She is working toward a third act as a novelist, and her new book, Year of the Monkey, blends fact and fiction.
The more Patti Smith rips her French audience, the more they love her.
She tells the crowd at the Olympia music hall that they should show more appreciation for their beleaguered president because at least he cares about the environment.
There were scattered boos at the mention of President Emmanuel Macron, and Smith isn't having it. With her South Jersey accent gloriously intact, she lets loose.
"You should have Trump as your president," she tells the pack of Parisians. "Then you'd know what it's like to wake up every day with a president who doesn't give a" — and here Smith uses one of several vulgarities — "about living things, about trees, about animals, about the air we breathe or the water we drink."
She rocks them with People Have the Power ("The people have the power/ To redeem the world of fools"), periodically spitting on the stage, and Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, her wavy silver hair hanging in her face as she fiercely plays guitar and howls, "Look at Mother Nature on the run/ In the 21st century."
Smith drolly informs the audience that they should be applauding more when she name checks Sly Stone. "If I was in the audience and somebody mentioned Sly, I would go out of my mind," she says. (She has said she learned to spar with audiences by watching Johnny Carson.)
The next night, as she gets ready to sing My Blakean Year, she is disappointed by the tepid applause that greets her dedication of her song to "the great ranks of the unappreciated," including Vincent van Gogh.
"You know what?" she taunts. "If you're only going to give him a lame response, don't respond at all, because in his lifetime, he didn't sell a painting so he doesn't need a few accolades. Either he needs all or nothing 'cause that's all he ever had."
Wearing her tour uniform of black Ann Demeulemeester jacket and vest, old black dungarees, black Jimmy Choo motorcycle boots, an Electric Lady T-shirt and her St. Francis tau cross, Smith reminds her bewitched fans that the date of her first sold-out Paris concert, August 26, is the 49th anniversary of the founding of Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village. She tells how she met Hendrix there once when he was leaving a party.
"All I can say is," she says with a grin, "he was really cute." The crowd goes wild, screaming "Pah-teee!!!" and sparking lighters. (Yes, they still have lighters.) She blows kisses back. The punk poet laureate is no longer scrawny and her dark hair is gray, but she is every inch the glam "gothic crow" Salvador Dalí once described her as.
She is thrilled to be in the land of her literary heroes Genet, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. At 16, working in a nonunion factory inspecting handlebars for tricycles, an experience immortalised in her protopunk song Piss Factory, she shoplifted a book about Rimbaud and made him her imaginary boyfriend because she felt she wasn't attractive enough to get a real one.
When a man yells "Read some poetry, Pah-tee!" Smith offers an epic hippie-chick response: "It's all poetry, mannn!"
The men in her life
When Smith strolls with her band down the Rue des Capucines to her hotel, Parisians tumble out all along the block to applaud her.
She gazes back at them with a mystical smile, looking, as Rolling Stone once described her, like "a charismatic sect leader who has convinced her followers that she alone has the secret of life."
Jimmy Iovine, who produced her biggest hit, in 1977, Because the Night, a collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, says her fire still burns bright at 72.
"Patti is a magical, magical, magical woman," he says. "What's missing today in music is everything that she brought as a voice to the world since she burst on the scene as a younger contemporary to Dylan."
"The real Renaissance woman," as Iovine calls her, also has a book out this month: Year of the Monkey, a picaresque voyage through her dreams and life as she faced 70, dealing with flashes of "sorrow's vertigo" as she remembers all the loves and rock contemporaries who are gone, with a kaleidoscope of references, from Mr. Robot to Marcus Aurelius to Martin Beck mysteries to Maria Callas' Medea.
She believes that when people close to you die, you absorb what you most admire in them. "It's like they leave a little gift," she says.
Blending fiction and reality, she writes poignantly about her "sense of everyone gone," and her trips to see her old flame Sam Shepard in Kentucky and California when he was in a mortal battle with Lou Gehrig's disease. She slept on couches and helped him edit his last two books.
We have a three-hour lunch at a bistro next to Smith's hotel. She has no airs — she washes her clothes in the hotel sink — and is polite to everyone, giving our waitress a ticket to her concert. She is wearing another Electric Lady T-shirt ("I don't like the new feeling so I keep recycling them"), this time with silk butterfly pants and some men's black Versace sandals that her daughter, Jesse, got her.
"I don't have to look nice for anybody," she says. "I feel like at my age I can do whatever I want, pretty much, as long as I don't hurt anybody and that includes dressing the way I want, everywhere I go."
She pulls up her pant leg to show me the lightning bolt tattoo on her knee that she got from an Australian artist when she was living in the Chelsea Hotel, at the same time Shepard got a crescent moon.
