Patti Smith: The original queen of punk is back

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

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