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What does Arthur Rimbaud, the 'enfant terrible' of French symbolism, have in common with Patti Smith?

Andy Gill
Thursday 18 October 2007 00:00 BST

Most people's minds, as they enter their sixties, probably turn to thoughts of retirement and a sedate glide along the gentle lower slopes of life's piste. Not so Patti Smith, whose career is progressing at a pace unequalled since her Seventies heyday when, as rock's premier poetess, she served as errant godmother to the burgeoning punk movement.

This year has already seen a CD of instructive cover versions, a book of photographs of artists' materials, various performances, including a headline appearance at the first Women's Arts International Festival in Kendal, and her induction into the Rock'*'Roll Hall of Fame (as its least commercially successful inductee); and, on Saturday evening, at the Shepherds Bush Empire, she is to present Rock'*'Rimbaud, a celebration in words and music of the French symbolist poet's birthday, ahead of concerts in Oxford and Cambridge. Busy, busy, busy! It's certainly not what one might expect from a lifelong anti-establishment bohemian – but then, Smith is no more your average bohemian than she is your average mother of two, eschewing over-indulgence in drink and drugs, and a firm believer in the kind of work ethic that would bring most late-rising poet-philosophers out in hives.

"When I was younger, I used to love to smoke a little pot and play the clarinet," she tells me. "Then one day my husband said: 'You should do that without smoking pot'. I said: 'It helps me relax and play better.' He said, 'No it doesn't! Never think that a drug informs your work – it might inform your libido, but the work comes from within.' I've found that to be true. These romantic aspects of the artist, or the poet or musician, have their place, but every real artist, poet or musician will tell you that the way they get to where they're going is through hard work, and often that's something people don't want to apply themselves to."

The road of excess may, for some, lead to the palace of wisdom, but Patti Smith has pursued a more ascetic route – not as scenic, maybe, though more likely to ensure arrival at her destination.

"That's an individual thing, and it's also relative," she continues, adding: "For me, the road of excess might be drinking six cups of coffee! I do know that too much excess does not produce work. I'm not fascistically anti drugs and alcohol, because obviously it's nice to have a little saki or hashish, but it's not really how one accesses the imagination. It can be a tool, but when that tool starts to master you, you'll lose touch with your craft."

When touring, instead of the dissipation routinely employed by musicians to stave off the boredom of life on the road, she prefers to find inspiration in other ways, by exploring the history, art and architecture of the places she visits. "If I'm in a small Irish village and there's nothing to do, if I make a little effort, I might find where Yeats was buried," she explains. "There's always some interesting pursuit, always ways of creating a creative atmosphere around oneself, other than drugs."

Which rather adds a veneer of mystery to her fascination with Rimbaud, whose shockingly bad behaviour and dissolute lifestyle saw the young poet barred from every bohemian salon and watering-hole in Paris: well, how would you like it if your poetry reading was interrupted by the drunken upstart in the corner shouting "Shit!" after every line?

What is it about Rimbaud that so captivates Patti Smith?

"If he had been living in our time, he would have been on the Mount Olympus of rock gods along with Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan and people like that," she believes, "because he had all the components: he was experimental, irreverent but spiritual, a visionary. Brilliant, but divided about his brilliance, he both wanted people to comprehend his work, yet at the same time he held these same people in complete contempt – that same schism that was in Kurt Cobain. And certainly he was visually appealing – when I was 16, I thought he was beautiful, he served well as an imaginary boyfriend!

"He's very Bob-Dylan-like, he has that urgent, dark look in his eye, where you feel like he could cut a hole in your heart. So he appeals on all those levels. And of course, his work is so beautiful, it goes from cruel beauty to exquisite beauty.

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"When I was 16, he appealed to me, and at this time of my life, I'm still learning from him."

Hence the Rock'*'Rimbaud celebrations, which she has held intermittently on the poet's birthday since 1972.

