I’m sitting at the head of a table in the catering hall of the Manchester Apollo; to my left is guitar legend, Lenny Kaye, and sitting to my right is the Godmother of Punk herself. Patti Smith and her band are tucking into a freshly-prepared selection of Indian food – straight out of soundcheck, they’ve invited me to join them.
Rather than feeling like a fifth wheel, the group is asking my opinion on The Rolling Stones, whom I saw the week before at the London Stadium. The Stones are also playing in Manchester tonight – except their production is much grander and their ticket prices are astronomical in comparison. Tonight’s show will be almost three years to the day since Patti Smith last played this venue, which she first visited in 1978. It will also be three years since I last had the pleasure to chat to her at the same location.
Despite being endlessly revered as one of the most influential women on the planet, Smith remains an elusive figure. She has no management company, no PR people and no contact information on her website. While Patti Smith may have a large and loyal worldwide following, the idea of being a pioneer has never really meant much to her, and being a celebrity doesn’t mean anything at all. She is living proof that a public figure doesn’t have to be public property.
This may be the fifth time I’ve spoken to Patti, but this chat still comes as a result of waiting for three hours outside the venue for her to arrive. Finally, at 5:30pm the van returns with Smith, who always arrives after her band. After she stops to sign for the autograph seekers, she is whisked into the backstage area and shown to the stage. Patti gives the band their orders for the evening, before running through a cover of Paint It Black, which they are playing specially tonight in tribute to the Stones. I stand and watch in the wings.
After dinner, we adjourn to Patti’s dressing room for a very varied and revealing conversation. The first thing she points out, in true punk passion, is that she fell asleep in the same clothes she is currently wearing – the same clothes she wears for the evening’s performance. The redundant clothes rack in the dressing room is bare, lined only by about 20 redundant coat hangers.
When I first spoke to Patti in 2012, she spoke of how she has to “negotiate the 21st century” when she performs. This referred to how audience members can spend more time on their phone during a gig than watching the show.
Smith has always retained a private existence off the stage; in a world where everything is known about everyone, mystery is still one of her biggest appeals. So, it was a very pleasant surprise to her fans when she joined Instagram this year. This is the first social media account that is both owned and personally run by Patti Smith.
“I never did anything like that, but there were a few people using my name on Instagram and using a lot of photographers’ photographs,” she begins. “So, my daughter said the best solution was to start my own official one and that would discourage other people, but also let people know that there was an official one.
“As it’s evolved, I’ve found it a really nice venue to tell people on a large scale what I’m doing, share with them books I like or a movie, or a certain cause. I really enjoy it; I do it every day. It’s nice for me because it’s creative; it’s like taking a Polaroid or something. For me, it’s a nice way to communicate and also bring some nice aesthetic to it. I don’t know all the rules, I don’t hashtag or anything like that. I just put my pictures up and write a little message.”
This is the first time I have seen Patti without her trusty old Polaroid camera. Smith is famous for her photography, almost as much as her poetry, and has been exhibited in prestigious galleries across America. However, while it is in the same medium, she says she does not see her Instagram posts as especially artistic. “A lot of the pictures, I just take as information. Today, I did a post showing I’m in Manchester and showing a little of the backstage with no pretence of it being artistic. It’s quite artless. Taking a Polaroid is photography and enduring is photography. Polaroid film is extinct, so one has to find ways to interact with the times they’re in.”
Despite her love of communicating with people on Instagram, this looks to be the first and last social media channel Smith will be activating. “I don’t have any interest in tweeting, I don’t really like that. One’s intent can be lost in those few words. I don’t have any desire to be in that particular community, but I like the community of relating an image to a thought.”
Aside from her music, Patti Smith’s name is also the byline to over 20 books. These include memoirs, poetry and lyric books. Her 2010 memoir, Just Kids, was highly acclaimed and even won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. M-Train, released in 2015, is her most recent memoir to be published; this intimate and relaxed collection of stories earned her a Grammy nomination for the best spoken word album.
It does not have a sequence or theme. The book is a collection of various tales from her past and provides a glimpse into the private life of one of rock’s most mysterious stars. “That book was really written ‘in time’,” Patti explains. “One day, as it says, I crossed the street not thinking of anything, but I had this dream. It’s like a Sam Shepherd (book), which is why I dedicated the book to Sam. It’s a sort of stream of consciousness in a way – with no plot, no design, no expectations. I didn’t have a contract for it, I just decided to do it, so every day I just wrote what came to mind.
