Patti Smith made a stop on her book tour at Hearst Tower in New York Monday night.
The musician and writer spoke with Esquire editor in chief David Granger about her second memoir, titled “M Train,” which has been described by critics as filled with “allusions” and told in a “stream of conscience” way.
Granger’s discussion seemed to follow that style, as he began by asking Smith her favorite lyric.
“’It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine,’” she said, referring to R.E.M.’s eponymous song. From there, the two talked about Smith’s likes and dislikes. She likes taking Polaroids, drinking “way too much” coffee and watching reruns of AMC’s “The Killing.”
Her enjoyment of simple things like her children, detective novels and the seemingly unchanged corners of the New York she knew in the Seventies appeared to lull the audience, which was filled with Hearst employees, into thinking they were listening to their shrewd, yet slightly eccentric neighbor — until Granger reminded them that they were listening to rock ‘n’ roll royalty.
Case in point: when the editor asked Smith about her experience with fame, she offered an anecdote about her last concert in Italy in 1979.
“We played for 80,000 kids in a soccer stadium,” she said, noting that she hadn’t told anyone that would be her last big performance, and mark her exit from “public life.” Smith said as a token goodbye, she offered the audience her stage, guitar, mic and amplifier.
“Rock ‘n’ roll belongs in the hands of anyone who wants to express themselves,” she said. “I left and that was my goodbye.”
Granger probed, wondering why Smith left at that moment in her life when her career was still humming. The singer explained that all that could be obtained at that point was more money.
“I didn’t see personal growth…there was no growth [left] as an artist,” Smith said, before turning to the importance of being a “pure” artist who isn’t affiliated with any political or social causes.
“I don’t like being fettered by any one particular religion or movement….As an artist, I’m free,” she said, noting that her close friend, Robert Mapplethorpe was the same way.
Granger listened to Smith talk in a matter-of-fact way about her famous friends who would become the voices of their generation. An audience member, who seemed equally surprised by Smith’s down-to-earth attitude and candor, asked her to describe an average day.
“I get up. If I’m out of sorts, I do exercises. I wash my face. I feed the cat,” she said. “I get coffee. I take a notebook and write for a couple of hours. I roam around…take long walks. I just kill time until something good is on TV.”
A quizzical expression flashed on Granger’s face.
“I’m still the same person. I know that some people have different personas for the [different] things they do. I’m not criticizing that. I take everything in stride,” Smith said with a shrug. “[If] I’m leaving because I need to go to Berlin and give a medal to Joan Baez….I go and look for coffee there.”