"Wherever I happen to be in the world, when I get the opportunity to perform on his birthday, I like to centre the night around his songs and poems," she explains. "It'll be a rock'*'roll show, but with things I've written that resonate around him. There's certain works I did when, whether or not Rimbaud is referenced in them, he was in my mind, such as 'Piss Factory', 'Radio Ethiopia', 'Land', and 'Easter'; and I was thinking of doing a music improvisation of one of his poems, though I'm still deciding which one it will be. I like 'The Drunken Boat'..."

Which, coincidentally, I interject, is exactly the poem at which my very own Complete Works of Rimbaud happens to be open at this moment.

"Really?", she enthuses. "I take that as a sign! I have been thinking for two days about this, and wasn't sure which of seven pieces I should choose, and whilst talking to you, 'The Drunken Boat' was the first one that came to mind, so I think we had a little telepathy going there. Perhaps that's the one I should do, because that's the way I often make up my mind, through these serendipitous moments that can give me a little sign."

Glad to be of service. But wasn't Rimbaud something of a monster, an apostate who ultimately disdained his own work and set off on a subsequent career as a trader in guns, and even slaves? Doesn't that tarnish his reputation, such as it is?

"Although obviously I abhor slavery, I think he was a product of his times," she reflects. "And in his times, black men traded each other, it was a very evil part of life in that very wild and open country, and civilisation as we know it was not the same there. It's terrible and morally questionable, but I don't think it was a principal thing in his life, just a passing thing. Why I love Arthur Rimbaud is not because he was a princely fellow: I love his work.

"As a human being, there were a lot of things wanting, and he didn't live long enough to come full circle and become a better human being. He died aged 37, and although he lived a very full life as an adventurer, and wrote masterpieces at an early age, he did not live a complete life. Had he lived longer, he might have gone through more self-examination, and perhaps returned to writing."

Which is exactly what Smith herself did – apart from the gun-running and slavery, of course. Back in 1979, at the peak of her fame, Patti retreated from the limelight into domestic seclusion, marrying the former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith and retiring with him to the Detroit area to raise their son Jackson and daughter Jesse, only emerging again after her husband's death in 1994. She believes that the period away from the media hubbub of New York only improved her abilities.

"I stopped recording in 1979, and started again in my forties, and have now made more records in this period of my life than I did in the Seventies," she says. "And even though Horses had its own impact, the lyric strength of my last few records far surpasses anything I did in the Seventies. It's a matter of experience: I still feel some of the irreverence and agitation I had when I was 20 years old, but I've been through a lot more things, I've studied more, and I have a lot more facility with language now. My mental facilities, and the strength of my voice, are far superior to my younger self's.

"I think when we're young we have that adolescent will and fervour that is meant for that period of our life – our universe is much smaller, and we're more self-concerned. But when we've had children and gone through things, we tend to become more compassionate, and less concerned with our own situation and more concerned with the global situation. Hopefully."

Born in Chicago in 1946, Smith was brought up in New Jersey, before moving to New York in 1967 following the epiphanic experience recounted in her first single "Piss Factory", which described how the anger and boredom of work on a factory assembly-line was ameliorated by encountering Rimbaud's poetry in a stolen copy of his Illuminations. In New York, she met and befriended the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photo of an androgynous Smith became the iconic cover shot of her debut album in 1975.

By that time, she had already secured a few valuable credits as co-writer of songs on Blue Oyster Cult's early albums, and had become a multi-tasking fixture of the downtown bohemian art scene as variously painter, poet, and occasional actress – including playing a role that called for "a woman who looks like a crow" in her friend Sam Shepard's Cowboy Mouth.

But she became most famous as a performing poet/musician with the release of Horses, one of the definitive debut albums in rock'*'roll. Where most singer-songwriters with poetic pretensions, routinely dubbed "new Dylans ", painted themselves into dull corners through their prolixity and formal approach, Smith's poeticism was channeled through the thrilling viscerality of her band's semi-improvised arrangements, which often took a rock-historical landmark such as "Gloria" or "Land of a Thousand Dances" as the starting-point for a dervish whirl into unknown territory. The results, for all her androgynous, asexual appearance, brought an innovative, daring new approach to the representation of female sexuality in pop.

Patti Smith's Rock'n'Rimbaud celebration is at Shepherds Bush Empire on Saturday

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