2 Nov 2008: From rock icon to hippy pacifist, at 61 Patti Smith is the music industry’s most enduring female icon. In an extraordinarily intimate interview she talks to Amy Raphael about growing up, motherhood and the bereavements that have overshadowed her life

I find Patti Smith in the polished marble lobby of a ritzy hotel in Paris. She is beyond incongruous. It’s not the skinny jeans pushed into brown cowboy boots, the paper-thin, black V-neck T-shirt or the well-cut black jacket with its row of buttons on the cuffs. Nor is it much to do with the pitch-black sunglasses. It’s the way the staff are gliding around the hotel so efficiently while Patti Smith moves so slowly, shoulders hunched, hair falling over her face. She looks utterly lost, utterly bereft. She is about to make her way to a downstairs bar to find coffee when a brisk woman says it’s out of bounds. In return, Smith asks sharply why she can’t go anywhere in the hotel today.

We return to the lobby, find a seat in the dark corner of another bar. I am more than a little nervous. Here’s the woman who arguably made the first punk-rock record with ‘Piss Factory’ way back in 1974. Who witnessed the birth of rock’n’roll in America and then became a rock star herself with the release of Horses in 1975. Who always thought of herself not as a punk but as a poet, painter and photographer. Who was influenced by Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger and who has, by now, influenced three generations of musicians. Who, while her male musical peers burned out or faded away, is as vital at 61 as when she was a skinny, stylish, intense girl from New Jersey. And who is now more hippie pacifist than angry young woman.

Still, I’m not expecting our conversation to open with, ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’. She is apologising for her grumpiness with the brisk woman. For feeling as though she’s had the energy sucked out of her. She orders black coffee with hot water, removes her sunglasses and reveals eyes that are virtually glued together. It’s oppressive outside and she is feeling it, with a headache that is threatening to intensify into a migraine. She flew in from New York the day before and was up till 5am, but she doesn’t mind jet lag. ‘I just couldn’t sleep,’ she explains in a slow, East Coast drawl. ‘I’m sorry. It’s the pressure in my head. Anyway … I guess it’s a combination of things. Stress about the American election and … sorry. I’ve got to stop talking for a minute.’

We sit in silence, drinking coffee. It feels oddly OK. ‘I’ve just had a kind of rough week. So. You must think I’m a mess.’ She looks sideways at me and there’s a small smile. ‘I’m not normally like this.’ She replaces the sunglasses, moves her head slightly, winces. ‘This last period of time started for me on 16 August this year. I always note that date because it’s the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. I woke up at home in New York feeling extremely agitated. I thought it was maybe the moon, because it was very full, heavy and bright. Then we got torrential rain and the street caved into my cellar. It wasn’t just a drag – it was quite scary. So, I actually escaped here to Paris.’

Smith releases a long sigh. I ask gently if we should perhaps talk later. There’s a barely perceptible shake of her head. ‘No. No. Right now, I’m having an episode. I think it will go away. In the process of all the rain and this big moon, one of my closest friends died. A woman my age. We’d been friends since we were 20 years old. She’d been ill for a long time. She just suddenly died. The reason I’m telling you this … I’m feeling exactly like I was that day in August. It’s probably some kind of cycle. The flooding and the mud. My friend. This whole atmosphere of submersion, death. I just took off.’ This time, the silence is heavy.

Patti Smith knows what grief feels like. She has lost more lovers and friends than is fair. In 1989, her former lover and close friend Robert Mapplethorpe died of an Aids-related illness. The American photographer shot the iconic image of Smith on the front cover of Horses, in a man’s white shirt, black ribbon tie, black jacket flung over her shoulder, studied nonchalance unable to disguise a kind of casual yet untouchable sexuality. In late 1994, her husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, once a guitarist in pre-punk rockers MC5, died of a heart attack, leaving her with two young children. Less than a month later, her brother Todd, to whom she was extremely close, died suddenly. Both her parents recently passed away. And now her oldest female friend.

I ask if such a loss allows previous grief to flood her mind. ‘It reminds me … but she’s the first female. I’ve lost lots of men in my life, besides my mother, which is a whole different loss. It’s the first time I’ve had a female friend die since I was a child. It’s quite different. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m older; suddenly a friend my age is gone. And she didn’t die of drugs or lifestyle.’

The lights are turned up and the empty bar suddenly becomes busy. ‘Let’s see where we can go,’ says Smith. She suggests her ‘small and messy’ hotel room and we head for the lift. From behind a pillar someone tries to get her attention. ‘Hey, Patti! It’s David!’ And there’s the American film director David Lynch, with a smart black suit and a magnificent silver quiff, beaming. ‘How you doing, Patti?’ She smiles. ‘I’ve got a hell of a headache. It’s nice to see you. You look terrific.’ He is excited about the series of concerts she will be giving, starting the following night at one of the oldest churches in Paris, Saint-Germain-des-Prés. ‘It’s cool. I’ll see you there, Patti. Rock on.’

