he wanted to see the show in person. So he dragged us all to the museum. I had never seen art in person before. And seeing paintings - seeing work by Picasso, John Singer Sargent - I was completely smitten, I totally fell in love with Picasso and I dreamed of being a painter.

All of these things, every time I've seen art that I've responded to, what I'm responding to is that moment of creative impulse - and that's something Steven and I have always worked with. The moment of creative impulse is what an artist gives you. You look at a Pollock, and it can't give you the tools to do a painting like that yourself, but in doing the work, Pollock shares with you the moment of creative impulse that drove him to do that work. And that continuous exchange -- whether it's with a rock and roll song where you're communing with Bo Diddley or Little Richard, or it's with a painting, where you're communing with Rembrandt or Pollock -- is a great thing.

We long for those moments, and it was so nice to work with Steven on this film because we could look for those moments within ourselves; he was interested in everything I was interested in. If I wanted to drag him to a graveyard in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of London traffic, to say hello to William Blake's grave, he was right there. It was fun and it was also beautiful for the spirit. We both wanted to share this with other people. A lot of people might love William Blake but never get to go visit his grave. So we wanted to take them with us.

DeCurtis: We also see you with your children, and we see your very warm relationship with your parents in Patti Smith: Dream of Life. Can you talk about your relationship to them and about your family life?

Smith: I love my family. My parents struggled very hard; they had three kids in quick succession right after World War II, and we were all sickly. My dad worked in a factory; my mom was a waitress. They had a lot of strife. My father was a dreamy fellow - he read Plato and Socrates and watched Phillies games. My mother was the real worker, and she did everything for us. She always made any situation a happier situation. If there was no food except for potatoes in the house, she would make a mountain of French fries and say, "We're going to have a French fry party!" We'd say, "Yay," and sit around eating French fries, not realizing that it was hard for her because she was the mother of four children who had nothing else to give her kids to eat. She made it exciting and fun.

Patti Smith: Patti and her parents
Patti with her parents, Beverly and Grant Smith

I have great respect for my parents. I got such beautiful things from both of them. It doesn't mean that we didn't have our rough times, but they were remarkable people who were open-minded, creative and hard-working and had great senses of humor. They set really good examples for all of us. I love my family, and I know it's not normal, because when I came to New York, everybody thought I was crazy when I would tell tales of my childhood and of my mom and dad. I was seen as abnormal because I loved my family. But I did love my family. They were great people.

DeCurtis: You mentioned coming to New York City. What were your impressions of New York when you came here?

Smith: I was raised in rural south Jersey, and there was no culture there. There was a small library and that was it. There was nothing else. I loved my childhood, I loved my siblings, I loved being a child, but I craved culture. Once I saw art I wanted to see more art. I fell in love with opera and I dreamed about going to the opera. But there was nothing in New Jersey, and the first time I went to New York City, I was in total heaven.

I had been made fun of a lot growing up, because I was a skinny kid with long greasy braids who dressed like a beatnik. I didn't really fit in where I grew up; I didn't look like the other girls - I didn't have a beehive. And in New York, suddenly I just blended in with everybody else. Nobody cared. I didn't get stopped by the cops. I wasn't yelled at from cars. I was just free. And I think that's what New York represented to me more than anything - freedom.

DeCurtis: Getting back to your family, and we see you a lot with your family in this film, publicly you're an important musician and poet and artist. Could you talk about the two sides of you - a public identity that's out in the world and the day-to-day, family aspect of your life?

Patti Smith: A portrait of Patti, turquoise backgroundPatti in private studio session at Sebring Studio. New York, 1999. Photographer by Steven Sebring.

Smith: Well, I don't have two separate personas. When I'm onstage and working, I channel different things, including aspects of aggression or anger or political fervor that I keep more balanced offstage. But I'm not really that different offstage from how I am onstage, and I've never really been interested in being a celebrity. I just want to be able to do my work and converse with the people. And I don't like a lot of fuss. So I've pretty much always stayed the same.

At home, I was a mom. My kids didn't even know I did anything, except tend to them. Even now - and they comprehend my work, they've worked with me, they've all performed with me in front of thousands of people - they still look at me as their mom, the person who's going to sew a button, tend to them if they're sick or remember their father with them. I don't have a separate identity at home with my kids, and I don't want one.

DeCurtis: There are a few times when you talk about death in the film. You talk about your brother having died and you being infused by his spirit, in a sense. And you also mention Allen Ginsberg's call to you when your husband died, Allen saying, "Continue the celebration." Death is obviously a terrible thing, but you seem, somehow, to have found a way to take something from it and make the dead part of your ongoing life and work. Can you talk a little about that?

Smith: I've had to find a way to take something from death. I experienced death as a child: My best friend died of leukemia when I was about seven or eight. I learned early that we lose people. Then, going through the death of Robert Mapplethorpe was so devastating and difficult. Our friendship was so deep, and his consciousness was so intertwined with mine because we bonded so young, that I knew he would still be with me when he died. And he was with me, even more, it seemed, once he died. That taught me a lot. It didn't make things less painful for me, in terms of the people I lost after Robert, but it proved to me that our people are still with us if we keep our minds, ears and hearts open. It's nothing mystical; it just is.

Patti Smith: Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe
A young Patti Smith with Robert Mapplethorpe.

