Patti Smith is (Still) Doing the Work

london, united kingdom october 4 patti smith performs on stage at the royal albert hall on 4 october, 2021 in london, england photo by christie goodwinredferns

Christie Goodwin

The day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Patti Smith had a show to play in Port Chester, New York—only her second time back on stage since the Omicron pause started to lift. “It was a challenge to work as a divided person,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer said when we spoke the next morning over the phone. “Trying to give my energy and have a transcendent night, while another part of me was aware that people were having their country invaded, their cities bombed. It was slightly schizophrenic. I’m a believer that we have to do our work, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t affect me some.”

Since the start of her career in the early 1970s, reading her poetry backed by noisy guitars and helping to kick off the punk movement, Smith has remained intensely dedicated to doing her work. In recent years, that has meant more of a focus on her writing, especially since Just Kids, her 2010 chronicle of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe during their early years together in New York City, became a best-seller and won the National Book Award.

Since last April, Smith has been presenting her writing in a new way, through the publishing platform Substack. For six dollars a month, readers can subscribe to Smith’s email newsletter, which has centered on an episodic story titled The Melting—currently at 44 installments and counting, with a new section released every week. It began as a pandemic diary but has evolved into a hallucinatory, time- and space-traveling tale with an underlying warning about climate change.

Smith has enjoyed creating this ongoing interaction with her readers, and the connection it gives her to a particular literary tradition. “I loved reading stories of Dickens and Conan Doyle writing their episodes,” she says, “and how people would read them and get into a furor over them or demand that more episodes were written.” She has also progressively expanded the Substack offerings, reading poems and stories, linking to photos and performance clips, and sending late-night video greetings from her bedroom, sometimes crashed by her 20-year-old Abyssinian cat, Cairo. (There’s also a free tier for subscription, which gives access to some of these elements but not to The Melting itself.)

Just Kids

Ecco Press amazon.com

$16.99

$11.20 (34% off)

Having recently turned 75, Smith says that she’s “conscious of my personal chronology,” but rather than slow down, she takes it as a challenge to keep creating, in all the media that interest her, while she is still able—she just announced A Book of Days, a book of her photography based on her Instagram feed, to be published in November. (Having seen her glorious appearance last fall in Central Park, I can confirm that she hasn’t lost a step, and remains one of music’s most riveting, magnetic performers.) “I don’t think of myself as a giant rock star or an icon or anything like that,” she says, matter-of-factly, as if her enormous influence hasn’t really occurred to her. “I think of myself as someone who has the privilege to do this job, and the responsibility, and I do it the best I can, no matter what the circumstances. Even last night—I can’t say that it was the best performance I ever gave because I was emotionally and mentally distracted, but I did my best.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Tonight (Thursday, May 10), Smith will play as part of a benefit show for Ukraine at City Winery in New York. Tickets are still available to the livestream.


Esquire: How did this Substack project start?

Patti Smith: I write every day and during the pandemic, I started writing this sort of abstract diary. I was approached by Substack and thought, I have this piece and it might be interesting to publish the first entries and then keep writing in time. I’ve never done that, written episodic in time for people; I always just finish my books and then publish them. So it’s a certain amount of pressure, but it’s exciting and it forces a certain journalistic discipline—I never had that weekly or daily deadline that people have. At first it was a little challenging, but now I find it exhilarating. I can’t wait to write a new episode for the people.

So you had the first section written prior to launching?

The first quarter is called “Pandemic,” and that’s pretty much charting my progress in lockdown, mostly by myself. I was supposed to go on a world tour starting in mid-March of 2020, and I went from being packed for a world tour to being in lockdown in New York City—and because I was 73 with a bronchial condition, I was high risk, so I was really in lockdown. My daughter, Jesse, pretty much took care of things for me, getting food and keeping me company or going with me to the dentist, but a lot of my time was spent alone. So I had some of that written, but I was already looking to get out of my skin and move into another dimension.

pathway to paris with patti smith

“I think of myself as someone who has the privilege to do this job, and the responsibility, and I do it the best I can, no matter what the circumstances,” says Smith.

Roberto RicciutiGetty Images

Do you have the story sketched out? Are you working with any kind of outline?

I know how it’s going to end because I projected the ending, but how I’m going to get there is still in question. But I’ve set it in a way that I can digress and time travel or mentally travel. It was a very rigid structure at first because I was writing alone in a room, but now I’ve projected myself into another dimension, so I can move freely.

I’m also very attentive to the comments I get from people and how they’re responding as it gets more abstract or more poetic, and they seem right with me. It seems like the further out I go, the more they like it. I’m not saying it’s a collaboration, but their input is inspiring what path I’m taking. And that’s a new way of working as well.

I was thinking that getting comments and feedback right away must be a little like being on stage and feeling the audience’s reaction.

I didn’t even put those two together, but it is very similar. When we do our shows, we do a new set list every night. I have no script and we’re free to go anywhere. With certain crowds, it just feels like it’s going to be a rock show and you want to keep amping up. Others want to spar with you, or they want stories or poems or to laugh, so each night is somewhat semi-crafted by the people and the way they respond—because it’s for them. I’m independent, I’ll do what I want, but if I can accommodate the needs of the people, I’ll do that.