“I never imagined I’d be writing so much about my husband because I haven’t really written about him since his passing. He just kept visiting and I kept writing about him. It’s like a road trip in the mind. That’s why it’s M-Train; it’s really Mind Train, Mental Train.”
Patti’s eyes widen with joy when she discusses this book. Apparently, it’s had a profound effect on her – so much so that she is planning a sequel. “I actually really enjoyed reading it. In fact, I mourned it when it was finished, so much so that I’ve actually written a sequel to it, which is almost finished. I couldn’t imagine what kind of person would like this book, but I liked it. The intent of M-Train was to talk to the reader directly, as though we were having a cup of coffee.
“I think a lot of the reason it was so pleasurable was because writing Just Kids required so much mental discipline. It was just continuous layers of responsibility, so I think of M-Train as being happily irresponsible.”
When most people think of Patti Smith, they think of her breakthrough album, Horses, or her smash-hit, Because the Night. Smith herself has commented that she’s made albums where it seemed like nobody listened. I always took this to include my two favourite Patti Smith albums, 1997’s Peace and Noise and 2000’s Gung Ho – both of which were largely overlooked by the record-buying public. Are there any albums she feels deserved more recognition? “I don’t look at it that way, I look at it as there is a lot to offer on certain albums. I think Trampin’ and Banga… I like Gung Ho very much, too. I like the records that I’ve done later in my life because my improvisational powers, which sort of receded when I didn’t record for 16 years, came back very strongly during these albums. All of these longer songs like Constantine’s Dream or Radio Baghdad, Gung Ho, Ghandi… were all basically improvised in the studio, I’m quite proud of that.
Keeping her finger on the current pulse of music is important to Smith, but she doesn’t fret over trying to be commercial: “I like popular music and I like pop songs. I loved Rihanna’s Stay; I like Skyfall, I like listening to Adele. It’s not one of my skills to write that kind of song, but I think I’ve written some very good lyrics. I would like to see people be more aware of that, but one can never say that something deserves anything. You just think that things are, perhaps, worthy of people checking them out.”
Horses has received just about every accolade a music album can have bestowed upon it: greatest debut album, one of the greatest albums of all time, one of the most influential albums of all time… the list goes on. It is a favourite to millions of people around the world and artists of every genre have tried to imitate it.
Despite all the veneration, even Smith herself can’t explain its enduring popularity. “I can’t really analyse that; these songs were crafted from 1970 to 1975. They were really written, specifically, to communicate with outsiders. An outsider back in the 70s is different from an outsider now. You could have been an outsider because of your sexual persuasion; it could have been the way you dressed or because you wanted to be an artist. It was more of that type of outsider. We live in much tougher times and I think that the outsider is much more far-reaching. In some ways, we’re all outsiders.
“It’s amazing enough, but the album still seems to connect with people. Maybe, because it was written for outsiders and there’s more outsiders than ever.”
Back in the here and now, it’s been six years since Smith’s last studio album, Banga, was released. However, she confirms to me that there are plans for a new studio project. “We’re going to be working on an album this year in the fall. A couple of the songs are already written. I wrote a song in Laugharne, in Wales a while ago; I’ve written a few different songs with my daughter, my son, my band. I wrote a song with Flea. I want to write a song for the Parkland Five kids; there’s a lot in our world to respond to, so I’m sure the album will have a world view.”
At that moment, Patti’s tour manager, Andrew, enters the dressing room. It’s time to compose the evening’s setlist. Just over an hour later, she casually strolls out to a sold-out crowd of 3,400 devotees, with ages ranging from 10 to 70+, and delivers a show with all the fury and energy that would make her 27-year-old self proud. Rock fans must have been torn between seeing the greatest rock and roll band in the world and the queen of punk in the same city – either way, both shows were sell-outs.
Straight after the final encore number, all but bass player Tony Shanahan run straight from the stage and pile into the waiting van, to beat the inevitable crowd. Security do their best to stop the horde of at least 100 fans wasting their time for a star that has already left the building, but the throngs don’t want to miss their chance of meeting their hero. Even when the van returns, empty, many by the stage door don’t give up hope.
Out of sight, I unroll the promotional poster of Peace and Noise I’d asked Patti to sign for me and read the dedication: “To James, peace and noise… may you experience both.”