Legendary Patti Smith on Her New Memoir "M Train" & National Book Award Winner "Just Kids"

October 08, 2015


Patti Smith

legendary poet, singer, activist and author of the new memoir, M Train. Her 2010 memoir, Just Kids, won a National Book Award.

In a Democracy Now! special, the legendary poet, singer, activist Patti Smith joins us for the hour. Her new memoir "M Train" has just been published. In 2010, her best-selling memoir, "Just Kids," won a National Book Award. "Just Kids" examined her relationship with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989. The new memoir focuses in part on Smith’s late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, who died five years later. Patti Smith is also celebrating the 40th anniversary of "Horses," her landmark debut album, which has been hailed as one of the top 100 albums of all time by Rolling Stone.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In a Democracy Now! special, we spend the hour with the legendary poet, singer, author and activist Patti Smith. She has just published a new memoir titled M Train. It’s a follow-up to her best-selling memoir, Just Kids, which won a National Book Award in 2010. Patti Smith is also celebrating the 40th anniversary of Horses, her landmark debut album, which has been hailed as one of the top 100 albums of all time by Rolling Stone. The album was widely praised for its mix of poetry and rock 'n' roll. In 1977, she had her first and only top 20 hit with "Because the Night," a song she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen.

PATTI SMITH: [singing] Take me now baby here as I am
Pull me close try and understand
Desire and hunger is the fire I breathe
Love is a banquet on which we feed
Come on now try and understand

AMY GOODMAN: Patti Smith’s music has inspired countless bands and helped earn her the title of the queen of punk. Her song, "People Have the Power," has become an anthem at protests across the globe. Patti Smith has also been a longtime activist, performing regularly at antiwar rallies and political benefits. In December, she’ll perform at the Pathway to Paris concert, which will coincide with the U.N. climate change conference. Pathway to Paris was co-founded by her daughter, Jesse Paris Smith.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to our interview with Patti Smith.

AMY GOODMAN: Patti Smith, it’s great to have you back in the studios of Democracy Now! You were here to inaugurate the studios a few years ago.

PATTI SMITH: Oh, I’m so happy to be back, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you won the National Book Award for Just Kids, and we’ll get to that. But we want to start with the new book, M Train.

PATTI SMITH: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, a lot of people in New York ride the M train, but that’s not what you’re talking about with M Train.

PATTI SMITH: Well, not really. Mine is the M train that I perpetually ride. It’s more for mental train, mind train. It’s—we all have it, you know, our continual train of thought.

AMY GOODMAN: People think of you as a musician. When you write, which you actually have to do for lyrics, as well, but when you write, do you sit down to write? What—how do you compose a book like Just Kids or M Train?

PATTI SMITH: Well, I’m always writing. And, I mean, I always counsel people when they call me a musician, I really do not have the skills of a musician. I really don’t think like a musician, though I love music and I perform and sing. I can’t really play anything, but the music that I do have within me goes directly through the word. And when I’m writing lyrics, I’m writing in regard to and respect to the composers of the music, sometimes myself but usually someone like Lenny Kaye or Tony Shanahan or my daughter. So I’m really infusing my words with their music, into their music. But when I’m writing a book, I don’t have any responsibility to anyone. I’m solitary. I’m writing on my own. I write by hand. And I write every day. I mean, it’s part of my daily discipline. But I think that my love of music and my love of poetry somehow finds its rhythms in my prose—hopefully, I think.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And it’s very striking about M Train, you say at the opening of the book that you were actually writing about nothing. And it’s also, in terms of its narrative, very different from Just Kids. So could you talk about the experience of writing both and what you intended with one and the other?

PATTI SMITH: Well, when I say nothing, it was really because I had no agenda, no plot, no outline. I had no idea where I was going. It was really literally I got on the train, I didn’t have a ticket, I didn’t have a destination, I just kept going. With Just Kids, I had tremendous amount of responsibility and a very classic agenda. Robert Mapplethorpe asked me to write our story the day before he died. I had never written a book of nonfiction, and so it took me almost two decades to write that book. That was thinking, gathering my diaries, material, going through a period of mourning and finding my voice, and the whole time feeling very responsible to Robert, to the people in the book, I would say most of them who are dead, and to New York City, which has gone through vast amount of changes since the '60s and ’70s. So, my responsibility was profound, chronologically, to make certain that people were represented properly. Even people that I didn't like, I had to find a way to treat them respectfully. And so, it was—

AMY GOODMAN: For the uninitiated, can you explain who Robert Mapplethorpe is, was—

PATTI SMITH: Yes, Robert—yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —and also your relationship with him?

