What a great day.
I’m sat there on stage at the Sheffield Library museum. The room is packed and hushed. The atmosphere is charged with emotion.
I’m interviewing Patti Smith who is in full flow- no subject is off limit, no emotion left untouched. You can feel the humanity and the air is charged with a sticky passion.
At one moment she wells up, the next she is hilarious, the next she speaks with a powerful wisdom that so few of her male counterparts have managed in a similar timespan. I sit there and realise that I am talking to the very core- the very epicentre of where rock n roll and poetry, emotion and art clashes- it’s powerful stuff, the dark magic that is at the heart of what makes rock n roll so great- this is the very place and she is do damn modest with it.
She goes off at great tangents and is, of course, eloquent, but also charming, modest and never shirks from the difficult material and tells it all with great grace and humour.
These in conversations are fascinating to do. Stark. Wide open. Two chairs, two mics and a room full of people adding to the kinetic electric of talking. I’ve done loads of them from Faust to Kraftwerk and back again. There’s no space for fuck ups. It’s the real live edge. The thrilling adrenaline of the stage, of living for the moment.
Patti arrives thirty seconds before we hit the stage which can make things awkward but she is so open that talking to her is a dream. I wish it could have gone on for another hour- there’s so many great stories to talk through.
Afterall poet priestess Patti Smith is one of the key figures in rock n roll.
She may never have sold millions of records but her influence is all persuasive. She inspired a legion of women (and men) to take up the cause in the mid seventies and her fingerprints are all over punk rock, post punk and onwards to the present.
When I wrote my punk oral history five years ago her name was dropped as a key influence by an unlikely roll call of people from the Slits to Echo and the Bunnymen, from the Smiths to PJ Harvey to Nick Cave and anyone else who is fired by her free spirit and the truth lies at the heart of rock ‘n’ roll.
She has lived several lives at once- there’s so much crammed in there from tragedy to triumph and it’s all in her poetry that seems to pour out of her. She embodies all that was great about the sixties- all the idealism and the hope and the dream tempered by an urban reality and New Jersey no bullshit that edits the dippyness that threatened to taint the era. She was the link between that period and the edginess of punk, the fulcrum, the point when one generation tipped into another. She led the charge, waking rock from its mid seventies slumber, opening doors and inspiring with her no holds barred artfulness just like her heroes Arthur Rimbaud, Bob Dylan had done before.
When she sings a couple of songs after the interview her beautiful voice, that crackles with emotion and such hope, is as intact now as when we first heard it 35 years ago.
Exuding a warmth and humanity rare in these hard sell days, she is a great raconteur with her New Jersey accent telling great stories of Alan Ginsberg, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jimi Hendrix, the Chelsea Hotel, Andy Warhol, her New jersey upbringing, rock n roll, family, lovers, art and poetry- an amazing shared life that she recounts without embellishment.
She looks fantastic, with that strange, delicious beauty still intact. She has seen the dark side and survived the heartache of the deaths of the two key lovers in her life- Mapplethorpe and her husband- the late Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and the pain is never far away.
We talk about her just released ‘Just Kids’ book- a love story- a romantic tale of two penniless artists running around the bohemian New York of the mid seventies.
It tells the story of her and Robert Mapplethorpe- her first real love. It’s the story of a skint, thrilling existence of two artists on the run- a cut and past Bonnie and Clyde creating and letting it all pour out. It speaks of Mapplethorpe the brilliant photographer and gives you a real insight into his boyish charm and daredevil talent walking on the wild side in pursuit of aesthetic freedom and art with a humility and touching humaneness.
At the event Patti tells a great story of when Mapplethorpe’s mother came to his opening and before she got there he took down all his homoerotic shots because he didn’t want to offend her!
The book and the in conversation by extension are a moving tale of people who lived by raw emotion and talent and threw everything to the wind to create great art- Patti with her poetry fused rock n roll and Robert with his brilliant images.
The book itself is one of the great rock n roll reads, you can feel the breathless excitement of mid seventies New York, you can run with their youthful idealism and smile at the naivety and beauty of living for art before you are hit by the heartbreak of when Mapplethorpe succumbs to Aids at the end of the book.
The interview covers all this ground and the room is going with it. Later on people tell me that they were crying- not upset but crying with the sheer emotion and that’s just from Patti’s talking- the way she doesn’t hide behind smoke and mirrors and deals in pure raw emotion- a free spirit in world of corporate gloss. And that’s the key, Patti is a free spirit- a rarity in these cynical times and that’s why people celebrate her.
Later on she plays a concert in the hall next door and it is spellbinding, she reads from the book and plays stripped down acoustic versions of the songs with her pure, amazing voice. The gig is mesmerising, spellbinding and powerful- 90 minutes of classic songs, freeform improvisation and again, raw emotion.
It makes you realise what rock n roll can really be and why its so damn special and why it holds a place in our hearts- that glimmer of fascination, that moment when the connection is made and people are visibly moved- that’s powerful stuff.
Really powerful stuff.