Exit Interview: Patti Smith

The pride of Deptford High is the subject of a new book and documentary

EXIT INTERVIEW AND rock legend Patti Smith have something in common: both went to Rowan University (Glassboro State in her day). That’s where the similarities end: Smith, a Deptford High grad, left the ’Boro to become a groundbreaking singer, artist, activist, and inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Exit Interview asks famous people stupid questions. The 61-year-old phoned from Paris to discuss the new biographical book and documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life, and in the process revealed herself to be way more in love with South Jersey and cheesesteaks than expected.

What are you doing in France? I have a few days off, so I’m closing out my exhibition in Paris, then I’m going to Munich to see Waltraud Meier, my favorite opera singer, in Tristan and Isolde. Eventually I’m going to make my way to Beirut to start my tour.

I feel so insignificant. What was your childhood like growing up in South Jersey? I lived in the Deptford Township area. We moved from Germantown. It was very rural in South Jersey in the late ’50s. I gravitated toward art, even as a small child. It was just within me. Although I had a happy childhood, I needed to be where there was more culture available to me.

So the lyrics to your song “Piss Factory” — “I’m gonna be a big star and I will never return/Never return, no, never return, to burn out in this piss factory” … That summed it up. [laughs] I was 16, working at a factory with no air-conditioning, minimum wage, and very grueling, repetitious work. A lot of people worked there their whole lives, either by necessity or design. I really didn’t want to do that.

When you attended Glassboro State College, it was still known as a teacher’s college. Did you want to be a teacher? I wanted to be an artist and a writer, but I didn’t have the money to go to art school, so my alternative was Glassboro. I worked my way through three years, and I got a great education there.

Why did you drop out? I couldn’t pass biology or the higher mathematics. I could get straight A’s in art, writing and student teaching, but I didn’t have the stuff to get through trigonometry.

So we have Glassboro’s advanced math curriculum to thank for all your music. Otherwise, you might have become Professor Smith. [laughs] Well, there’s no shame in that. They had a theater program, and I found I liked performing in front of people.

Did your honorary degree from Rowan University this year rank up there with getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Yes! Of course! For me, one of my proudest things in life was that at Deptford High School, I, in 1964, was Spartan of the Year.

[Laughs] To this day, that’s very important to me.

[Realizes she’s not kidding] Wow. It was an affirmation that people believed in what I was doing, even though I couldn’t exactly say I knew what I was doing. [laughs] So when I look at the things of that type of importance, it was that, receiving a medal from the French Republic, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and getting a Doctor of Letters at the college I attended. They’re all tremendous landmarks that I’m proud of.

They should build a Patti Smith wing at Deptford High or something. [laughs] No, no, no. I just loved my high school. To this day, truthfully, I don’t know why they gave it to me. I wish I’d asked somebody: “Why me?” I wasn’t an exceptional student. I subsequently lost my Spartan of the Year badge, but I still cherish the memory.

Your book and the documentary have been 11 years in the making. That’s an Axl Rose pace. What’s the deal? That’s a little misleading. Steven [Sebring, the director/photographer] intermittently went on the road with me. It had no real design. It’s really Steven’s portrait of me and what I do, whether it’s painting or protesting or taking care of my children.

In the process of Sebring discovering who Patti Smith is, did Patti Smith discover who Patti Smith is? I had lost my husband and my brother and my best friend and my pianist, and I was at a real low in my life. If there’s any message in the film, it’s that despite whatever we go through, if we stay positive and work hard, we’ll prevail.

This is rather random, but have you ever eaten a cheesesteak? Well, yeah, about a thousand of them! I was there not long ago with my son, and we went to Pat’s and Geno’s and had a taste test. My son liked Pat’s. I liked Geno’s. When I go to Philly, that’s the first thing I do. I want to visit Independence Hall, walk the historic streets, and have my cheesesteak. I like it without cheese and with lettuce and hot peppers.

It would blow my mind if I saw Patti Smith walking around the Liberty Bell with a cheesesteak. It’s quite possible.