Bold questions: Patti Smith

Punk poet, National Book Awardee.

Just Kids, the account of your friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, just won the National Book Award. Was it conceived as a more conventional memoir?
No. The day before Robert died, he asked me to write our story. We both knew he was dying, and he knew that I would continue doing things in his name. It took me a long time. I was raising two children, and to immerse myself in a book that ultimately ends with loss.... I just wasn't able to do that, emotionally.

I decided to make it more cinematic [in narrative] to make certain that it would be a book that Robert might like to read. Robert was not an avid reader.

The book is full of very specific details about long ago. Were you an avid diary keeper?
I had daily journals—small teenage-style diaries that my mother used to give me every year for my birthday, because my birthday is right near New Year's Eve. I could see what Robert and I did almost every day from '69 to '72. I knew what day I gave him his haircuts, what day I met Janis Joplin, the day we moved out of one room and into another at the Chelsea Hotel...and also how much everything cost. [Laughs] You know, five cents for coffee, 25 cents for a pack of cigarettes, five subway tokens for a dollar.

Both of you are portrayed as artists in search of mediums.
Well, we were really young. At 20, if you're not searching, you must be a prodigy. People don't realize how Robert was evolving at the end of his life—and was planning to evolve again. He wasn't going to be simply a photographer for the rest of his life.

The book details a period before you were well-known, but even then you were hobnobbing with big names.
Well, it wasn't the same celebrity culture that we live in now. No one acted any different. Salvador Dal swept in and—wow!—it was Salvador Dal. But except for part of the Warhol contingent, fame was not the ultimate prize. The ultimate prize was to make change. In the Chelsea Hotel, whether it was Janis Joplin or Allen Ginsberg, we were all staying in the same place. The more successful people just had bigger rooms.

In January, you're reading at the 92nd Street Y. Have you followed the Steve Martin debacle at all?
I find it so appalling. The 92nd Street Y is a nice place and has history, but you get paid almost nothing to do something there. It doesn't give them the right to dictate what the speaker talks about.

But I can shift gears in a minute. If people call out that they want something different, I might immediately give them what they want, or I might tell them to go fuck themselves. But you can't ignore them. What are we onstage for? We're onstage to communicate.

You're about to play your 13th annual Bowery Ballroom end-of-year shows. How was your 2010?
At the end of 2009, I told the [audience] at Bowery Ballroom that it was my gut feeling that we were going to have a hard year. Economically, environmentally...and I felt that Obama would have a hard year negotiating being President. But I decided that I was going to embrace life and work and try to be happy. I've had a lot of personal challenges, but I kept my promise. I was happy to finish the book that I promised Robert.

You recently became Meg White's mother-in-law. Do you ever find yourself falling into classic mother-in-law clichs?
Oh, no no no. I'm not a classic mother-in-law. She's a wonderful girl. They know I love them, and I'm there if they need me, but I don't pry into their life. I'm not the kind of mother-in-law who would go into somebody's house and start looking to see what the cooking was like. [Pause] And she's probably a much better housekeeper than I am.

Smith plays Bowery Ballroom Wed 29--Dec 31.

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