Patti Smith on literary heroes, role models and Sinatra

American singer-songwriter and poet Patti Smith at a press conference at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, Fes (Fez), Morocco, June 2013.
American singer-songwriter and poet Patti Smith at a press conference at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, Fes (Fez), Morocco, June 2013.(Judith Burrows / Judith Burrows)

Patti Smith was born in Chicago during a snowstorm in 1946. Saturday she returns to the city of her birth to receive the 2014 Chicago Tribune Literary Award, only weeks after she delivered a galvanizing set at Riot Fest in Humboldt Park, a few blocks from where she lived as a child.

"The timing was auspicious," Smith said in an interview from her home in New York. "To play the Riot Fest and then have this … I always love coming to Chicago. It's sort of a mystical thing to come back where you were born. It's always part of you."


Smith will be honored for a career that includes "Just Kids," her 2010 memoir of developing as an artist side by side with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in New York; several volumes of poetry; and a series of classic albums that merged her literary ambitions with rock, from the ground-breaking "Horses" (1975) to the expansive "Banga" (2012). When reached in New York, she spoke about her formative influences and early life, and also added that she was finishing a new book that "is more contemporary, more observations of the life I'm living in time." She expects it to be out next year. At 67, she shows no signs of slowing the pace that has made her a creative force for five decades. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: You left Chicago when you were very young to move to the East Coast. Do you still have memories of it?

A: We came back to visit people. I have a very good memory of my childhood. There was an iceman making his deliveries with horse and cart because people didn't have regular refrigerators. I was not allowed to leave my stoop, but he used to give us slivers of ice. At the (Humboldt) park, that was the first place I saw a swan. I was baptized at a church on Logan Square. It's a part of my heritage. My mother said I was practically born on Lake Michigan because we almost didn't make the hospital in a huge snowstorm. My father's name was Grant, and I was born in Grant Hospital. He always used to say Grant Park was named after him.

Q: Did your family encourage your interests in writing and music?

A: My parents were struggling. They had four small children, three in a row, and another some years after us. It was right after World War II, and we were struggling financially. But it was a lively household. My father read everything, from Socrates to UFO magazines. He loved the horses, and always read the Daily Telegraph. The Bible was read and discussed. I had an interesting home education, nothing very organized. I always loved books; Peter Pan, Pinocchio. Peter Pan just opened my world — I very much identified with Peter Pan. My mom gave me a small book of poetry — poems by great poets suitable for children. It was my first exposure to Yeats, Blake, Carl Sandburg. "The fog comes on little cat feet." I didn't understand all of it, but I loved it. I read (Louisa May Alcott's) "Little Women," which was quite a revelation. It gave me a female role model: (tomboyish lead character) Jo March, who wrote, made me want to write books.

Q: Did you have goals to write when you were young?

A: I just wanted to write something wonderful. I was a sickly child. My parents were struggling to get me through one illness after another. I was not thinking about the outside world, but I always knew I wanted to do something creative. I wanted to write. Later, I wanted to paint, so I kept doing both. I never had aspirations to go into politics or medicine. I always wanted to be an artist of some sort. I wasn't so politically motivated. I felt that the world from an early age was disappointing. My father taught me about the bomb, and it was eye-opening. From then on, I thought grown-ups needed to do a better job. I still think that.

Q: Did you have a vision of what you might do as an adult?


A: My father was a factory worker, my mother a waitress. I had to work very early in life, baby-sitting, early factory work. I thought of work as part of life — I had no qualms about getting a job. I kept the art separate from all that. I'd read enough biographies of starving artists — all you have to do is read about Blake, Van Gogh or Rimbaud to realize that committing great work does not necessarily feed you. When I first came to New York (in 1967), it was not initially to be an artist or change the world, I came for a job. In '67 there were no jobs in South Jersey or Philly for a 20-year-old girl. The shipyard closed and took 20,000 people out of work. So I came to New York to get job at a bookstore, and I found a job relatable to what I did.

Q: When did you first write something that you thought was worth presenting to the world?

A: That's a never-ending struggle. It's always work, happy labor, creative labor. But I don't think like that. I have huge amounts of unpublished work. Just a fraction of my writing has been published. I've always had a desire to write something and capture people's imagination like Peter Pan had captured mine.

Q: So good writing is the product of a process rather than a flash of inspiration for you?

A: Sometimes you write passages that don't need to be rewritten. Performance is that for me. Improvisation, things that happen in the moment, are sometimes wonderful, or wonderful as a moment to be shared between performer and people, but that's it. There might be a strong bond between you and the people, a transformative night, but as a live record it might not translate. Looking for perfection is relative. Sometimes I'm just lucky, like a song like 'Grateful' or 'My Blakean Year,' it comes into my head fully formed. Other songs, I've labored over year after year because I can't find the right spin on the lyrics. It's like golf — you watch a great golfer, he gets a birdie, an eagle, and then hits the ball into the water. It's the same guy with the same abilities. It's a matter of luck, nerves, confidence, and suddenly your muse takes off for a while (laughs).

Q: Your first public reading was with Lenny Kaye on electric guitar in a church in 1971. How did that go over?


