Jonathan Lethem & Patti Smith
JONATHAN LETHEM: Patti, I want to start by making you talk about being a book scout. One of my favorite things in your memoir Just Kids was not just the fact that you were scuffling for rare books to make money, but your descriptions of those books: you say the pages were lightly foxed, or all the plates were in place. It made me remember my own days as a book hound imagining what I could turn over some item for.
PATTI SMITH: Well, I grew up in the ’50s when most people in America were getting rid of their old stuff. They didn’t want their grandfather’s or their parents’ stuff. They didn’t want the nice porcelain; they wanted Melmac. They didn’t want these old leather-bound books; they wanted the Reader’s Digest collection. So even as a child I would go to rummage sales or church bazaars and pick out books for pennies, for a quarter. I got a first edition Dickens with a green velvet cover with a tissue guard with a gravure of Dickens. You could get things like that. It has never gone away, my love of the book. The paper, the font, the cloth covers. All of these things are slowly dying out.
LETHEM: And did you work at rare book shops at one point?
SMITH: I only worked at one: Argosy Book Store, in 1967. Though I falsified my credentials as a book restorer. The old fellow who ran Argosy was very touched by me and he tried to train me, but I spilled rabbit glue all over a nineteenth century Bible. He said it was not really rare, though; it was just a trainer Bible. Still, he had to let me go.
LETHEM: And you still collect precious artifacts? You showed me a few amazing things earlier. Patti let me hold Arthur Rimbaud’s calling card this morning.
SMITH: I have such nice things. I have a couple of letters of H.P. Lovecraft’s, a watercolor of Hermann Hesse’s, a page from Jim Morrison’s last notebook. All of these things we don’t really own; we have a guardianship of them for a while. I look at them, I play with them.
LETHEM: I always feel that the collector’s role connects very strongly to something curatorial. You’ve been a collage artist your whole life: You’ve cut things up to make other things out of them, you’ve been an appropriator. In gestures as simple as recording “Hey Joe” and “Gloria” among your first songs—as a cover artist, you’re a remixer. And to collect things is also to want to repurpose them.
SMITH: I know of people who own rare manuscripts and keep them in vaults. All my stuff is in my room. I look at my things, love them, let them live outside of a metal box. Sometimes I photograph them. That’s my way of appropriating things like that. I did naughtily appropriate a nineteenth-century mathematics book of the Riemann Hypothesis for a collage, but it was falling apart anyway.
LETHEM: I’ve just read your gorgeous account of the origins of your collaborative work—and collaborative life, really—with Robert Mapplethorpe. You’re known now as a musician and a writer, but you still take photographs. Do you still draw as well?
SMITH: Oh, yes. It’s funny because I don’t consider myself a musician at all. I can play a few chords on the guitar. I have no natural gifts as a musician. Obviously I sing, but I think of myself more as a performer. When I think of myself in terms of my real skills, I would think of myself as a writer and a visual artist before I would a musician.
LETHEM: Were you ever an art student in any capacity?
SMITH: I studied Art History at Glassboro State Teacher’s College. And then I came to New York in 1967, and really I studied through Robert. I was drawing at the time. We sat for hours and hours, night after night, drawing. And I studied in my own way. One of my ideas when I came to New York in 1967 was to get a job at the Museum of Modern Art as a guide. I knew the story and history of every painting in the Museum of Modern Art, and I tried to pitch that as a job but they scooted me out. I, like you, was an unruly student, but I always dreamed of going to Pratt. I couldn’t afford to. I couldn’t get a scholarship, as I wasn’t the best of students.
LETHEM: This is a generic question to ask, but I’d be interested in knowing what your writing process is like, how you put the book together, and whether you are working on another book like it, or want to write another book in the same mode.
