Just Patti Smith

First aired on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight

More than any other rock star, Patti Smith embodies the need to break away from the mundane and discover yourself. Growing up in New Jersey, she survived a soul-crushing factor job by reading poetry and plotting her escape. She saved up and moved to New York to become a poet herself, and once she started setting her poetry to music, setting the rock and roll world ablaze. Then she retired to the suburbs to raise a family. But now she's back with a vengeance: her 2010 memoir, Just Kids about her relationship with the legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was a New York Times bestseller and won a bunch of awards including the National Book Award for Nonfiction. For the past year, she's been touring the world with a new album, Banga, and a retrospective of her own photography is on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. She recently spoke to George Strouboulopoulos about what fuels her work -- and how the death of her brother made her a better person.

"My brother was a better person than me. I lost my brother when he was 42, he had a bad heart...and when he died, a lot of his goodness, his openness, his supportiveness, I could feel within me," she said. "Really, he resonates so much that I feel just a better person for carrying him around with me. Although I'm not as good-looking."

Smith's contemporaries and friends included Mapplethorpe, of course, but also legendary writers like Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs. But that doesn't mean her life was glamourous. "Sometimes people will say to me 'oh I read your book and you act like you only hung out with famous people,'" she said. "Well, they weren't famous back then. I mean, they were struggling. Even Allan Ginsburg was struggling...these people were my friends. At that time we just wanted to eat...I don't care if I was sitting in a room with Janis Joplin or any of these people, my concern was 'how am I going to get my next meal.' I'd be in a room with a lot of famous people or at a party or something and what was I doing? I had a paper bag and I was putting food in it for later!"

Smith has long since moved beyond that hand-to-mouth existence, but she still has an enormous amount of creative drive. "I always have drive," she said.

Before she was a rock-and-roll legend, though, Smith was a class clown. In fact, she says, she never fantasized about being a music star, she fantasized about being a talk show host. But her obsessive watching of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show did help her onstage. "The best thing I learned from Carson was an ability to improvise and spar," she said. "When I started performing, I was not well-loved. People would yell 'comb your hair'...and I always pulled from Johnny because he's like a human parachute, he can bail out of any situation and I was always able to one-line them to shut these guys up."