Patti Smith: ‘As a writer, you can be a pacifist or a murderer’

As she prepares to ring in 2021 with a performance on screens at Piccadilly Circus, the punk poet explains why she’s optimistic amid the ‘debris’ of Trump’s years in office

Patti Smith talks about her first poetry performance – in 1971 at St Mark’s Church in New York’s Bowery – as if it were yesterday. “I remember everything,” she says over the phone from her home in New York. Smith was in her early 20s, working at a bookshop and living in the Chelsea Hotel with her then lover, the playwright Sam Shepard. She had attended poetry readings before, most of which put her into a deep sleep. “I wanted to do something that wasn’t boring,” she recalls. “Sam said that since I sang to myself all the time, I should try singing a song, or maybe do something with a guitar.” And so she called on the musician Lenny Kaye to provide “interpretative” noises on guitar while she half-read, half-sang her poems.

The show was an instant hit. “It seemed to make a big impression on people – which I really didn’t understand,” she says. The producer Sandy Pearlman approached her afterwards and suggested she front a rock band. She eventually took his advice, making the landmark album Horses in 1975, and an icon of American punk was born.

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