SMITH: This book was very difficult because Robert asked me to write it. He asked me to write it on his deathbed. I wanted to write it. I have lots of sources, I have daily diaries. I know the date when I cut his hair, when I first chopped off my hair, when I first met Janis Joplin, when Robert went to a taxi dance. I have lengthy journals, I have his letters. But after Robert died I had to face the death of my husband, my brother, and my parents. And I found it very difficult to write. It’s only been in the last few years when all these notes and pages and baskets of writings—I was able to sit and put them all together. And I made two rules for myself: One, that no matter what I remember or what I had, that if I couldn’t see what I was writing about as a little movie then I took it away. Because I wanted the reader to enter the book like they were reading a movie. And the second: Robert was not much of a reader, he didn’t read hardly at all, so it couldn’t be boring or too digressional or he would just be agitated. He’d say, “Patti…” For instance, I had a two-page meditation on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s desk in there, don’t ask me why, but I knew it had to go. I can put it somewhere else, but I knew it would just stop the reader—and also agitate Robert.
LETHEM: I was talking about your art as collage, and in a sense this was a collaboration with your own past self. You were collaging these journals and notebooks and letters.
SMITH: And the book is filtered through our relationship. You asked me would I write another. And I didn’t think I’d write another, but I couldn’t stop writing once I’d become friendly with my voice in the book. I’m still writing, but what I decided to do is to write maybe a little trilogy of books that all are in the same time period, but from a different angle. I could write about that whole time period again, but not filtered through Robert and I—it would engage with other things: how I wrote songs, or other things that happened.
LETHEM: There are others who seem to become pivotal who you just allude to, like Sam Shepard.
SMITH: Right. Or I could write a whole chapter on William Burroughs. Both you and I love Bolaño’s 2666. It’s such a freeing book for a writer. It suggests the idea of entering and reentering and exiting worlds. I thought it’d be interesting to expand the world that I began. If people want it. And it seems like they might. I like your sneakers.
LETHEM: Thank you. They’re not vintage.
SMITH: Doesn’t matter, they’re classic.
LETHEM: That’s the word. Speaking of my Ramones sneakers—I was ten years old in 1974. I went to CBGB’s three or four years later for the first time.
SMITH: You went to CBGB’s when you were thirteen? I’m sorry!
LETHEM: Oh, it’s ok.
SMITH: I wasn’t even let out of the house when I was thirteen.
LETHEM: Well it was only a subway ride. But the way that my friends and I received your career, which was already legendary to us in ’76, ’77, is that you had graduated—you and the Talking Heads would not appear in a small club anymore. We’d have to go to Winterland or some place.
SMITH: That’s not true, I still went back right to the end. It’s just that I was often on the road, that’s all. It wasn’t a philosophy.
LETHEM: We were more often in those little clubs seeing our own peers, high school students who had started bands were now taking over CBGB’s. And we would see you guys in these little mini arenas. But the concept of punk was so formative for us. It was so powerful. It created a possibility for us as listeners, and as a subculture—we could claim our own rock and roll. And that also had an adolescent-quarantine aspect to it. Certain things were decisively “uncool” or unacceptable. We didn’t let ourselves hear how great the music that preceded punk was. We needed it to be our own anthemic thing. Of course, reading your story it’s amazing to see—it shouldn’t be shocking, but it was because of the prejudices I find I still have from that punk identity—how completely continuous you see it with the earlier rock and roll: ’50s and ’60s, and even early ’70s, Janis Joplin being a great example. The development of your role as a performer, as the singer in a rock and roll band, didn’t come from sweeping the plate clean.
SMITH: I love hearing about this, because people like Lenny Kaye and myself, we were born in 1946. We saw, from childhood on, the entire evolution of rock and roll. So when we started performing in ’73 and ’74, we were not punk rock. We were guardians, we felt, of our own history. We felt that rock and roll was becoming more corporate, more glamorous, less a cultural voice. We wanted to remind people that it was a grassroots art. That it was ours, that it was revolutionary, that it belonged to the people. It didn’t belong to rich rock stars, it didn’t belong to the record companies, it belonged to the people. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing us to Moses, but Lenny and I often thought that we saw the promised land, we saw the future for generations. We saw rock and roll as belonging to the streets. Just people playing in their garages. Anyone could play rock and roll.
