Patti Smith raises her arms and lets loose a howl. "What is the point?" she wails. "What is the point?" A wall of guitar noise ebbs and screeches, with the occasional crunch of feedback. She blows frantically into a clarinet, eliciting a succession of piercing squeaks, then spits on to the stage floor. We may be a well-heeled crowd at the South Bank in London, but she has conjured us into a smoke-filled poet-hole in Greenwich Village. About half of the audience look like they are on a spiritual journey; the other half are clearly keen to get home and have a stiff whisky.
She may be approaching 60, but Smith has lost none of the bohemian spirit for which she was so well known. Her live performances, during which she draws audiences into an improvised world of pure emotional energy, have been described as "religious", even "shamanic". With her unbrushed tresses of greying hair, outsized cowboy boots and bony, angular features, she is an icon whose name sits comfortably in the rock pantheon alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.
The odd thing is that she has not sold very many records. She had one top 20 hit, and that was in 1978--a duet with Bruce Springsteen called "Because the Night". Smith herself recognises this: when she released Land 1975-2002, a collection of songs from her previous albums, she joked that it wasn't called Greatest Hits because "we would have had to call it Greatest Hit and have the same track 15 times over".
Nevertheless, she maintains an extraordinary influence over popular culture, continuing to play concerts all over the world. When she curated the Meltdown festival at the South Bank last year, it was the hottest ticket in town. It seems a strange paradox: Smith fulfils our desire for a true, pure artist--and yet she is clearly famous for something other than her art.
I put this to her when we meet, a few days before the concert, at the Alison Jacques Gallery in central London. She is launching an exhibition of portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe, her late best friend and sometime lover. In pride of place is the portrait of Smith from the cover of Horses: a familiar, androgynous figure in shirt and braces, staring confrontationally from the frame. This is the image that defined the rock'n'roll female, establishing a tradition that has been kept by everyone from Chrissie Hynde to PJ Harvey.
In person, Smith is grounded and mellow. She sometimes takes a surprisingly homespun, motherly tone. "I would like to think that the quality of the work I do with my band merits people still being interested," she says. "Also I'm politically concerned, and I voice my concerns--perhaps that's another reason."
I wonder whether she would agree that people are fascinated by her as a symbol of a more dignified age--a kind of anti-Paris Hilton. "I think there is a certain amount of truth in that. When I made my first record, rock'n'roll was a new form. I didn't think about making money, I didn't imagine being rich and famous. My motivations were not to get a bunch of cute guys, get drugs and have a limousine. I really wanted to do something important to contribute to the canon of rock'n'roll."
Smith's career has always been driven by a sense of mission. When she first started reading her poetry backed by an electric guitar, in 1970s New York, she wanted to "return rock'n'roll to the people". She was alarmed by the commercialisation of the music industry, as the generation of rebel artists of the 1960s either went stellar (the Rolling Stones) or bit the dust (Hendrix and Morrison).
"I came from an era when people felt they could make a difference. We felt that we could stop war. We felt that we could start a revolution, express our poetic and sexual energy, do something positive. That is part of the legacy of rock'n'roll and people can still do that. …