A: A lot of people loved it, and a lot of people were outraged that I brought an electric guitar to church and added poetry. We had (Jimi) Hendrix and (Bob) Dylan (as a precedent), but it was a poetry reading per se, in a very classic setting, so some people took affront. I wanted to present my work, present my poems. As an observer, I often found poetry readings really boring. I wanted to do something that would incite the people. It was exciting. Truthfully, I thought that the reaction was much stronger than it merited (laughs). I was offered book deals, record contracts on the basis of one poetry reading. I thought, "I have to back off for a little while." I couldn't understand the strong reaction to something that seemed normal to me. I had to think about what I should do, how I should react, both to the negative response and the strong response. I don't think I did another one (performance) for close to a year. Then I just started doing more, because I felt compelled and stopped being concerned about the reaction. It wasn't the negative reaction that bothered me. I found the positive reaction more daunting. I didn't have any career design. I was not thinking about publishing or doing a record. I was just working. I was evolving. I wanted to really comprehend what I was doing before stepping too far out.

Q: At the time you were also getting your music criticism published in magazines like Creem. What possessed you to want to write rock reviews?

A: Creem was the first periodical to publish a suite of my poems. It came after that first reading. I think Dave Marsh was there and Sandy Pearlman. Rock journalism was very, very important, and our journalists were great, brilliant. Richard Meltzer, Lenny Kaye, Sandy Pearlman were knowledgeable writers who had something to say. Dave Marsh started Creem and put my poetry across four pages. He invited me to write, so I wrote elegies to Hendrix, (the Doors' Jim) Morrison, I wrote a big piece on the Stones. I wasn't writing deeply critical work, but meditations on things I loved. I wasn't writing about music, but merging poetry and music, our cultural voice, the people. I was writing more about our burgeoning cultural voice than music, the voice that blossomed in the '60s then was snuffed out when we lost Morrison, Hendrix, (Janis) Joplin, and Dylan has his motorcycle accident. We had to reassess, and recognize the strong voices we still had, like Neil Young and John Lennon. The people developing our cultural voice were individuals who were my age or a little older. They were peers, I felt them as kin, I didn't feel any competitive aspirations. I knew my own worth, I knew how these people magnified my generation's worth. It was just my style. On a more basic level, I was a girl writing about the men she found interesting.


Q: You did cite a number of men as your heroes and identified with them to a point where some people called you gender-bending. How did you feel about that?

A: That's the Peter Pan in me writing. I was not as conscious, I was a young person and not very analytical. I just do what I do. I was always a tomboy as a kid. I always had boyfriends. I was just a regular girl growing up in the late '50s and early '60s, but I was never really attracted to what the girls were attracted to: makeup, my appearance, homemaking. It wasn't a deeply philosophical thing, just the way I was. I was different from most of the girls at my school. When we did the cover of "Horses," I wasn't making a big statement. That's just the way I dressed. It was an image I was looking for. Robert shot the picture, a mix of (French poet Charles) Baudelaire and (Frank) Sinatra, the casual throwing over of the coat. The confidence. I wasn't thinking male or female or gender-bending. That's why I said what I did on the back of it (the album), my little poetic manifesto, about being beyond gender.

I'm not concerned to this day about gender. Joan Baez wasn't concerned about gender when she sang — she sang a lot from the viewpoint of the male. You get into your skin, slip into your skin when you do your work. It doesn't mean anything about sexual presentation. It seemed archaic to talk about that. To say to Dylan, "Are you presenting yourself as a male artist?" Not everything we do as artists has deep intent. If we push barriers, that's great, but sometimes we just do our work. Whether we make some kind of statement, consciously or unconsciously, we shouldn't take the innocence away from what we do. When we shot the "Horses" cover, I had my clothes laid out, I rolled out of bed, thought about Baudelaire, and threw on the clothes. I was a little unkempt at times, so Robert asked me only to make sure there were no pizza or olive stains on my shirt. "Just make sure it's clean," he said. He knew he wanted natural light and a clean shirt. Both of us had confidence, we were 26, we knew who we were, and we knew each other very well. That picture reflects Robert's confidence as much or more than mine. I knew how Robert saw me. He took just one roll, and around the eighth picture he said, "I got it." He took a total of 10 or 12 pictures, at most. I have to laugh at these photographers today who take dozens of digital images during a shoot.

Q: Your relationship with Mapplethorpe is at the heart of "Just Kids," which must have been decades in the making. When did you know you had to write this book?

A: Robert asked me to write it the day before he died, in 1989. I didn't put it out till 2010, for various reasons. For a time, I was too sad to write. When my husband (MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith) and brother (Todd) died (in 1994), I had two small children, I had to restructure my life. I was always back and forth working on it, writing pieces or chapters. I worked on it on my own timeline. I wanted to write a book that gave people Robert in the most genuine way, that gave people Robert and the city at that time, and myself. It took a lot of work. I had to learn how to write the book as I was writing it. I just tried to write a book that people could see. It's almost like a little movie, that book. I wanted to complete my vow.

Twitter @gregkot

Patti Smith in conversation

Patti Smith accepts the Tribune Literary Award and talks with Greg Kot 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 1, at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. For more information, go to tribnation.com/events or chicagohumanities.org.