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Like the rest of us, Patti Smith is just trying to stay sane

As a new edition of her latest memoir “Year of the Monkey” hits shelves, the godmother of punk reflected on her legendary career and how's she's spending her days amid the global pandemic.
/ Source: TODAY

Unlike some, Patti Smith is still here in New York City.

“I had my bags packed for a world tour,” Smith told TODAY of how the pandemic interrupted her plans.

“My little suitcase is still sitting here, as I travel light. I was supposed to go to Australia, and then into the world. But since lockdown I've been in New York. I know a lot of people were on the move, but this is where I live and I just felt compelled to be here.”

An indomitable force of expression, the 73-year-old poet and musician has worked across various mediums during her lifetime, overcoming great challenges at the same time.

But in these difficult days, along with writing and other work, the godmother of punk is finding solace in a genre that might be surprising to some: detective shows.

“I really do like watching my shows on TV,” Smith said. “Like today there's a ‘CSI: Miami’ marathon with Horatio Caine. And so that happens on Mondays, and I always watch a few episodes of that. And then I watch whatever detective shows at night or 'Masterpiece Theater' on PBS."

“A funny thing happened though was the other night I couldn't sleep and I put the TV on and an old rerun of ‘Law and Order: Criminal Intent’ was on,” she said, laughing. “And it was an episode that I was in. I had a cameo with Vincent D'Onofrio. I literally put the TV on and saw myself, so that was pretty funny.”

patti smith new interview
“In the midst of so much strife and there's so many things to be concerned about or lose sleep about," Smith says of the current moment. Steven Sebring

Smith says it's those “small pleasures” that keep her all right.

“There's so many things to be concerned about or lose sleep about,” she said, citing climate change and, in particular, the wildfires in California, where portions of her third memoir, 2019's "Year of the Monkey," is set.

“Sometimes I just need a little respite and not think about anything for an hour or two here or there. Because we need to do that. We all need to do that.”

TODAY had the opportunity to check-in with the punk rock icon to discuss the new edition of "Year of the Monkey," the 10th anniversary of her first memoir, "Just Kids," why its success took her by surprise, and why she doesn’t feel others have the right to portray her while she is still alive.

"That news started seeping..."

“New York has been through all kinds of things,” Smith said. “And when I first came here in 1967, it was going through a very rough time economically which was good for the young. But, you know, New York is constantly reinventing itself, that's for sure.”

Smith is a singer-songwriter, poet and author who became an integral part of New York City’s punk rock movement with her 1975 debut album “Horses.” Hailed as the "poet laureate of punk," Smith mixes rock, spoken word-performance and free-form poetry within her commanding work that has inspired such artists as Michael Stipe of R.E.M. to actor Juliette Lewis, from singer Martha Wainwright to Bono of U2.

Her most recognizable song is "Because the Night," co-written with Bruce Springsteen, which reached number 13 on the Billboard 100 in 1978. Almost three decades later in 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Her latest project is a paperback edition of her 2019 memoir “Year of the Monkey,” a haunting and dreamy account of her experience grappling with loss, aging and a shift in American politics.

The paperback, out now, features a new epilogue that profiles the very beginning of this year, just before the coronavirus epidemic struck the U.S.

In a chapter titled "Festivity Panel," she meditates on a grim, soon-to-be familiar scene: a discarded face mask lying in the street.

"A virus hysteria mounts as the disease jumps ship from Wuhan to neighboring ports, resulting in travel bans and closed borders" she writes. "A protective mask lay curled in the gutter by our parking spot. In an effort to thwart contagion many are wearing such masks. Some wear two, one on top of of another."

“I always like to put a new section in paperback so that people get something new,” Smith said. “I began the text for this right as the year opened, speaking about how 2020 is unfolding. So it was really written a little before the pandemic but that news started seeping, started coming ... that there was a virus."

She also writes about the loss of her friends, including musician Sandy Pearlman and actor-playwright Sam Shepard, who died in 2016 and 2017. The experience of being a survivor is something that informs her rawness, but is also something she says she doesn’t need to reconcile.

"One really has to take care of oneself, and be resilient and be able to handle a lot of change and a lot of loss in life.”