Smith’s room is dark. She opens the curtains a little, pulls her boots off and lies on the bed, head propped up on three pillows. Around the room are piles of novels and biographies, Moleskine notebooks in different sizes, her beloved old Polaroid camera. It reminds me of the simple but cluttered white room in which she is often filmed during Patti Smith: Dream of Life, a beautiful, engaging new documentary which was over a decade in the making. The white room was not, it turns out, just a makeshift studio for the film. It is in fact where Smith spends most of her time in her New York house, reading and writing, with her two Abyssinian cats for company. ‘I live up there in that room. My son [Jackson, 26] has left home but my daughter [Jesse, 21] pretty much dominates the place.’

Dream of Life, whose title was taken from the album Smith made with her late husband in 1988, which in turn was taken from a Shelley poem, is emphatically not an A-Z of Patti Smith. Given that she is known for being intensely private, it was never going to be laden with gossip about a lost weekend with actor Sam Shepard at the Chelsea Hotel in New York in the early Seventies (though we do get to see Smith and Shepard playing guitar together in the white room and gently flirting with one another) or offer revealing tales about hanging out with William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. And there’s only the briefest glimpse of her old friend Bob Dylan in the corner of the screen, shot when Smith went on tour with him the year after the deaths of her husband and brother. I ask about their enduring friendship as she lies, eyes shut, on the hotel bed. ‘Bob and I know who each other is,’ she offers, simply. ‘And I am grateful for all I have gotten from him, from afar and in close proximity.’

That Smith agreed to be filmed at all is a surprise; that the process went on for 11 years is initially baffling. Yet she is clearly loyal to those she decides to trust, and would-be director Steven Sebring won her confidence early on. They first met in 1995, when Smith was looking for a photographer to shoot a new session with her. At that time, she had virtually dropped out of the music business and had been living with her husband and kids in Detroit since the late 1980s. ‘My husband had died and I had to support my kids. I couldn’t live the way we’d lived for 16 years – on the outskirts of Detroit, on a canal, rather simply. I’m not from there. I don’t drive. So I came back east to be closer to my family. Like I say, I was obliged to get a job. I had to work again.’

With a new record to sell, Smith had to do press. ‘It was strange. Everyone wanted to talk about Robert dying, then my husband and my brother. It wasn’t easy. And to have so much attention around oneself … I hadn’t had that in a long time and I don’t especially crave it. Even now, I’m conscious that had I not lost my husband, my life would have taken a very different trajectory.’ But everything had changed. And with no Mapplethorpe around, she needed a new photographer. ‘By that point, I’d befriended [REM’s] Michael Stipe, who’s a very sensitive family person. I called him up and asked if he knew of a photographer who wasn’t rock’n’roll oriented, who’d be sensitive to my kids, and he suggested Steven.’

Smith had always turned down biographical film projects but when Sebring said he was experimenting with a 16mm movie camera and asked if he could film her, she finally agreed. ‘All he wanted was to discover. He had no plan or design. I put a lot in at the end of the film, because by then Steven had become like a brother to me. The film doesn’t necessarily reflect my aesthetic but I like it and I’m glad to have it because it has the only footage of my parents.’

There are some lovely, resolutely unsentimental scenes documenting one of Smith’s last visits to her parents’ house. She stands with her father in the back garden, stroking Sheba the dog [‘she’s getting grey, like me,’ says Smith] and talking about the trees. ‘The scene where I’m in the backyard with my father … it was right before my father died, so it means a lot to have his beautiful voice, his sense of humanity, on film. He hated rock’n’roll but he loved that I made somewhat of a name for myself. I don’t think he liked any of my songs, except “People Have the Power”. My mother loved rock’n’roll. The more raucous, the better. There was lots of music in our house. The radio was great in the Fifties and Sixties. We had the whole evolution of rock’n’roll on the radio.’

I wonder what kind of child Patti Smith was. She has said in the past that she wasn’t born to be a spectator. Born in Chicago on 30 December 1946, the first child of Grant (a factory worker) and Beverley (a waitress), the family moved to Philadelphia in the early Fifties where her brother, Todd, and her sister, Linda, were born. When Smith was nine, they moved again, this time to ‘a very rural place in New Jersey where there was zero culture’. However, she got lucky with a music teacher who inspired her love of Maria Callas.

She sounds like a very particular kind of child. ‘A lot of children don’t have a developed aesthetic. I did. I made early choices in life, even about cloth; I liked flannel and not polyester. My father’s mother was from Liverpool and she had this very beautiful English china. I only wanted to drink my cocoa out of my grandmother’s cup and saucer. My mother was like, “What are your plans in life? Are you going to marry a duke?”‘

Young Smith certainly had plans. By 1969, she had left behind the world that had inspired ‘Piss Factory’ and was living in the Chelsea Hotel with Robert Mapplethorpe. Here she ran into Jimi Hendrix, Jean-Luc Godard, Janis Joplin, Arthur Miller, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. And, in the lift one day, Muhammad Ali. ‘He radiated love and a sense of humour. I was awestruck by the reality of his magnetism and innate energy. I also got the sense that he was self-effacing.’

