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Patti Smith interview: 'My ambition is to write a great, great book'

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe at Coney Island, New York in 1969
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe at Coney Island, New York in 1969 Credit: Patti Smith Archive/Just Kids: Illustrated Edition / Bloomsbury 2019

Patti Smith was 16 years old when she first set eyes on the love of her life. “He was very beautiful,” she tells me, speaking down the phone from Chicago. “He was sort of a French version of a young Bob Dylan.”

The singer saw that beautiful face at a book stall in a Philadelphia bus depot, staring out from the cover of a 99-cent paperback: Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud.

“I didn’t have any money, so I pocketed it,” she says, laughing. “I stole Rimbaud! And that’s how we met. It was a stolen moment.” It was also the start of a lifelong obsession.

“At the factory where I had laboured with a hard-edged, illiterate group of women, I was harassed in [Rimbaud’s] name,” Smith writes in her newly reissued 2010 memoir Just Kids. “Suspecting me of being a Communist for reading a book in a foreign language, they threatened me in the john, prodding me to denounce him… It was for him that I wrote and dreamed. He became my archangel, delivering me from the mundane horrors of factory life.”

Having learnt about the 19th-century poet’s life – how he had run away, penniless, from his provincial home, to join the Parisian demi-monde – Smith, a young writer from New Jersey, took a similar leap of faith. “It gave me the courage to go off myself and not be afraid,” she says. “When I went to New York City I had no money, no prospects, no one was waiting for me there.”

Patti Smith in Coney Island, September 1, 1969 Credit: Patty Smith Archive/Just Kids: Illustrated Edition / Bloomsbury 2019

Just Kids vividly describes her intense relationships with the men she met after arriving in Manhattan in 1967 – first the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and later the playwright Sam Shepard. But both, at times, played second-fiddle to her long-dead first love.

In the book, Smith recalls begging Mapplethorpe and Shepard to give her money to visit Ethiopia, after she had a recurring dream of finding a lost Rimbaud manuscript there in a leather case buried beside a Frankincense tree. The trip never happened. “Robert was appalled at the idea,” Smith writes. “He succeeded in convincing Sam that I would get lost, kidnapped, or be eaten alive by wild hyenas.”

Smith’s dream was not quite as improbable as it sounds. Although most people associate Rimbaud with his teenage years as the scourge of Paris – he stopped writing poems aged 20 – Smith was fascinated by a shadowy period later in his life when, in the 1880s, he became one of the first Europeans to settle in Harar, Ethiopia (then Abyssinia), selling guns and coffee, and unsuccessfully pitching photo-stories to the newly founded National Geographic magazine. It followed a tempestuous few years in which he had joined (then deserted) the Dutch Army, explored the jungles of Java and become a quarry-worker in Cyprus.

Arthur Rimbaud in Ethiopia, 1883 Credit: Rex

“Oh arthur arthur, we are in Abyssinia Aden making love”, Smith wrote in her ecstatic 1973 poem “Dream of Rimbaud”. Her second album, Radio Ethiopia, ended with a track called Abyssinia inspired by Rimbaud’s melancholy final telegram, sent just before his death in France, aged 37, in which he describes how he longs to return to Harar. For Smith, it rates among his most moving writing, and proves he never lost his youthful poetic talent. “He didn’t stop writing; the body of letters that he wrote contained many poetic elements,” she says. “They’re beautifully written. I think there was poetry in his travel… To me, that [telegram] was like his last poem.”

Given her enduring affection for Rimbaud, it’s fair to say Smith’s new album Mummer Love is the record she has been waiting a lifetime to make. It sets her readings of Rimbaud’s poems to field recordings made in Ethiopia as well as hypnotic new music by Philip Glass and others. It is the latest in a series of collaborations with the experimental music group Soundwalk Collective, which began when Smith found herself making small-talk with a stranger on a plane, who turned out to be Soundwalk’s founder Stephan Crasneanscki.

At 72, Smith is aware that her long-dreamed-of trip to Ethiopia might now be too “gruelling” for her, “but that’s the beauty of working with Stephan – he is a hard traveller. He goes to these sacred mountains and deserts in the heart of Ethiopia… he presents me with a landscape, a soundscape, where Rimbaud has trod. We’re a good team: I’m doing the mental travelling, and he’s doing the physical travelling.”

'Angel with sleeves of blue hair': a 1972 tribute to Rimbaud by Patti Smith Credit: Patti Smith Archive/Just Kids: Illustrated Edition / Bloomsbury 2019

The bohemian New York of the Seventies that Smith describes in Just Kids today feels almost as remote as Rimbaud’s Abyssinia. “Back then I was the young poet, and all my friends were alive,” she writes in a new foreword. “Today the city is populated with benevolent ghosts.”

“Benevolent ghosts” also haunt Smith’s latest book, Year of the Monkey, her magical realist memoir of 2016, “a challenging year. My friend Sam Shepard was negotiating the effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Sandy [Pearlman, her former manager] was in a coma, these were two great friends of mine that I had for almost half a century.” Both have since died.

Does Smith ever wonder about how she will be remembered after her death? “I’m just hoping that I’ll stay healthy and live a long time so I can keep doing better work. I’m not really worried about my legacy, I’m worried about right now.”

Nonetheless, she does have one eye on posterity: “The ambition of my life is to write a great, great book… something that’s my contribution to the world, or the canon of literature. I still feel like I can do that.”

Smith doesn’t listen to much new music these days, besides the “very interesting” 17-year-old singer Billie Eilish. “I’m still listening to Hendrix, to My Bloody Valentine, to Coltrane. I’ve been listening a lot to anime soundtracks – like Ghost in the Shell – and some Moroccan music. I like to listen to music I can write to.”

It clearly helps; Smith is writing more now than at any time since the Seventies – Year of the Monkey is her seventh book this decade. “Young people,” she tells me, a note of pride in her voice, “used to bring records to my shows – now they bring books.”

Mummer Love and Year of the Monkey are out now. Just Kids: Illustrated Edition is published by Bloomsbury 
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