When Patti Smith joined Substack — the now-five-year-old online platform that has writers getting paid via a subscription model — the poet, author and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer had been stuck at home in New York City after having canceled a world tour due to COVID.
Starting with her tagline (“The reader is my notebook”), and moving into her serialized, on-line novel (“The Melting,” currently 44 chapters long), Smith’s “journal of my private pandemic” promised “an inter-connective body of work for a responsive community,” filled with “ruminations, shards of poetry, music, and musings on whatever subject finds its way from thought to pen, news of the mind, pieces of this world.”
Rather than maintain a diary’s staid setting, the communally driven Smith engages her subscriber base with freshly penned songs and poetry readings of her her heroes’ work and her own. To go with her readings and writings, Smith’s Substacks are immediate thought-bubbles and personal day-of videos with her cat and her coffee cup close at hand, mixing free posts and subscription-bound items.
Smith talked with Variety from her home in New York City, in the same bedroom space where she records her Substack (which can be found here).
At the Ukraine-Russia conflict’s start, your Substack featured you reading colloquial poet William Carlos Williams’ “Peach on Earth,” a poem highlighted by his “gold and blue” hues, surely in dedication to the Ukraine. Is this your prayer for the Ukrainian people? Were you looking to Williams’ perfect words on the subject of peace?
It’s interesting, as I was trying to do a few things related to the conflict. One was to do a very simple version of their national anthem, for which I had to piece together an English translation and learn the melody. Williams’ poem came to me almost magically. I was pacing about, thinking about doing something useful… which is why I love my Substack.
Because it is set up for you to go on any time, to write, speak and create videos, for immediate contact with your subscribers.
Exactly. I wanted to find an anti-war poem, and ran across Williams’ words — something abstract that was symbolic of our thoughts and down to, as you noticed, the colors of the Ukraine. It’s very subtle, but it’s there. I didn’t realize that until I was getting ready to record it… I was moved by that.
William Carlos Williams, William S. Burroughs, William Blake, Rimbaud, so many of the writers you’ve loved since your youth — they are all a continued part of your Substack life. What does it mean to bring those obsessions…
…into the 21st century? [Laughs.] I’m slowly getting the hang of the 21st century. I was having problems with being a 20th century person. The fact that I have a Substack that I’ve learned to do myself, technically, as well as an Instagram… I embrace what I can. I’m 75 years old. All of these people like Robert Louis Stevenson, Sylvia Plath, Hendrix, Coltrane, the Bible, all of whom informed and continue to inspire me, I want to share with future generations… Every generation does new things, and translates that generation on its own. But it’s part of my job to bring my references into the forefront. And I get a lot of messages on Substack and Instagram when I do. That makes me happy.
You mentioned Instagram along with Substack. Pandemic or not, were you looking for social outreach, a way to get your ideas out there in a fashion that didn’t involve record labels, DSPs or publishers?
No. My website was too complicated, and I don’t have interest in Twitter. My daughter (Jesse Paris) suggested Instagram because people had taken my name online, and pretended they were me. It looked like something I could do because I’m a visual artist. I’m someone who reads new books and could say something about it. I like Instagram. Its immediacy is like taking Polaroids. You can have an effect where I can talk about a book from a small publishing house and bring it to a wider audience. I can share something interesting, humorous or political. My cat could appear with me.
Substack? Someone who had interviewed me in San Francisco and was a big part of Substack [which is based there] suggested the site. Being off the road and in the house with a pandemic diary already started, Substack gave me a chance to share things on a bigger scale.
Did you immediately love Substack?
I did. I had never done anything serialized. It had started with something I had already written, but slowly started moving in real time, which is where I’m at with “The Melting” presently. I might be one or two chapters ahead, or just (writing) that morning. That’s exciting. It’s sharpening my skills and my work ethic, too. When you write a book, you have a work ethic, but you can allow a week or two to go by. Now, I have to stay on it. I like that. It’s a positive pressure.
How does Substack’s orderly deadlines jibe with your usual writing style, to create out of chaos?
[Laughs.] I like order, but I’m not a very orderly person. During the toughest part of the pandemic, when I was in lockdown, I had to create my own chaos. Even “The Melting” begins ploddingly, filled with my daily thoughts and dreams. As it progressed, I saw where “The Melting” could go. I know how it ends, but I don’t know how it’s going to get there. I had to create disorder to get there. But I grew up in disorder — a chaotic household as a kid. That exciting mess is in my DNA.
