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Patti Smith on Her Next Books, Taking Acid, and Getting Dunked in Urine for Rimbaud

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Patti Smith. Photo: Dave J Hogan/2014 Getty Images

To promote her latest memoir, M Train (out Tuesday), Patti Smith spoke with The New Yorker’s David Remnick at the magazine’s festival this weekend about a colorful blend of literary and nonliterary topics. Although the two apparently text from time to time — Smith sent him pictures from Wittgenstein’s house in Vienna on tour this summer — Remnick was clearly starstruck Saturday night; fortunately, he managed to hold it together and accompany Smith on the electric guitar for a surprise performance of “Because the Night.” The crowd sang along and beamed just like Remnick when she talked about her upcoming projects, experiences taking acid, and time working in a factory — where she endured a urine dip for reading the work of the decadent poet Arthur Rimbaud. Read on for the night’s highlights:

She has many more books in the works — including a YA one
Her next book with Knopf is going to be a companion to Just Kids, focusing on music and her late husband, Fred Smith. She’s also been working on a detective book, a poetry book, and something like young-adult fiction — “the kind of book I used to read as a young girl.” It sounds like there’s a lot more in the works, too: “I’m always just working. I have tons and tons and tons of unpublished material. I’m gonna be like Dorothy Parker when I die, people are going to go, Holy shit, it’s totally indecipherable.”

She’s still embarrassed to be called a musician
Even rock stars are no strangers to impostor syndrome: “I feel embarrassed when people call me a musician, because I really can’t play anything,” she said. “You know my children are very accomplished musicians, my husband was a great musician — I can play a few chords.” Remnick protested that she sings, and she conceded: “Well, I’m a performer. I feel proud to say that I’m a performer, and I think of myself as a performer in the best sense.” Starting out though, she said she didn’t have any musical aspirations: She just added electric guitar to her poetry readings to make them more interesting, and less “Snoresville.”

She was kind of a buzzkill on acid
Her memory is so good because she didn’t take any drugs in the ’60s, and only “minimal” amounts in the ’70s: “I smoked a little pot, and Robert [Mapplethorpe] and I took acid twice.” It wasn’t exactly wild, though: “I just complained all night. I felt like John Brown, I felt angry at the world. He kept saying, ‘Patti, you’re supposed to feel universal love, you know?’ And I was like on a soapbox about the world and about pollution.”

She relied on her memory and diaries to write her memoirs
The minimal drug use meant good news for her memory — that is, her “primary resource” for her memoirs — since most of those involved in books like Just Kids have already passed away. She has journals and some letters from Robert Mapplethorpe, plus the little flower- or gemstone-themed diaries her mom gave her every Christmas, where she diligently marked “meaningless” events: like “cut Robert’s hair like a rockabilly star, chop up my hair like Keith Richards, met Janis Joplin … where the moon was when Robert and I had an argument, or when something sad happened, when Jimi Hendrix died.” Since having kids in the ’90s, she always writes in the morning — these days starting at 6 or 7 a.m.

She got dunked in piss for reading Rimbaud
At 16, she saw Arthur Rimbaud on the cover of Illuminations at a bus stop in Philadelphia and fell in love with him (“I think I sort of traded Rimbaud for Bob Dylan for a while”), as well as his poetry. She brought her copy to work at her first job as a “baby bugger beeper inspector” in a factory, where she made $1.25 an hour and wasn’t allowed to read. Her co-workers were mostly illiterate and told her to leave it at home, especially because they saw it was in two languages and thought it was a communist book. “I was an arrogant teenage girl,” Smith said, “so of course I brought the book the next day. So they took me into the john and gave me a lesson.” At least she got a song out of it: “It’s called ‘Piss Factory’ because I got dunked in a little yellow water.” (Rimbaud probably would’ve been proud, for what it’s worth.)

Patti Smith on Next Books, Acid, and Rimbaud