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.
She is in full flow - no subject is off limit, no emotion left untouched. You can feel the humanity, and the air is charged with passion.
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 over a similar timespan.
I sit there and realise that I am talking to the very core - the very epicentre of rock ‘n’ roll where poetry, emotion, dark energy, magic and art sparks.
Patti Smith is the heart of the volcano and it’s powerful stuff.
This is the dark magic that is at the heart of what makes rock ‘n’ roll so great - this is the very place and she is so damn modest with it.
She goes off at great tangents and is, of course, eloquent, but also charming, modest; never shirks from the difficult material and tells it all with great grace and humour. She is totally open - one minute in tears, one minute hilarious, one minute engrossed in a great story in poetic detail and then, the next, disarmingly human.
These In Conversations are fascinating to do.
Stark. Wide open. Two chairs. Two mics. Intimate, and yet 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. Just like Patti herself.
I had never met Patti Smith before and wait for her backstage at the 600 capacity sold out venue. With this kind of event you never know what you are going to get. In Conversation is an interesting art form: Some people freeze on the stage. Some people see it as a form of word combat and some open up....which Patti would I get?
Fierce and vulnerable.
She breezes in one minute before show time; we shake hands. A spry, thin woman made out of sinew and steel. Her iconic features are as fierce and beautifully intelligent as ever. She’s dressed in rock ‘n’ roll blue denim, cowboy boots and leather and oozes that casual aura of the iconic. I ask what the parameters are - how far can I go? Her recently released book, Just Kids, is pretty open so I need to know what we could explore.
“Ask me anything,” she fiercely replies, and then we walk onto the stage.
One of the most imperious and commanding performers in rock, Patti Smith is the perfect fulcrum between the idealistic art surge of the Sixties and the mid Seventies tough, urban, rush of the punk generation. When she appeared in 1975, she was the androgynous New York street poet with the skeletal cool of Keith Richards and Dionysus word flow of Arthur Rimbaud in a new tough environment: Just when rock ‘n’ roll had run out of ideas and New York out of money she arrived to inspire with her tougher take on pure art.
She inspired a generation of women and men to take up rock ‘n’ roll arms in the knowledge that they no longer had to be demure, dolly bird performers but could be both fierce and vulnerable. They could be cool and street tough. They could make art on their own terms and they didn’t need permission from the old men or anyone. She also made a series of great albums that defined those mid Seventies moments - just before punk became the deluge - and carved herself a space in the cannon.
In the 21st Century she still tours. A silver haired Goddess who has no time for the fakery of the eternal prancing youth of rock culture. This is a genuine woman full of wisdom and poetry and anger; and all the more powerful for it. She is undimmed and as smart of dangerous as ever. Her live shows are cathartic as she celebrates the latest rock fellow travellers who have left the stage in the twilight of the mortals whilst she still burns fierce and runs bright. She sings of love and lust and of war and peace. The last shining beacon back to the poets like Jim, Iggy, Bob and Keef with his guitar.
In the conversation, she is talking about her book, Just Kids - an emotional story of growing up in rock ‘n’ roll in the then broken city of New York. It’s a modern, high decibel, electric love story about her then partner in bed and crime, the brilliant, burning bright, late Robert Mapplethorpe - the handsome, cheek-boned photographer who helped define her image as she helped define his.
They were the Bonnie and Clyde of the New York underground and the book details their fierce affair before Robert drifted towards exploring his homosexual side and died in the Aids epidemic. It’s a beautiful and modern story full of heartache, love and leather jacket mid- Seventies New York, and exquisitely written.
Leading the charge
When I wrote my punk oral history years ago, Patti’s name was dropped as a key influence by an unlikely varied 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 was fired by her free spirit and the truth that lies at the heart of the beat.
Patti has lived several lives at once - there’s so much crammed in there from tragedy to triumph - and it’s all in the 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 dippy-ness 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 and Bob Dylan had done before, and investing the future where women won’t tackle that male bullshit any more.
When she sings a couple of songs after the interview her beautiful voice, which 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 is a rare thing. 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 poetic 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.
Pure, raw emotion
We talk about her 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 who was her first real love. It’s the story of a skint, thrilling existence of two artists on the run - a cut and paste 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 like a story Patti tells 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.
After the interview, 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, free-form improvisation and again, raw emotion.
It makes you realise what rock ‘n’ roll can really be and why it’s 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.
You can listen to the interview in full by clicking here.
John Robb films In Conversations for Lush’s Gorilla channel, fronts his acclaimed post punk band The Membranes and is also a music writer who wrote many groundbreaking features the late Sounds music paper