That familial exciting mess goes back to how some of us know you. I can recall being in your fan club early in your career, and having your mom and sister send out your high school graduation photos as part of the club’s bonuses.
[Laughs.] Oh, I know. They didn’t ask me if they could send those photos out, either.
Your Substack, now, though, finds you displaying the coffee mug that Johnny Depp gave you, or you hanging out with your cat, or pointing out tchotchkes in the space where you’re working. We feel like we’re walking around your apartment when we watch your Substack. How was maintaining the same intimacy of communality crucial to you going into it?
You literally are walking into my bedroom; it’s where I live and write. My books and talismans are here. I have many secret things. Secret writings that will never be read, and precious objects that are so private. These things can be shareable. Making things as intimate and possible is what I do, though, even on stage. Like we’re all in this together. So in my Substack, where you can see my bed and my stuff, I am bringing you into my world. I like the idea that the reader hangs out with the writer. I do want to share. My cat right now is listening to our conversation. She can always tell when I’m engaging someone, because she sits on my lap. I want the reader to feel as if we’re hanging out, having coffee.
Is this your way of being social beyond social media?
Yes. I do want this to hold a certain familiarity. I’m not a very social person, maybe to the point of being antisocial. But I care about people, so this is my way to get out there and be social.
You’re also navigating your own Substack experience by merging “The Melting” with your travelogue photo show, “100 Places,” so that recently, your photos of Berlin create an actual setting to the serial.
I think of “The Melting” as part of my “M” trilogy: “The M Train,” “The Year of the Monkey” and now this. They interconnect. They’re fact, or autobiography, mixed with fiction, with “The Melting” being the most fictional of all. I want to take you down these corridors and alleyways. My whole Substack is evolving, though. People like to be sung to. They like when I read the audio to my texts or other writers’ poems. I read all of my messages, too, and see what subscribers like. I don’t answer, but I read to see where their heads are at. Maybe they like an a cappella of mine, or want to see photos of me with Bob Dylan. There is a lot that can be contained within my Substack — old videos, new videos, how songs were written. Maybe when “The Melting” is done, I can start telling the backstories to my songs, then maybe find an interesting version of that song. I’m constantly thinking about how to evolve.
You’re expanding and curating your Substack in a fashion interesting to your subscribers on the musical and literary tip. You appear with band members Lenny Kaye and Tony Shanahan, writing and performing new and spontaneous songs. Many artists have a dissatisfaction with Spotify’s payouts. Is Substack an alternative to getting artists more fairly and directly compensated?
I’m not a good person to ask about money. My main thing is the quality of the work. I know that I have a good name, but I’ve never had a gold record. I’ve never sold many records. I’ve never gotten royalties. I remember one check in the 1970s for $120. It’s only been recently with the multitude of ways of checking things that I’m getting royalties. I just know that I did work that I liked. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had children that I’d like to help after I’m gone, I wouldn’t care. Money doesn’t motivate me politically. It’s not where I put my mental energies. The most successful thing I ever had in my life was “Just Kids,” and all I wanted was to tell mine and Robert (Mapplethorpe)’s story and have a cult following. I wrote it for Robert. I never dreamed it would sell a million copies. My records’ sales fall far behind that.
Substack? I’m grateful for the income — you can make money — but I don’t know what the equalizer is. I haven’t thought about it. They do, however, think about it, and it’s helped me make a living when we couldn’t tour. Me not working means that the 11 people I work with had no work, so this is a good thing to have. My biggest reward, though, through Substack, is how it improved my writing, how it pushes me to stay on something, to see how far I can take something. And I’m happy with the contact with subscribers. Even if I only get 50 to 100 comments, this feedback is direct and immediate. “The Melting” is going into some strange places, so I love when people get it and spur me on.
Substack is you living in a virtual world, and your upcoming annual Tibet House performance on March 3 is virtual this year (https://thus.org/). You seem happy and content with this. Yet in February you played your first on-stage live gig in a while at Brooklyn Steel. Did you have a ball? Are you looking to break free on stage again soon?
Totally. I love aspects of the insularity of the virtual realm — say, being able to send out my Ukrainian National Anthem — and contributing in that way. I do like the use of it to serve, to help. But Brooklyn? I loved that show. Oh my gosh, the venue and crowd were awesome. So young and full of energy. It made me remember what I do. And I’m eager to be able to continue. Besides, I’m a traveler, and hate being stuck in one place. Performing to the people is who I am. I’m not the greatest singer. I’m 75. But I know when I’m onstage, and people are there, that the connection is real and awesome.