I've learned from Robert since he died, argued with him, walked quietly and seen him sitting. Each person that passes away passes away differently, and your communication with them is different. With my brother, as I said in the film, it's a feeling of love. Sometimes I'll be sitting somewhere and I start laughing. I can't even talk about him without laughing. He makes me laugh; he makes me smile. And each loss, whether it's my husband or my parents, presents me with an unexpected, unique and different way to communicate with the dead as I go through life. There's a certain beauty in that. It doesn't take away the sorrow or the longing to see a person in his or her earthly state, but if we lose that possibility - the possibility of a person in his or her earthly state - there is still a multitude of other possibilities. Pasolini said that it is not that the dead do not speak, it's just that we have forgotten how to listen. And that made a lot of sense to me. We have to just let go of our expectations and see how they talk to us. Each person we lose will speak to us, but in a different way. Sometimes it's a flutter of feeling and sometimes they'll bug you.

DeCurtis: I also wanted to ask you about performing, and the transformation that takes places within you when you're onstage.

Smith: Well, I curse more onstage than I do in real life. Even my kids are like, "Mom, what are you doing?" But it's just adrenaline, really. I'm a natural performer. I like being in front of people; I like working with people; I like making them laugh; I like inciting their spirits or minds. But I was always like that - I was like that as a kid. I led my siblings into battle and I wrote plays for us to perform. When I was younger, I thought of being a schoolteacher so I would have a ready audience every day. And I have no fear on the stage - it's friendly territory for me. I fear a dinner party with strangers a hundred times more than getting on a stage in front of 70,000 people. I like communicating with the people. I like channeling their energy and giving it back to them.

During this transitional time in which I began performing again after a long time away from it, which Steven rode out with me, it didn't take me that long to get my footing. It was more a matter of transitioning through other things, where I had to find my balance as a human being. But the people were so great. They were happy that we were back.

DeCurtis: I remember going to a reading that you did in Central Park in the early 1990s.

Smith: That was the first time I had appeared in New York City in 14 years or something like that. And [my husband] Fred and my brother were both still alive. It was 102 degrees or something like that in New York City, and I was so nervous, I was afraid the whole time we were driving up to New York. I didn't know if anybody would come or if they would remember me. And Fred was saying, "Oh, they'll be there," and my brother was saying "Don't worry, there'll be lots of people." And there were. There were lots of people! There was a moment when I was standing onstage and all of a sudden I froze. I think I was trying to recite "People Have the Power." I froze, and in the corner of my eye I could see both my brother and my husband advance just a little toward me. They could feel me being frightened. I saw them coming toward me and I took a breath and pulled myself together. I was really surprised that all those people came. It was really great.

DeCurtis: The level of intensity there was so powerful.

Smith: It was just a poetry reading, and it was so exciting.

DeCurtis: Everybody came, and they were all almost transformed by being there.

Patti Smith: Patti on stage, tinted redPatti in concert. London, 2005. Photographed by Steven Sebring.

Smith: Yeah, it was really like a gathering of the tribe, that's one thing I remember. I saw people out there that I hadn't seen in over a decade, and people were there seeing one another. It was a beautiful moment. But that's one of the great things about performing, and one reason to stay healthy and stay in communication with the people, because performing is a continual gathering of the tribe. The tribe does shift. We'll have performances where I look out and everyone is younger than my daughter. And I think, what a compliment, you know that the new young tribe would come to see what we're doing and give us some energy. I feel it's our duty to take this energy that they give us, transform it and give it back to them.

Performing is a beautiful thing. The way I look at it, it's not playing or singing at people; it's creating a night and an experience with them. And it's what keeps me going actually. I never thought I'd still be performing at 63, but it still comes, and I'll be there.

DeCurtis: Patti, can you talk about yourself as an artist? Not just being a songwriter or a singer, but the romantic sense that if you're an artist, you bring an artist's eye to everything that you do.

Smith: Absolutely, I believe that. And I learned that through other artists. As a very young girl, I learned that William Blake painted, wrote songs, was an activist, wrote these poems, had a philosophy and was a visionary. Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist and an artist. Lewis Carroll was a photographer, a writer and a poet. I was very comfortable with this idea at an early age. I find the people who are uncomfortable with this idea are often journalists. They think that if you sing rock and roll you must be an idiot, and that you can't possibly be a scholar, or write a book about jazz or paint with any depth. For me, I'm a worker, and I do everything with the same conviction, whether I'm taking photographs or performing or painting or writing. I'm the same person.

In the same vein, if you're doing a performance for four or five people, you do it with the same conviction as when you go on stage and there are 40,000 people. You don't do things by degrees. If one has a vision, then one brings that vision into everything they do. Robert Mapplethorpe worked like that, in constructions, in the way he dressed - everything was art for Robert. Waiting for Robert to get dressed was such a nightmare because he would work on his outfit with the same fervor as he did on a collage or a construction. Of course, I'm just joking, but there is a certain amount of truth in saying that people don't put away their aesthetic awareness as they jump from ship to ship.

On the other hand, I admire people who have one vocation. Joan Mitchell said, "I'm a painter. That's all I do. That's all I know how to do." When I heard that, I wished I were like that, that I had one vocation and put everything in. But I just didn't turn out that way. It's not the way that I am. I would be lying or I would have to submerge other aspects of myself to be like that. But I think it's a beautiful thing. It's just that I'm just not like that.

DeCurtis: I asked Steven what he learned from you. What did you learn from working with him?

Smith: Working with Steven, especially at the time that I met him, did so much to strengthen my confidence that things can be done. It transformed me. He's unbelievable. He does these things on such a scale. To watch him get an idea was amazing. He looked at my things. He took pictures of them on a light box, and the next thing you know he blew them up and had these frames made and they wound up in the film. As modest as he is, he's quite fearless; with seemingly not many resources, he saw this project through. And that actually has been one of my shortcomings. I leave a lot of poems abandoned, songs abandoned, paintings abandoned. Steven finishes things. Seeing this film go from the first moment, over 10 or 12 years, and then seeing it finished makes me realize really anything is possible. So that was a very important lesson.