And with the Substack, I get feedback right away—some people say “I’m a little confused,” or they don’t speak English very well. One girl always says, “I can’t understand what’s happening, but I love reading it,” and I say, “It’s okay, you don’t have to understand it, it’s just abstract!” But they’ve really given me permission, and they seem to like when the narrator keeps going into another strange place. So I’m sort of jamming with them a little.

There’s an undercurrent in the story addressing climate change—the whole idea of “the melting.” Did you know that was going to be a theme?

I’m always concerned with climate change, with what’s happening to our species and our water, as a citizen and as a mother. It’s going to escalate in the story—that’s where it’s going, sort of an allegory about climate change. I always knew it would be part of it, but I’m not a non-fiction writer. I’m not an essayist or very articulate in writing political pieces, I just don’t have that gift. But I can weave it within poetry and autobiographical fiction in a way that I hope will be meaningful to people.

I’m independent, I’ll do what I want, but if I can accommodate the needs of the people, I’ll do that

Another thing that really comes through is how much you are missing and craving travel.

It’s been difficult for me because I don’t like staying put. I stayed put for nearly sixteen years when I got married in 1980 and had children, happily. I had many responsibilities and I was happy to write and just travel locally with my family. But I’m at an age when I’m free to travel and I can go where I like, so it’s been very difficult, in every way—financially, for my people, my band, which includes my son.

But more than that, for me it was not having freedom of motion, staying in a certain city and writing in a café. We’ll play in Nice and I find a hotel I like, where James Joyce used to stay at, and just sit and write for three or four days. That’s how I like to operate, but instead I was really confined to my room. So it’s only natural that my narrator, who’s really myself, should be a mental traveler, because that’s the only way I could really travel.

As it progresses, I think of Roy Batty, the replicant in Blade Runner. When he’s dying, he says, “I’ve seen things you humans would not believe—I’ve gone on the ship on the shoulder of Orion.” So I think of myself as sort of an acolyte to Roy Batty and just go where I can.

Do you see The Melting as something that stands alongside the other books?

It fits perfectly. I wanted to write an M trilogy—M Train was the first one, Year of the Monkey was the second one, and The Melting is the third M book. So the three books all link up. Medea, Maria Callas, Roberto Bolano, there’s certain themes that run through, certain touchstones. And coffee. I’ve written these books to hang out with the reader; they’re sharing books. They’re different than the book I writ for Robert, which was pure non-fiction and had a mission to deliver Robert as a young man to the people. These three books are really a way to hang out with the reader.

Will you continue working on Substack after you wrap up The Melting?

I love it, I love doing these things. If I have a restless night, I open the computer and read a poem to the people and post it. I like that, I feel like I did something useful.

When I’m done with The Melting, I have a plan—in my Lyrics book, I have like 110 songs and I plan to maybe do a thing where I give the people the lyrics of the songs and tell them a story of how each song was written, because some of them have very interesting backstories.

This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

And I’m happy just to ask my people “How would you like me to evolve, what do you want to hear about?” You want me to do a month about Robert? When Bob Dylan turned 80, I did Bob Dylan month—I sang Bob Dylan songs, showed them a video of Bob and me doing “Dark Eyes,” pictures from when we were young, little stories and poems, just to salute Bob on his 80th birthday, and people really liked that.

It’s been ten years since you put out an album. Are there any plans for new music?

Yes, I’m working on that. I know I haven’t recorded for a while, but I have so many fields—performing and photography, and I’ve had art exhibits and written books. I have songs that I’ve written and songs that I want to do, but I want to do it in a different way.

Soon someone is going to put out a nine-album set of a project with a friend called Soundwalk Collective. I do more obscure things with them, mostly on vinyl—a 14-minute monologue from the point of view of Medea after she’s murdered her children, or the poems of Rimbaud. I’ve been doing a lot of work in Europe that’s relatively obscure, but very satisfying work—on Pasolini, Chernobyl, all kinds of things, So even though I haven’t had traditional records out, I have been recording in a different way,

But my voice is still intact, so I think it would be prudent to record soon. I’ve noticed that with some of our great singers, their voice diminishes for whatever reason, abuse or health or whatever. But I’m quite lucky, so I think that I’ll be recording soon.

It’s always striking how you talk about doing creative work—it’s not romantic or tortured, but a discipline and almost a responsibility.

Maybe I have a romantic feeling about work—to me, work isn’t drudgery; it’s what one does. I did my first public performance when I read my poetry at St. Mark’s Church in 1971. I was opening for the poet Gerard Malanga. I was in my early 20s and on the flyer, I didn’t want to say I was a poet yet. I felt like I was working, and I was doing good work, but I didn’t have a description of myself. So it said “Gerard Malanga—poetry, Patti Smith—work.”

Calling myself a worker also helps me avoid having to have a label, because I do a lot of things. Am I a professional photographer? I can’t say I am, but I take photographs and I exhibit them and I like them. I do feel like I’m a writer, I don’t feel like I’m a great singer, but I am a performer. So if you just say you’re a worker, that sort of takes care of the whole schlemiel.

This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io