Oxford Literary Festival: Patti Smith

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I should probably start by explaining that I can’t claim to be a massive Patti Smith fan. I know who she is of course, I can hum a couple of songs, but I wouldn’t jump through fire to go and see her, if you get what I mean. Fortunately for me then, there was a complementary Cherwell ticket going spare, and the event was five minutes from my room. No excuse.

Smith was at the Literary Festival to promote her new book, Just Kids, about her relationship with famous photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The pair met in New York in the 70s when Smith was just twenty, and remained firm friends until he died in ’89. The book is, Smith explained, the fulfilment of the last promise she made to him: to put their story into writing.

During her interview with David Freeman, Smith described how she met Mapplethorpe several times before he rescued her from an awkward park bench scenario with a bearded science-fiction writer by pretending to be her boyfriend (I know – we’ve all been there, right?). Smith then proceeded to regale the audience with tales of their time living at the Chelsea Hotel, hanging out with Janice Joplin and avoiding drugs in the late sixties.

Smith revealed that the iconic image on the front of Horses (Smith’s first album) had taken Mapplethorpe only eight shots to perfect. Mapplethorpe needed no assistants and requested only that Smith “didn’t get spaghetti stains on my shirt”, she added that “for Robert, taking pictures was no big deal.”

During the talk Smith had a tendency to slide towards that brand of slightly-bullshitty-artsy-indulgence: her first song was “a young person’s declaration of existence”, while Mapplethorpe “was not rebelling against anything, he was himself, he was his own vision”. I’m not entirely sure what that means.

The heights of silly were not reached, however, until the audience put their frankly bizarre questions to Smith, ranging from: “Who is the coolest person you have ever met?” to “Do you have any advice for a 13 year old?” (To which Smith’s answer was: “Take care of your teeth”). Enlightening indeed.

The high point of the event followed the question everyone was hoping someone would ask: “will you sing for us?” Smith whipped out her guitar and sang two songs for the audience – the second was about William Blake (“whenever I start to feel sorry for myself I think of William Blake”). I emerged from the marquee into the rain with a smile on my face; Smith’s wit, modesty and extraordinary voice (talking and singing) made the event a thoroughly well-spent hour of my life. I even enjoyed the artsy-bull if I’m honest. Patti Smith is almost certainly the coolest person the Sunday Times literary festival has seen for some time. I’m sure the book is a good read.

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