The poet, writer, performer, ground-breaker, wife, mother, traveller, photographer and hero to thousands who prefers to be called Patti rather than Ms Smith - as I found out - will probably not be in Australia as planned now.
As you’ll find out in this interview, even if music festivals and large gigs were not being shut down left and right, that move makes perfect sense for the 73-year-old in the age of covid-19.
Not that Patti Smith has always taken the safe or sensible route, but this time it is not even be her decision, as the government and medical announcements over the weekend mean major events such as Bluesfest had to be called off. We wait to see if the literary event she was to participate in also is called off.
Of course, the disappointment will not just be for those who missed out on her last tour, which was billed as her farewell, and thought to make up for that now. This will hurt her too.
In the first part of a two-part interview, the American who has become a lover of life on the road, and of capturing it not just in prose but now in photography, talks about what pulls her to other lands, and how, away from the cameras and the clichés, she made a deep connection with this country last time.
And yes, in case it isn’t clear as you read, this interview took place before the coronavirus wreaked havoc. So, maybe in lieu of actually seeing her, read on.
In 2017, when Patti Smith was last in Australia, we thought it was the last time. The final chance to see the literary and musical force of nature who emerged in the artistic uprising through the New York scene of the early ‘70s.
But then her 2020 tour was announced, including performing at the Bluesfest in Byron, and this one was probably going to be it. Maybe. But why stop now? Why stop at all?
“Partially because I just turned 73, I’ve been winding down my long tours,” says Smith. “But also I have been experiencing bronchial difficulties and being on a long flight is very difficult for me, and takes me a long time to recover. I did arrive a little unwell last time so I was concerned about it, but it was such a great experience and I figured out ways for what I can do to better prepare myself for the flight and get there are a little early, and rest.”
It’s more than some obligation though. And less than a plan.
“I don’t know, I just felt a calling to go. After our [last] tour I went to Uluru, which was a dream of mine, and when I came back I felt like it would be so great to come one more time with no specific agenda, just a little more abandon, and see what happens.”
Most of us who are glad to hear this would probably also feel a little guilty as we probably just want her to keep touring until we go.
“I was a little worried because I didn’t want to seem hypocritical,” says Smith. “I thought it would be my last time, I didn’t feel like I could make such a trip again. But I feel very sturdy. I am a very sturdy person, it’s just some issues, and I am in good health and I feel like if I don’t do it now, then I won’t be able to.
“And also it was also such a special time. People were so welcoming everywhere I went and I came back so rejuvenated, I was so inspired by visiting Uluru, and Australia has been on all of our minds with the trials that you’ve had with fires and flooding. We are very connected to what’s happening in your country and care deeply.”
Fulfilling that long-held desire to see Uluru wasn’t enough. Smith took the opportunity to visit the rock four times. What did it offer her?
“I went every morning and every night. That’s all I went for. After the band left I went there and it was a transforming experience. I felt reconnected as deeply as possible with our origins, with nature. Even cyclically,” she says. “It’s a place of dreams, it’s such an ancient place and it’s almost like the air has its own language. I have great respect for it, I would never go on it or step on it, I just wanted to be near it.
“Also the landscape’s just haunting. I come from southern New Jersey which is a very scrubby landscape, by the sea, and [Uluru] has some of that scrubbiness, in the best possible way, of bushes and cactus and sand and the red land and the red dust. I came home with red dust all over my boots and like a person that doesn’t want to wash their hands after they shake the hand of somebody special, I didn’t want to clean my boots. There is still a little bit of red on one of them.”
Smith goes on to say that she felt at total peace in the shadow of Uluru, as if everything else became abstract except for the natural world around her.
“And not just nature as we see it, but down into the roots that go into the earth. It was quite an experience.”
While that trip to the centre of Australia resonated deeply, it is not an extreme reaction for Smith. The connections she makes through her travels are clearly very important, as can be told from her writings, her talks, and even her Instagram account.
It’s worth remembering she grew up picturing a world, particularly Europe, and especially the lives of poets and writers, from a small and distant corner of that world. Does it still thrill her that she has a place in the world, a level of success and comfort that that means she can pretty much take herself to wherever she wants and experience whatever she wants, and make these connections still?
“When I was young I always wanted to travel, and I always wanted to write. I never thought about singing or performing. Ironically it was singing and performing that took me all over the world and I saw so many of the places I dreamed of,” says Smith. “Now, through my books I’m able to travel as much as I want as well. I’m welcomed and invited to come all over the world as a writer. That was my greatest dream.
“I never tire of going into a cathedral and seeing a great work of art, or seeing a natural wonder, walking down the street that a great poet walked down. These things still give me great joy.”
That joy is so evident in her work with her Instagram for example offering a palpable sense of life being grabbed and enjoyed. But also of her giving out love. Her generosity of spirit is as undimmed as her enthusiasm for life.
It’s incredible that even through the great losses through her late adult life in particular and the more demanding impacts on her physically, that that enthusiasm and love for life is still so strong. It’s almost as if she’s giving back some of that love.
“I think I magnify my parents, and magnify my children and friends. It’s funny, what you just said is probably the kindest thing that someone could say but funny enough I’m not particularly social so I pretty much am a loner,” she says, laughing.
“So for me the love of the people, the love of human beings, is a lot like prayer: in some ways it’s abstract. The best way that I can commune with people is in an abstract way because all of the things that I write and say to them, I feel.”
Which makes, in some sense, Instagram a perfect late career vehicle, another facet of her art. She can share, she can be intimate, she can be educative and excited, but at an abstract.
“Exactly. I never was part of social media and I still don’t really engage with anything else like Facebook and Twitter. I started Instagram because my daughter suggested it might be the best way to curtail the fact that I had many people that were not me saying they were me [online]. I didn’t know much about how it was done but I thought, well, say something, give the people a visual that they might appreciate, and say hello.”
It's a lot more evolved and involved now than that of course. But the spirit remains the same as it’s always been for this poet and singer.
“In the last year and a half or two years it’s evolved to a place where I think about it. I’ll be walking down the street, the light looks a certain way, a certain building looks beautiful, and I’ll take a picture specifically to give to the people and say something about it,” says Smith.
“I am thinking about them. I don’t know who ‘them’ is, but whoever stops by and looks at a picture and reads a caption, my thoughts are, as you said, abstractly with those people.”
Tomorrow, in part 2: Patti Smith puts family and work in order and proportion, and talks of heroes and the lessons learned.
Patti Smith was to have played: Bluesfest, Byron Bay, April 9-13; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, April 15-16; Newcastle, Entertainment Centre, April 18; The Forum, Melbourne, April 21-23.
Patti Smith was due to be in conversation with Paul Kelly at Sydney Town Hall on April 8.