Patti Smith: The original queen of punk is back

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

She fell silent when her husband died. But at 61, Patti Smith is back – in an intimate documentary about her remarkable life.

Simply glance at Patti Smith and you can tell she's a survivor of a bygone era. The so-called godmother of punk is sitting in front of me, wearing jeans, black biker boots and a T-shirt with a CND symbol and the word "Love" underneath it. But at 61, the woman who cut her seminal debut album Horses back in 1975 is busier than ever. Five albums in the past 13 years says as much. If her long twists of hair, more grey than brown now, falling over that thin, angular face give her a haunted look, she's anything but a rock'n'roll fossil. "I still feel healthy and strong," she says. "I don't drink or smoke and that keeps my voice strong."

That she has a glass of red wine next to her on the table might seem at odds with this statement. But given that Smith lived through New York in the 1970s, when drug abuse was rife, the odd afternoon tipple feels like a happy compromise. Often dubbed "the female Mick Jagger", she still possesses the same wiry physique and explosive stage energy that drew such comparisons. And even now, she revels in being likened to her pop idol. "You can't imagine ... me being this skinny, weird kid from New Jersey, who saw The Rolling Stones in 1965 in a high school gymnasium, never thinking ever that I'd be performing, to a handful of years later being compared to him."

Still, not unlike Jagger, Smith is a music industry veteran now, whether she likes it or not. Last year, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an institution she initially opposed. "I didn't think we should have one," she shrugs. Eventually, she relented and embraced it. "When I was invited, I decided there's only two things I can do: to not accept it, or accept it completely ... and it meant so much to people. And I was proud. Rock'n'roll has always meant too much to me and to be recognised by an institution that has acknowledged Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley, it is an honour. It's a man-made honour but it is an honour and I'm proud of it."

Perhaps a greater tribute to Smith, though, can be found in her new film, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, which receives its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this month. An intimate confessional, guided by Smith's own hypnotic voiceover, it chiefly covers her re-emergence on to the music scene since the shock death of her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, former guitarist with proto-punk band MC5. They had met shortly before the release of Smith's 1979 album Wave, and spent most of the following 15 years in semi-retirement, living in Michigan and raising their two children, Jackson and Jesse (now in their twenties and accomplished musicians). When her husband died of a heart attack in 1994, followed swiftly by the death of her brother Todd, Smith was devastated. Enter old friend, REM singer Michael Stipe, who helped Smith financially and encouraged her to "re-enter the world", as she puts it. He also introduced her to photographer Steven Sebring, who suggested he film her at his own expense. "He had no real plan," says Smith. "He just wanted to do it. And if we didn't want to do anything with it, I could have them as home movies of my children, places we went, political rallies ... we just hung around for the next 10 or 11 years."

Eventually, Dream of Life emerged from the hours of footage, though Smith was keen that the film eschewed the traditional talking heads format. "I just wanted it to be life, filtered through Steven," she says. A film filled with loss and love, in many ways, it's a tribute to those around Smith, rather than the other way round. Her husband's influence can be keenly felt. Even the title is a reference to her 1988 album of the same name, "the last big work we did with each other", according to Smith. "My husband always liked to have a say in things, so I thought he would like that his title was used for the movie. It just seemed like the right thing."

Old friends like Dylan, are also acknowledged, and Smith's showing us a guitar Dylan used to play around her apartment, makes it clear how important he was to her. After Stipe and poet Allen Ginsberg, another old friend, convinced her to go back out on the road, it was Dylan who gave her the chance on his 1995/96 tour. "He really wanted me to perform. He thought it was important after the death of my husband to reconnect with the people," she says. Every night she'd sing "Dark Eyes" with Dylan on stage. "It did a lot to help rebuild my confidence. One has to believe in oneself, but it doesn't hurt to have Bob Dylan believing in you, too."

While contributions from Bono, Stipe and Radiohead's Thom Yorke, threaten to turn the film into a more traditional puff piece, it's the private moments that make the film stand out. Take the scene where playwright Sam Shepard comes to visit and enjoys a jam with her. They've known each other since Smith performed – for one night only – in Shepard's Cowboy Mouth (a play that called for the female lead to look "like a crow"). That was 1971, the same year she first teamed up with her long-time guitarist Lenny Kaye, generating a raw sound that would influence the punk movement, yet even now Smith finds it hard to see herself in those terms.

"I'm not a real musician," she says. "I don't really play any instruments. A little guitar and I sing ... I'm more of a performer. I started as a painter and a poet. So my self-identity isn't as a musician. It's more as a writer. When I withdrew from music in 1979, and went to Michigan, we lived very quietly. Our kids had no idea that we did anything, except be mom and dad and read a lot. I was always reading, studying and writing. So my children had an image of me always with my nose in a book. They had no sense that I did this. I had to talk to them about it when I went back. Still, they don't identify with me as a rock'n'roll star. I'm their mom."

Given the film's candid and cathartic feel, it's no surprise that Smith recently staged her own exhibition in Paris, Land 250, which consisted of Super-8 films, photographs, drawings, notebooks, installations, recordings, spanning the last 30 years of her life. Look carefully, and you'll even see a stone taken from the river where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, typical of Smith's literary obsessions, which also include visionary poets William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud. The day we meet, she's just been to Bertolt Brecht's grave to commune with him and leave some Dream of Life promotional badges. "If you open your mind and listen, anybody will talk to you," she notes.

Witness her account of "speaking" to her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer who died of Aids in 1989. "I've seen him sitting in a chair," she says, "and I've had a conversation with him. It's not like we're talking, like this, but it might happen like a dream." Next month sees the release of The Coral Sea, a musical rendering of her 1996 poem paying homage to Mapplethorpe, who took the iconic shot of her for the Horses cover. With the album recorded at two separate London shows, backed by My Bloody Valentine founder Kevin Shields, that Smith is also planning a book on the man indicates just what he meant to her.

It might seem like Smith is finally giving back to those around her, to say thanks and even make amends. "The only things I regret are if I wasn't always a good daughter or if I hurt my siblings' feelings or wasn't always a good friend," she says. "Those are things I have to live with, and try to be a better person." Back in 2004, on the album Trampin' – which also featured "Radio Baghdad", one of the first protest songs about Iraq – Smith paid tribute to her mother, Beverly, a former jazz singer, who had died two years earlier. In Dream of Life, the most touching footage sees her spend quality time with her father, Grant, a former employee at US industrial giant, Honeywell.

What emerges when meeting Smith is a woman of resolve, one who has refused to buckle despite the tragedies. "I don't have any regrets in terms of how I've conducted my life," she says. "I've always respected my life and I'm not a self-destructive person." These days, she even refuses to licence her songs for movies if "they're portraying young people snorting lines of cocaine". Her only vice now is to be too self-absorbed. "Even now, I never feel like I can give to my friends and co-workers as much as they give to me. I'm just lucky."

'Patti Smith: Dream of Life' screens at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 21 and 22 June (0131-623 8030;; 'The Coral Sea' is out on 7 July on Cargo

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future