"I remember once in 1970 or something, I was such a scraggly thing, but I was in this bar waiting for him and he was late," she says. "And some guy, and he was a big guy, kept bugging me, semi-hitting on me. I just told him to leave me alone. Sam walked in and he just walked up, took the guy by the scruff of the neck and the guy went right up the bar, just like in the movies. And Sam wasn't a movie star then. He was just a guy."
I asked why the two split, after appearing in a play they wrote about themselves called Cowboy Mouth. "Well, he was married and he had a child and it was sad, but it was just the right thing to do," she says.
I wonder if she was surprised when Shepard made it big as a leading man in Hollywood. "No, because first of all he was a really great actor in plays and theater," she says. "He had a magnetism. He was one of the most handsomest guys you would ever see, more even in person than in film. But that isn't even what I liked about him, which was funny because it was so obvious that he was so handsome. People were just drawn to him.'"
I noted that Robert Mapplethorpe had charisma, too.
"Well, Robert was totally different," she says. "Robert was very shy. I met Robert when he was 20 and we were both wallflowers, but he was even more awkward than me. The beautiful thing about our relationship and what saved it for all the years is, it was based more on how we believed in each other when no one else believed in us, our trust in one another and respect for one another." She adds that Mapplethorpe "mourned that we didn't have children before the end of his life."
Asked about recent criticism that the photographer's images, so taboo in the 1970s and '80s, were no longer shocking and played into sexual stereotypes about black men, Smith offered a passionate defense: "They're overthinking. They're overanalysing. Robert was not analytical. He was all visual. And when he was taking a photograph, it was because that is what he found beauty in."
Referring to Mapplethorpe's death of AIDS in 1989, she adds: "Robert only lived till he was 42 years old and was a late bloomer. His work really only spanned less than two decades and not even that, because the first years, when we were together in semipoverty, was without him having the tools to do the things he wanted to do. I've done my best work, really, my most important work, from the ages of maybe 57 to now."
I ask why she didn't participate in the recent film Mapplethorpe, starring Matt Smith, who played Prince Philip in The Crown, even though she was a major character. "People cannot only portray you," Smith says. "They can make stuff up."
She was not enamored of the famous Saturday Night Live impersonation, with Gilda Radner playing Candy Slice, clearly based on Smith, as a drunk and drug-addled screaming banshee with hairy armpits.
"I liked Gilda Radner," Smith says. "The only difficult thing was, it was very heavy cocaine oriented, which I didn't indulge in. I think I had taken acid with Robert once. It was '77 or '78. I had tried coke once or twice. I don't deny. I'm just saying that, one, who had the money for that stuff? And two, I like being in control of myself. I'm very happy with who I am."
Smith doesn't have any publicist or personal assistant or makeup artist with her. And her rock-star contract rider asks only for peanut butter, brown bread, ginger, lemon and honey. She supplements that with a small plastic container of flaxseeds that her daughter has packed for her. After her show, she surfs the adrenaline, ignoring the bottle of Champagne on ice by the makeup mirror. She has the occasional tequila shot or sake but says she has never overindulged, in part because she was a sickly kid.
"I don't recant"
Her previous memoirs, both New York Times bestsellers, were Just Kids, her luminous reminiscence about her New York romance with Mapplethorpe in the 1960s, and M Train, about the period after she moved back to New York from Detroit, where she dropped out just as she was breaking out, shocking the music world.
She moved to St. Clair, Michigan, north of Detroit, to marry musician Fred Smith, known as Sonic, and spent 16 years there, raising their two children, writing some unpublished novels. She worked with her husband to make her voice less nasal; he taught her to play the clarinet and they did one album together, Dream of Life. The couple lived simply and supported themselves mostly on the royalties from Because the Night.
"It was 1979, and all I saw in my future was a series of tours, concerts, interviews, videos, fancy cars," she recalls. "I wasn't doing any art. I wasn't writing. It's such a stressful life and you find yourself getting more demanding about things that you never were demanding about, like, 'Why isn't my car here?'"
I ask about the feminist criticism about her semiretirement.
"Yeah, they got really upset with me, like I broke some kind of bond," she says. "I left the world of rock 'n' roll. I left my so-called career, you know, fame and fortune. But what I did do is, I saved myself as a worker, as a writer and as an evolving human being." (She says that even before that, she had lost out on being featured in a feminist magazine because the writer was dismayed to see her doing a boyfriend's laundry.)
After her husband died, in 1994, she returned to New York, with places in downtown Manhattan and Rockaway Beach, and picked up her career. She still wears her wedding ring and even once bought her husband a mauve iridescent Valentino shirt because she missed him so much and knew he would have loved it.
Smith did not perform her famous 1978 song with the N-word in the title during her tour. Can she still sing it?
