Patti Smith: “I don’t write lyrics for myself, I write lyrics for people”

Punk's high priestess on poetry, pot and psychedelia

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In this special feature we delve back into the archives to February 2009’s Uncut (Take 141), in which Patti Smith answers your questions (and those from famous fans) on channelling Rimbaud, smoking pot with the Rastafarians and My Bloody Valentine… Interview by John Lewis


An hour-long conversation with Patti Smith will invariably become a wide-reaching and fascinating symposium on everything from Presidents to Popes and all points in between. You’ll learn about Walt Whitman and Arthur Rimbaud, about Bertolt Brecht and William Blake, about the Ark Of The Covenant and Russian literature; about the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Silver Mt Zion. We discover, for instance, that she is a huge admirer of the short-lived Pope John Paul I (“I feel that he was a true revolutionary, and someone who would have transformed the Catholic church”); that her touring regime in the 1970s was influenced by the memoirs of TE Lawrence (“the crew used to call me the Field Marshal!”); that she once read Peter Reich’s A Book Of Dreams and believed that she, too, might have been an alien; and her thoughts on Sinéad O’Connor’s lifestyle (“she should give up smoking!”). Now, after a year in which she has been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, exhibited her Polaroids at a Paris gallery, released an album with Kevin Shields and was the subject of a documentary, it seems as good a time as any for Uncut readers to quiz her about a few things…


What do you hope the world will be like in 50 years’ time?
Antony Hegarty, Antony & The Johnsons

I won’t be here, of course! But the things that I hope for, I’m not too certain will happen. I would have hoped that we’d be more attentive to history. That we wouldn’t have gone into Iraq because of the lessons of Vietnam. That didn’t happen. I just hope that, as a people, we will wake up and tend to our environment. I think that’s going to be the terrible battle in the next 100 years. I hope people become aware that the way to measure themselves is by their own deeds, by their own love for their fellow man, and not by material power and material things. My generation turned out to be the great betrayers. Not all of us, but George W Bush is my generation. He’s my age. It’s kinda frightening to think that a guy you might have seen on a dancefloor when you were a teenager was responsible for the invasion of Iraq.

What was it like raising two children as a single parent here in New York City?
Phillip Ward, New York

They’re pretty grown-up now – they’re 26 and 21 – but when they were young and their father [Fred “Sonic” Smith from the MC5] was alive, we gave up everything external to live simply and raise our children in Michigan. So my son and daughter had a real sense of both parents being there 24 hours a day. We did everything together – cooking, cleaning, nursing, teaching – whatever we could do for them, we were there. When my husband died at the end of 1994 it was very difficult. I had to not only be both their parents, but I had to make a living. So I had to move back to the East Coast, near my family who could act as a support system. Still, we all did okay. I was very open – my kids could talk about anything with me – but I was stricter than most other parents. My daughter didn’t have a cellphone until she was 16 – she was the only kid in the school who didn’t! But I don’t push them in any particular direction, you let them make decisions in their life. Now they’re both musicians, and their ambition is to be really good musicians, not famous ones. I think a good parent learns from their kids. I’m learning from mine all the time.

I got into your music after reading your journalism in Creem magazine – I loved the voice you wrote in. What do you remember of that time?
Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth

I did write for Creem, but I don’t know if you could call it journalism! I was a very impressionistic writer. I was writing at a time when writing about rock’n’roll was very idealistic and exploratory. People like Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer were writing about rock’n’roll in the way that Apollinaire and Baudelaire wrote about poetry and art. Rock’n’roll journalism bordered on an art form among a certain circle. And I was sort of on the fringes of that. For me it was kind of a bridge between appreciating rock’n’roll and performing it. I wrote about my emotional responses to things I cared for. I never wrote negative pieces – I wasn’t a critic. I just wrote homages to things that I liked, like The Velvet Underground. I remember being asked to write about Carole King’s album, Tapestry. And, much as I liked it, I couldn’t. I said to them, get someone who can really do this album justice, who could talk about her history. That’s proper music journalism. For me to write about something, I had to valorise the heroic aspect. Much as I love Carole King and her songs, I couldn’t mythologise her in that way.


What’s the difference between writing poetry and song lyrics?
Carol Green, Paris

A lot of that difference is about process. When I’m writing poetry, I close myself off from the world. I need to isolate myself, and my goal is not necessarily communication. My goal is the poem itself, to discover something in the language of poetry. But if I’m writing lyrics, my whole motivation is to communicate something, even if it is also encoded in a poetic language. I don’t write lyrics for myself, I don’t write lyrics for the God of lyrics, I write lyrics for people. I’m directly expressing something, for people to hear or read or think about. When I’m writing poems, most of my poems aren’t even published. The only person who has read them is myself. Of course, there are certain formal elements that make something a poem or a lyric. But mainly it’s about process and intent.

I’d like to know more about Patti’s psychedelic influences and leanings. Does she see a relationship between the psychedelic and surrealist movements?
Chris Stein, Blondie

I wasn’t really part of psychedelic culture in the 1960s and never took psychedelics. I took them later in my life. But, yes, I was a fan of a lot of psychedelic music – the Airplane, 13th Floor Elevators, Hendrix, Big Brother & The Holding Company, and a lot of the psych stuff by The Beatles and the Stones. I liked that sort of music because I could write to it or daydream to it. It was almost like a heightening background. To me, My Bloody Valentine is the ultimate psychedelic music, because you don’t have to take drugs. You listen to it and you’re there!


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