PATTI SMITH: Well, Robert Mapplethorpe, I met in 1967. He was a student at Pratt, though even as a student a fully formed artist. We went through many things in our life together. He became my loved one, then my best friend. And Robert became very famous posthumously for his—some of his more difficult subject matter as a photographer, especially his S&M photography. But all of the work that Robert did, especially the work, one could say, when he was treating difficult subject matter, was done to elevate his subject to the realm of art. So Robert was really the artist of my life. And it’s funny, because I still consider him with me. It’s very hard for me still to talk about Robert in past tense. But we were so close, and at the end of his life he did want to be remembered. He was on the cusp of notoriety. And he knew that—he trusted me, and he knew that I would represent him well.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You mentioned that it took two decades for you to write Just Kids and that you went through a period of mourning, and a number of people have pointed out that your work seems to be haunted by loss and by mourning. Could you talk about the relationship between writing, your artistic creation, and loss?

PATTI SMITH: Well, I don’t feel that my work is haunted. I don’t feel haunted. I feel that I walk with the people that I’ve lost, and I would be sad not to have them with me. I would rather feel the sorrow of—that sometimes I have of not having my husband or my brother or Robert or other friends than not feeling them at all. But I found that writing, it’s almost like you make these people flesh again. You bring them back in a way that other people can know them and know them as a human being. I mean, you know, writing Just Kids, I didn’t write it to be for a cathartic—is that right word?—experience for me. I really wrote it because Robert asked me to. But I also wrote it so that people would know Robert as a human being and not merely a young man who took notorious pictures, who died of AIDS. Nothing wrong with that description, but he—there was a lot of backstory, a lot of the story of how—what he sacrificed to be an artist, you know. And I wanted people to know him.

AMY GOODMAN: What did he sacrifice?

PATTI SMITH: Well, I think all artists sacrifice a certain amount of just daily life unfettered. I can’t imagine what it would be like not to spend a large portion of my day writing, transforming. I can never relax. I think that’s what artists sacrifice in a certain way. I go to the opera, and I’m rewriting the opera. You know, I’m listening to a beautiful passage of Schubert, and I’m writing lyrics to it in my head. Sometimes I wish I could just, you know, be just a person who could one-to-one appreciate things as they are, but always the artist is seeking to transform and to create new ways of looking at something.

AMY GOODMAN: Patti Smith for the hour, talking about her new book, M Train; also Just Kids, for which she won the National Book Award, about her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; her evaluation of the Obama administration; climate change; and much more. Stay with us.

PATTI SMITH: [singing] Ours is just another skin
That simply slips away
You can rise above it
It will shed easily

It all will come out fine
I’ve learned it line by line
One common wire
One silver thread
All that you desire
Rolls on ahead

Like a ship in a bottle
Held up to the sun
Sails ain’t going nowhere
You can count every one
Until it crashes unto the earth
And simply slips away
You can hide in the open
Or just disappear

It all will come out fine
I’ve learned it line by line
One common wire
One silver thread

AMY GOODMAN: "Grateful," performed by Patti Smith, as we spend the hour with the great poet, writer, activist, musician. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue our conversation with Patti Smith, the legendary poet, singer, author and activist. She has just published a new memoir titled M Train. It’s a follow-up to her best-selling memoir, Just Kids, which won a National Book Award in 2010.

AMY GOODMAN: Just Kids is about you and Robert Mapplethorpe. Did you start M Train to talk about your husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, or to focus more on him? In ’94, you lost both him and your dear brother, Todd Smith, who was your road manager, band manager and everything, within weeks.

PATTI SMITH: I never—no. I’m doing another book, my next book, which I know what it’s going to be already, will greatly focus on Fred and my brother. I never planned to write about my brother and Fred in this book. I really wanted to be free of any expectation. I wanted to write—I knew I wanted to write about the process of writing. I wanted it to be sort of a more humorous book and just, you know, write about daily life. But they kept seeping in. Fred kept—he just kept entering. I mean, I never wrote so much about Fred since he’s passed away. He’s always with me, but I haven’t been able to write about him. I just couldn’t bear it. He just found his way in, in this book. But what’s unusual is the next book was not going to speak of this period of our life. So, it just—it just happened. And it happened so many times. I’d write, and I’d even shelve something, and then later he would come back. So I thought, well, he wants to be within the pages, so—

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about Fred, how you met?

PATTI SMITH: I met Fred at Lafayette Coney Island. It’s a place where they sell hot dogs in Detroit. I met him on March 9th, 1976. And they threw a party. I didn’t like parties much when I was younger. I used to feel confined at them, and I would always say, "Don’t throw me some party." So they lured me, because I like hot dogs, by having an afternoon party in Detroit. So I thought, "OK, I’ll get some hot dogs." And then all the local musicians were there. So I ate my hot dog, and I was just about to leave. I was with Lenny Kaye. And this fellow was standing—he had a blue overcoat on, and he was just standing against the radiator right near the door. And I looked at him. I didn’t know who he was. He looked at me. And I swear to you I thought, "That’s the fellow I’m going to marry." I don’t know why that happened. It was an instant moment of alchemy. And I did marry him. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Who was this fellow?

PATTI SMITH: Well, he was—his name was Fred, and his nickname was Fred "Sonic" Smith. He was in the MC5, which was one of the most, you know, political bands to come out of Detroit. They played at the—in Chicago in '68. They were involved in a lot of different—a lot of protests against the Vietnam War. But I didn't know much about them. I didn’t know he was that fellow. I just knew that this human being in front of me was the person for me. And Lenny Kaye introduced us, and he said, "Patti Smith, Fred Smith. Fred Smith, Patti Smith."

AMY GOODMAN: And neither of you would have had to change your names if you got married.

PATTI SMITH: No. No, we didn’t. And we didn’t—as some people said, you know, the monogram towels didn’t have to be—as if either one of us had monogram towels. But we had a long courtship, a long-distance courtship, and—because he lived in Detroit, I lived in New York. And finally, in '79, I thought I didn't want to be parted from him anymore, so I went and lived in Detroit.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it true he said to you, "I will take you anywhere in the world, if you just have my baby"?

PATTI SMITH: He actually said he wanted a son. And he said—to be democratic, I said "child," but he asked for a son. And I said, "OK." And he took me to French Guiana, because that’s where I chose. And I did have a son. And then a little time went by, and he said, "Now I’d like a daughter." And I said, "OK." And it took a little longer, but we had our daughter. So, I’m so glad he asked, too, because my children are the most precious thing that I have.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you just tell us about Guiana, why you chose Guiana and what you did there?

PATTI SMITH: Well, I think that Fred, when he said that he would take me anywhere in the world, figured I’d want to go, you know, to Paris or—

AMY GOODMAN: The Riviera?

PATTI SMITH: Well, not the Riviera, but he knew that I would pick something slightly eccentric or, you know, go visit Arthur Rimbaud’s grave in Charleville or something. But I had done that, so I chose Saint-Laurent in French Guiana, because I really loved Genet. And Genet in, I think—I think it’s The Thief’s Journal or—I can’t remember which book it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Jean Genet is.

PATTI SMITH: Jean Genet, one of our—the great French writers of the 20th century, who really—who was, you know, not a very good thief, but a great poet and prose writer, and wrote of marginalized society in the 20th century, ’40s and the ’50s, and a great playwright. And I chose French Guiana because Jean Genet always wanted to go to Saint-Laurent prison. He was very Romantic. All of the murderers and the pimps and the worst of the thieves all went to French Guiana. And it was a terrible place. Everyone died of malaria or piranha. But he wanted to go, because he was a great Romantic, and he wanted to go with the worst criminals. But just as he was sent to prison for life for thievery, they closed the prison down, and he never got there. And he mourned that. He wrote about it several times.

AMY GOODMAN: He stole for nothing?

PATTI SMITH: He had actually—he actually said, "I have been shorn of my infamy," because he could never go. And then I knew that he was ill. And I hadn’t met him, but I of course knew William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso—I knew his friends. And I thought I was going to go to French Guiana and get something from the earth of French Guiana for him, bring him back some of the soil, bring him back some stones, so he would have that. And then I thought, well, William or someone could give them to him. And so, I told Fred this. And Fred didn’t mock me, he didn’t protest. He was a man true to his word, and he said, "All right, we’ll go to French Guiana." So we did.

AMY GOODMAN: You went to prison there.

PATTI SMITH: We went to prison, yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jean Genet is also—one of his books, called Prisoner of Love, was published posthumously, in which he wrote about his meetings with the Black Panthers here in the U.S. and also his visits to Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you talk about that book and also, more broadly, what you see as the relationship between that kind of art and politics?

PATTI SMITH: Well, I think that Jean Genet, in his early life, he mixed his sexual encounters, his homosexual persuasion, thieves and murderers—he melded all of that into art and elevated these characters in his work. And as he got older, he got very, very involved in political causes. He was especially concerned with the plight of the Palestinians. And I think that in the—toward the end of his life, he wanted to do the same with these people, elevate them, not as outlaws or terrorists or marginalized people, but people that had a true cause and people that needed to be represented and spoken for. And so, he worked on this book at the end of his life. When he died, he had just finished the galleys on Prisoner of Love. It was—he died in a little Paris hotel, and that manuscript was sitting on the bed stand.

And it’s also—you know, it’s a very beautiful book, not just because of the political element, but it’s beautiful because Genet was never one to sympathize much with women, but the strongest—I shouldn’t say characters, because it’s a nonfiction book, but the people that emerged the strongest in this book are the women, the women who are left behind in war, the women who wind up taking care of the children, then the grandmothers taking care of the grandchildren, and, you know, the strength and resilience of the women. And I thought that was quite beautiful for him to do at the end of his life.

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