I start to say that she was immersed in a very male world right from the start. She jumps in before I finish. ‘That I chose to embrace?’ She walked straight into it, the alpha-male world of rock’n’roll. How did it feel? ‘Well, I felt alien my whole life but I didn’t feel alien because of my gender. Other people made me aware of my gender. Like if you’re performing poetry in a bar and guys are yelling, “Go back to the kitchen!” That kinda makes you aware there’s a gender issue.’

She sits up a little. Her eyes are bright. ‘The issue of gender was never my biggest concern; my biggest concern was doing good work. When the feminist movement really got going, I wasn’t an active part of it because I was more concerned with my own mental pursuits. I didn’t want to be confined to any kind of movement. I think these movements are extremely important, but I look forward to the time when they aren’t needed. When we can all just be who we are.’

Has she never labelled herself? ‘Never. I was a very awkward girl. Awkward teenager. A tomboy. I loved Peter Pan. I never related much to classic female things. When I was growing up, the big thing was teasing your hair and making your eyes look like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Looking like one of the Ronettes. And it just wasn’t interesting to me. I loved books; I read my childhood away. I was more interested in my interior world. On the other hand, I loved Ava Gardner. Jeanne Moreau. Joan Baez. Edith Piaf. And, in terms of rock’n’roll, after hearing Grace Slick as a teenager, anything seemed possible.’

She says that she hasn’t changed much, though the world has changed around her. ‘You could chart me from five. I’m very similar. I’ve just learnt things. I’m a mother.’ A good one? She pauses. ‘I love my kids. I do the best I can. I was able to be a better mother when their father was alive. Perhaps sometimes I was a little strict … but I have really great kids. They are both really good people. And they’re not assholes.’ She laughs. ‘As human beings, I find them interesting and they teach me a lot. I don’t drive, I don’t use a cell phone. But my kids have taught me how to use a computer. They have helped to shepherd me into the 21st century because this is not my century.’

Apparently exhausted by the very notion of this strange new world, she sinks back into the bed. ‘It’s not my time but I’m certainly happy to be alive. There’s always something to look forward to. I don’t watch TV, I don’t even own one, but I’m always looking for a new book or film. My sister loves Charlotte Brontë. We are like the Brontë sisters in our own way. For almost a decade, we’ve had this plan to go to Charlotte Brontë country wearing matching brown, boiled wool dresses. We’re going to get nice steamer coats, the brown dresses, our notebooks and cameras and go visit the moors. And there are so many graves to visit, too.’

Smith is drawn to the resting places of the creative dead and often plans her concerts around graveyard visits. She recently took a job in Moscow so she could see Mikhail Bulgakov’s grave; she is in a ‘Bulgakov period’ right now and had read The Master and Margarita five times in as many months. She has played gigs at Charleston, the Bloomsbury Group’s country home, just to feel closer to her beloved Virginia Woolf. She visited – and considered moving to – Brighton after reading Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock

We have talked for over three hours. I can’t remember why I felt nervous. She invites me to the soundcheck at Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Prés that evening (an empty dark church with candles flickering while Patti Smith sings ‘Because the Night’ in her beautiful, resonant voice) and we have tea at midnight in her hotel. The next night, she plays at the church as part of the city’s Nuit Blanche, a free all-night cultural event.

This is the first church she visited in Europe when she was 21. Travelling with her sister Linda, she wanted to see Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar in the church’s garden. She was too shy to go into the church itself. And now, 40 years on, she is back. There are thousands of people, young and older, milling around in front of the church. With her son on guitar and daughter on piano, Smith starts performing just after 9.30pm and, with half-hour breaks, keeps going till 5am. There are still people waiting to see her as the sun comes up. It’s an astonishing evening. People are sitting in the aisles, oblivious to the cold stone floor.

She dedicates a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ to her children’s father. She does a spine-tingling ‘Ghost Dance’ and a rousing ‘People Have the Power’. During one of the breaks, David Lynch appears in the sparse dressing room. He takes a blurry digital photo of Smith and she takes a blurry Polaroid of him. They swap addresses. He is excited about ‘People Have the Power’, thinks Barack Obama should use it in his campaign.

Around 1am, American actor Michael Pitt and his girlfriend show up. They are in a band and will perform onstage with the Smith family even though they’ve never met before. Patti Smith, who has long since left drugs and drink behind, pours herself a glass of red wine and takes a sip. She’s not sure how it will go with Pitt and his girlfriend, but she’s willing to give it a go. ‘There’s no such thing as a mistake, just a creative approach. That’s how I get through life.’ She grins and, for a moment, I see the girl on the front of Horses. And then she’s back on stage, this woman who was never born to be a spectator.

• Patti Smith: Dream of Life is out on 5 December