We were more the bridge. The people that came after, like the Sex Pistols: I knew all those kids, they came to our shows. I knew the Clash. But for a lot of them, it was necessary, as you said, to turn their back on their past because of their method. They had to break through without us, and even despise us. And I understood that. But I’m not like that. To me, being part of the chain that includes anyone from Raphael, to Coltrane, to Allen Ginsberg, to Jimi Hendrix—to be part of this is something that I embrace. I wouldn’t want to turn all of that over. But I have no quarrel with people that need to do that. It’s up to the individual and how one declares her existence. Sometimes one has to disengage in order to declare. I did that with religion just like certain new groups did to my band or to the so-called dinosaurs of rock and roll. But it’s all OK, as long as we keep the blood infused in the medium.
LETHEM: For a teenage listener you were on the side of revolution at that time. We would have placed your relationship to the dinosaurs of rock and roll as a very aggressive one. And the irony is that you have always been so engaged with your sources, whether it’s William Blake or Van Morrison, you’ve always worn them on your sleeve and celebrated them in a sort of ecstatic way. By combining them with an image of renewal and revolution you can also become a guide back to those sources for someone. What is your relationship to present-day music making? Do you listen to a lot of contemporary music when you think about what kind of recording you might make?
SMITH: No. I listen to opera, really. That’s what I listen to. And I listen to my son and daughter. My daughter is twenty-two years old, and she’s composing all the time. I listen to her playing, I listen to her friends. My son is a guitar player. They stick stuff on my computer. I’m listening to my opera and then one day there’s the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. So, ok, I’ll listen to that. The other thing I do is I have a MySpace page, and I’m not so active on it, but I have all these friends on MySpace, and a lot of them create their own music and I listen to them, I see what they’re doing. I tour; a lot of young kids give me their CDs. People ask me, “Who are the new people?” To me, the new people are the unknown people. The new people that I embrace are the people that we don’t even know—the people of the future, the kids that are in their basements, or the group that’s struggling out there in Brooklyn. It’s an abstract thing, but they’re the people I invest my love in.
LETHEM: You just mentioned your kids. One of the things I find so stirring, having grown up with your career as a fan, is that there is a mysterious period in the middle where you became primarily the member of a family.
SMITH: A housewife.
LETHEM: A suburban housewife.
SMITH: Wasn’t quite suburban.
LETHEM: I thought I’d try. So there’s Dream of Life as this weird signal coming out of that in the middle, this incredible album—and as we now know you suffered a period of losses and transformations, but you also came back to a time of fertile productivity. And you have this relationship to your grown children, who play music on stage with you at times. This is great for people who have an alienated romance that to be creative is to be outside of a family, to not have children—it’s something only young people do and you have to make a choice. Well, the story of your choices is a stirring one—but it’s also incomplete. We don’t know how you felt about moving out of New York and out of the role that you carved for yourself in the career that you had here.
SMITH: Well, the role that I carved for myself we had accomplished. In terms of rock and roll, our mission was to wake people up and make new space for the new guard. The new guard came and, I hope, we created space for them. So I felt that I had accomplished that mission. And being on the road and starting to become quite successful—the demands and pressure of that, and the media—I felt that I wasn’t growing as an artist at all. I wasn’t growing politically, I wasn’t growing spiritually. And I met a great person, Fred “Sonic” Smith. He had been in the MC5, he had gone through all of the things that I had gone through. And I had a decision: Did I want to carve a more difficult life with this man, or continue the way I was going? And I most happily went with him.
I missed New York City. I love New York City. I missed the coffee shops, I missed the camaraderie with my band. But it’s a misconception that those were not productive years. This book Just Kids came from those sixteen years of developing a writer’s discipline, of becoming, hopefully, a better human being, of having children and finding I wasn’t in center of the universe, being more empathetic to my fellow man. I became more knowledgeable politically, just seeing how human beings toil. I had to do all the cooking and the cleaning and the washing of the diapers. We didn’t have nannies or anything like that; we did everything ourselves. We didn’t make a big income because we both withdrew from public life. But for me, the skills and disciplines that I obtained in those years have magnified all of my efforts. So they certainly weren’t lost years.
LETHEM: That’s a beautiful way to put it.