"No," she says simply, recalling that when she wrote it more than four decades ago, "I was fighting to take a term that was used in such a defamatory way and to take it as a badge for outsiders, artists, of any gender, any color. So, you know, a task that took a lot of hubris. But an absolutely pure heart. The real important phrase in the song is 'outside of society, that's where I want to be.' I've been asked to recant the song and it's like, I'm not recanting the song. I don't recant anything that I do. I mean, I've done it, I believed in it. It's still to me an awesome song.
"People want to embrace one as the godmother of punk, but her anthem? They don't want that. They want you to go far but not too far." She says the song has been "misconstrued" but she knows that also, "the pain that people feel because of past injustice is real."
"I miss doing it," she says. "But my son, he's opposed to doing it, out of respect to people. So I look at the younger generation and I think, OK I'm living in their time. This is not my time. So, in terms of younger people's time, it's not the right song right now."
She admits that "there's a part of me that's defiant."
"I was like that as a child," she says. "I can't help it. I'm a punk rocker who loves Maria Callas, you know?" But, she adds: "I'm not going to shove it down anybody's throat. It's on a record, if they want to hear it."
She does worry about censorship in the age of cancellation, though. "We're moving more and more back to intense censorship," she says, citing the removal of paintings from museums. "More censorship than people like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and Brancusi were fighting."
On the subject of #MeToo, she looks at the big picture: "I find myself more concerned about the terrible atrocities against women globally. I just think, again, we have to examine what is an atrocity and what is an insult and what is somebody being a pain in the ass."
She gets emotional when I ask her about President Donald Trump turning the so-called Squad into his 2020 foils.
"I felt almost like there was a tape around my ribs and somebody pulled it off and some skin went with it," she says. "All those girls are good people. We are a democracy, and it's all right for them to question how we're dealing with the Gaza Strip and how we're treating the Palestinians. It's not anti-American, it's not anti-Israel. It's the American way."
Weirdly, she says, she encountered Trump when they were young. Mapplethorpe took her to a dinner where a young Trump pitched Trump Tower.
"I didn't know who this guy was, he was with his wife, Ivana, except he was the most obnoxious person I have ever experienced in my life," she says. "All he talked about was how it was going to be the greatest thing ever in New York City and anyone who bought into this was going to be part of the most important thing. Me and Robert left and I thought, 'I wouldn't live in his tower for free.' I can't believe that fate would let that guy. ..." She shudders.
I tell her what Iovine said about his disillusionment with young musicians for not being more political. Indeed, the night before, at the Video Music Awards, Taylor Swift, whose critics have dinged her for staying mostly mum in this era of political outrage, offered some mild, oblique criticism of the president.
"She's a pop star who's under tremendous scrutiny all the time, and one can't imagine what that's like," Smith says sympathetically. "It's unbelievable to not be able to go anywhere, do anything, have messy hair. And I'm sure that she's trying to do something good. She's not trying to do something bad. And if it influences some of her avid fans to open up their thoughts, what does it matter? Are we going to start measuring who's more authentic than who?
"I don't agree that artists and musicians have more responsibility to speak out than anyone else. I think everybody has to be more active. Art is inspiring and art can really bring people together. A song can rally people, but it's not going to make change."
She says she got punished for speaking out against the invasion of Iraq in 2003: "All of a sudden, no radio play, couldn't get into festivals. People, even cool people — I'm sorry to say that, but some people that I really loved and respected and still love and respect — they were so frightened by this infusion of patriotism that they weren't able to see the whole picture. To me, patriotism is just a few steps away from nationalism if you're not careful."
She is not rooting for Joe Biden to be the nominee. "I would rather see a younger person make some mistakes than to have the petrified forest come in," she says.
She doesn't like labels, and she doesn't want to feel hemmed in to any movement. She doesn't like confinement of any kind; it's why she scorns high heels and makeup. She doesn't want to be hailed as the godmother of younger women in rock or a feminist icon or a political activist.
"If they want to call me a writer, an artist, I'm really happy with that, or a mother," she says. "But I don't really need more than that because I don't really qualify."
After her last Paris concert, we hang out in her hotel room at midnight overlooking the Place Vendôme. Her son, Jackson, a guitarist who often plays with her, calls and she tells him how much she loves him.
In her new book, and on Instagram, she has pictures of what she calls her "treasures," eclectic items that she travels with or gathers on her trips. I ask her to make a Polaroid picture of some now.
We sit on her bed as she spreads out her T-shirt, cross, her flaxseeds, her toothbrush, Weleda Salt toothpaste, stones she has gathered along the tour, a vintage photo of Antonin Artaud, a Nicholas Roerich postcard and a book she is reading, The Book of Monelle by Marcel Schwob.
We talk some more about the men she loved, all gone, and she suddenly smiled, radiantly, and says, "I've had some cool boyfriends."
Written by: Maureen Dowd
Photographs by: Andre D. Wagner and Dmitry Kostyukov
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES