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a meeting with patti smith

By Peter Lucas Erixon, 2006

The first time we meet is in the hotel lobby. We have waited a couple of hours, maybe two or more, sitting in the deep brown-red leather armchairs - waiting waiting waiting - and we are still waiting when she finally comes strolling through the door. She looks physically fragile, esoteric, and she wears glasses with black frames. Lenny Kaye comes right behind her. There are some others too, Peter Buck from REM is one of them. She has already received my email, we are supposed to just say a quick hi and decide a later time to meet. We shake hands. She says hi to me, she says hi to Ulla Montan, the famous Swedish photographer. Afterwards I will have almost no memory of what that hand felt like, except that it for certain wasn't in the slightest way ingratiating. The moment is fleeting, things have to be handled carefully. What time would suit her? As she takes the few steps towards the open stairs covered in a red carpet that lead to the second floor and then sits down she says that she doesn't know. She takes off her glasses now and leans back, and even further backwards, until she rests on her elbows. I don't know, she says. We had a long journey from New York to Arles, from Arles to Paris and from Paris to Stockholm and then to here. She is wearing blue jeans which are folded (up) at the bottom of the legs, a pair of black and well used western boots and a soiled black jacket, just like the one on the cover of Horses.
- What's the purpose of this interview?
- Purpose?
She is not very fond of journalists but I don't get very worried since I happen to be a writer, not a journalist at all. I have listened to and know all her records. I have read and many times reread her literary work: Seventh Heaven (1972), Witt (1973), The Night (1976), Babel (1978), Woolgathering (1992), Early Work (1994), The Coral Sea (1996), Complete (1998).
She can, however, not decide on a time. She can't promise anything. She says let us meet after the press conference. Which time is it anyway? she asks. In one and a half hour, someone standing next to me says and then the same person looks at his watch and, in a friendly tone but in the moment maybe a little too demanding, asks what time more exactly we could say?
- Look here, I just walked through the door ten minutes ago!
The situation immediately gets even more transient. I sit down beside her and apologize for having disturbed her before she even had the time to take a single breath.
It's okay, she says, and I give her a present wrapped in silver paper, it's a book that I bought in Paris with photographs of the French author Jean Genet, photographs from his youth, photographs from different occasions in his life, Genet as old and ill. You may already have it, I say. No, I do not have it, she knows as soon as she sees the cover. She's looking through it, stops for a close look at certain pictures, says: it's really beautiful, let us meet after the press conference.
She asks if I want her to sign Auguries of Innocence (2005), her latest book of poems, that I happen to have in my hand.
While she writes she starts telling me about one of the poems in the collection, Desert Chorus. She find page twelve and tells me that the night in mid April 1986 when Jean Genet died in Paris "we" (America) bombed Libya and Khadaffis daughter, Hana Khadaffi, died. Here somewhere, she says and points along the lines, it says something about it, but I don't have my glasses. So instead I start reading it for her while sitting down on the hotel stairs and she holds the book for me:

The sun will ascend. Can it matter?
A poet sealed in skin disrobed, split.
Jean Genet, a thief in flight,
astray in the weave laid down
his arms spiraling in a length
of mosquito netting, dotted with eyes
of onyx, blinking above a one-star
Paris Hotel indifferent to a bugger
a swaggering son of a bitch.
How shall his soul be redeemed
If not suffered by a little girl?

Two hours later: press conference. She arrives almost half an hour late. Problems with security, she tells me later, nothing serious but it had to be checked. Maybe forty people are gathered in a room on the second floor of another hotel. Many questions, many of them surprisingly intelligent and well informed. She answers seriously and sometimes in a very humoristic way. On an acoustic guitar she, together with Lenny Kaye, does the song Grateful from the album Gung Ho (2000), a song written about the late Grateful Dead member Jerry Garcia.
Before it all is over, less than an hour later, she has with great sharpness declared that she doesn't want any questions afterwards. Further on when everyone, except for a security guard and a couple of other people, have left the room, I walk up to her, do a humble greeting with the palms of my hands pressed together and a friendly nod with my head, just to make the atmosphere a little easier and say: I hardly dare to talk to you now. She giggles a little: it's okay. Are you here tomorrow? We can go anywhere you want. Maybe a trip to the forest? You look dependable and not the kind of guy that would kidnap me. I give her a smile and say sure, and good luck with consulting the Gods onstage tonight.
Late at night the concert: pure artistic magic, passionate delicacy and raw integral power. For one and a half hour she timelessly wrestles with the Gods.
The Spoken Word performance the day after is the first one she ever have done in Sweden. Once more delayed. Some hundreds of dedicated listeners waits at the rock club Cosmos. She reads a long series of poems, some from the very early literary works and some from the very latest collection of poems, her first in almost a decade. She answers minutely, scrupulously and in a good spirit to spontaneous questions from people in the audience. But a couple of times she brusquely reprimands someone who is endlessly taking photographs and also makes a remark about a couple of very tiny but intensely red lights that she sees from the stage.
- Feels like I'm being fuckin' lasered or somethin'! Turn them off and don't try it again!
After the reading it's time to hurry again, we wait in a kitchen behind the stage. The door to a corridor behind the stage closes. Her young hired Swedish assistant passes in a hurry and nervously asks us if we have seen anybody in the staff around. Everybody seems to have left the place already, keys are missing, nobody can get either in or out. After a little while Patti comes out to us and asks if we could possibly come to her hotel. She's so hungry now that she nearly collapses.
So once again: the hotel lobby. At least an hour waiting while she and her entourage are having dinner in the hotel garden. And then finally they come, she and Lenny. Ulla Montan takes photographs of her in the backyard of the hotel in the greenery of the Swedish high summer. One of the shots is a classic from start, the icon profile with the green foliage in front.
She and I sit down in the dusk in the hotel restaurant, a mild Nordic light is flickering in between the half drawn curtains. Would you like to have the light on? I ask. No, she says, this is fine. And the conversation can start.


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