Patti Smith is one of the true greats. Few people can offer crucial advice to young artists like the Godmother of Punk; she has seen the good and the bad that the world has to offer and come out smiling. Rather than being beaten down by the dark side of the industry she has witnessed or giving any spiel about how it’s not the same as her day, Smith’s advice to young artists oozes positivity.
When Smith was a young artist, she made the bold move to New York City when she was 20-years-old in 1967. At the time, she was like a rabbit in the headlights after arriving in one of the world’s great metropolis’ from Pitman, New Jersey. Still, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe made her feel welcome in the city that never sleeps and, together, they built up an unbreakable friendship and achieved the dreams they moved to the city to accomplish. Smith has been to hell and back throughout her career, but her exuberance has never wavered. Her personality is infectious, and the crowd watching her in conversation at the Louisiana Literature festival in August 2012 lapped up every last word that left her mouth.
“A writer or any artist can’t expect to be embraced by the people,” Smith poignantly stated. “I’ve made records where it seemed like no-one listened to them. You write poetry, books, that maybe 50 people read and you just keep doing you’re work because you have to, it’s your calling but, it’s beautiful to be embraced by the people. Some people have said to me, ‘don’t you think success spoils one as an artist’ or ‘if you’re a punk rocker then you don’t want to have a hit record’, and I say ‘fuck you’.
“One does there work for the people and the more people you can touch, the more wonderful it is. You don’t do your work and say ‘I only want the cool people to read it’ — you want everyone to be transported by it or inspired by it. When I was really young, William Burroughs told me when I was really struggling, we never had any money, and the advice that William gave me was ‘build a good name’. Keep your name clean, don’t make compromises or worry about making a bunch of money or being successful, be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices to protect your work.
“If you build a good name then eventually that name will be its own currency, and I remember when he told me that, I said, ‘Yeah but William, my name’s Smith?’ she said jokingly.
“To be an artist, actually just being a human being in these times, it’s all difficult. You have to go life trying to stay healthy, being as happy as you can and doing what you want, if what you want is to have children, be a baker if what you want is to live out in the woods, save the environment or you want to write scripts for detective shows — it doesn’t really matter, what matters is to know what you want, pursue it and understand that its gonna be hard.
“Life is really difficult. You’re gonna lose people you love, you’re gonna suffer heartbreak. Sometimes you’ll be sick, sometimes you’ll have a really bad toothache. Sometimes you’ll be hungry, but on the other end, you’ll have the most beautiful experiences. Sometimes just the sky, sometimes just a piece of work that you do that feels so wonderful or you find somebody to love. There’s beautiful things in life, so when you’re suffering; it’s just part of the package.”
Smith then spoke positively about how the advent of technology has allowed a window for people to make a career for themselves in the creative world that previously would have been prevented by gatekeepers. “It’s a pioneering time because there’s no other time in history like right now,” she inspiringly said. “That’s what makes it unique. It’s not unique because we have like renaissance style artists, it’s unique because it’s a time of the people. Technology has really democratised self-expression.
“Instead of a handful of people making their own records or writing their own songs, everyone can write them. Everyone can post a poem on the internet and have people read it. Everyone has access and access that they’ve never had before,” she emotionally added to a crowd who were firmly in the palm of her hand.