Patti Smith

“Since I have survived, the people that I do love and the people I do know intimately, I've tried to honor their memory as much as possible,” she said. “‘Year of the Monkey’ has two of my great friends — two men that I knew for a half-century who died as I was writing, and so the book does resonate them.”

“But I don't feel any guilt in being a survivor,” she adds. ”I had my own difficulties in life and my own tragedies. I lost my husband (MC5 guitarist Fred Smith in 1994) ... I lost my brother. I had my own things that I had to think about, but I just do the work that I have a calling to do.

"But surviving to me ... there's no guilt in surviving," she says.

"I know he trusted me”

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who is the focus of Smith's 2010 memoir, "Just Kids." "No one knew anything about us, and I was privy to his entire evolution as an artist."Leee Black Childers / Redferns

November will be the 10th anniversary of Smith’s first memoir, “Just Kids.” The celebrated book profiled her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and their time spent together in 1970s New York City. It won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, was a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.

“I never expected the book to be so popular truthfully,” Smith said. “It's really been the most successful thing I've ever done. Sold over a million copies, in 45 languages, I think. And it seems to resonate with young people all over the world. I get letters from kids, from Poland to places in China to Scandinavia, Europe and Middle America … it's amazing how the response has been and it’s very heartening.”

Known for his black-and-white photographs that examined queer subculture of New York City, Mapplethorpe asked her to write their story the day before his death in 1989. He was 42 years old.

“He wanted me to write about our relationship,” she said. “And I think I know why, because we lived such an intimate life. No one knew him. I met him when we were 20. We were just kids. No one knew anything about us, and I was privy to his entire evolution as an artist. And I could write about it in a way that no one else could because no one else was there.”

Smith added that many of the people who witnessed Mapplethorpe's experience as an artist, like his lover Sam Wagstaff, have died. That made it more paramount for her to share their story.

Patti Smith
Patti Smith in Amsterdam, October 1976.Gijsbert Hanekroot / Redferns

"What I wanted when I wrote the book was to give people Robert," she said. "I wanted people to know Robert, not as a great controversial photographer who died of AIDS, which is true, but that's only one part of who he was."

"And I could write about it in a way that no one else could because no one else was there.”

Patti Smith

Since the publication of “Just Kids” in 2010, there have been multiple exhibits of Mapplethorpe's art around the world, as well as an HBO documentary and a 2018 film, "Mapplethorpe," starring "The Crown" actor Matt Smith in the title role.

Smith said those works "misrepresented a lot of things," and she hasn't seen the film or the documentary.

Patti Smith poses during the opening of an exhibition dedicated to Robert Mapplethorpe at the Grand Palais in Paris on March 24, 2014.PATRICK KOVARIK / AFP via Getty Images

The truth of their story remains in her book, and she disputes critics who may portray her work as a series of "overblown romantic fantasies."

"Anything other people do ... who didn't know him, don't know me. It's their version," she said. "So I'm not really interested in other people's version of what I might have been like. I'm a living human being. They're not doing work about 19th-century poets."

Scammers & social media

Climate change is not only a major concern for Smith but also her daughter, Jessica, whose charity Pathway to Paris is committed to turning the Paris Agreement into action.

Her daughter also called attention to another toxic problem: so-called internet "catfishing."

"Many people were pretending to be me on Instagram," Smith said. "I didn't know anything about Instagram. I don't really use any social media myself because I'm not very technical, but people were actually asking people to send them money pretending to be me on there. So we found that the only way to deal with that would be to have my own."

Since creating her account in March 2018, @thisispattismith has amassed more than 750,000 followers. Her captions read more like poems, accompanied by vivid imagery from her past or present

"But I found it so easy and it to be a very nice way of communicating with a lot of people," she said. "They respond and tell you how they're feeling. I found this to be a nice way to directly connect because it's global. It's wonderful to hear from people all over the world."

Day-to-day life for a punk rock icon doesn't seem all that different then life for most people across the country right now. Which may be comforting that we all share a certain amount of relatability, maybe now more than ever.

"I'm not used to being rooted in one place," she said. "So, because I'm here, mostly on my own, I have to take care of daily maintenance: cooking for myself, taking care of my cat, doing my laundry, mopping the floors, cleaning the cat litter pan. All of those daily tasks, and every day, writing."

"Oh," she said, "and my shows."