Patti Smith and the meaning of success

Poster for Richard Branson's Literati interview with Patti Smith
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Published on 28 March 2021

It was such a pleasure to sit down with Patti Smith after selecting her wonderful book, Just Kids, as my Literati Book Club choice for March. Patti and I are just four years apart in age, and we shared many parallel experiences from our youth. When Patti arrived in New York in 1967, I was setting up Student Magazine in London to protest the Vietnam War and amplify the voices of young people. From other sides of the Atlantic, we each lived through an intense period of political and cultural upheaval, and we both became ingrained in the punk movements of New York and London. By the time Virgin Records signed The Sex Pistols, Patti had released Horses and established herself as a punk icon. I clearly remember the record sitting front and centre in our Virgin Records stores, and during our conversation Patti recalled many record signings inside our stores too. After all these years, it was wonderful to finally cross paths and to gain a glimpse inside Patti’s brilliant mind.

Richard Branson interviews Patti Smith for Literati

In case you haven’t read it, Just Kids is part memoir, love story, and eulogy. It recounts Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe’s early days in New York City – where they evolved from skinny wallflowers to leather-clad cultural icons. As lovers, friends, collaborators, and mutual muses, Patti and Robert shared a life-long bond. The day before Robert died of AIDs in 1989, Robert asked Patti to document their youth and how they became artists. Just Kids paints the perfect portrait of their relationship, and how through art, lyrics, hunger, heartbreak, hazy bars, untuned guitars, and a hotel lobby – they each became themselves. As Patti wrote in a letter to Robert before he died:

 “Of all your work, you are still your most beautiful. The most beautiful work of all.”

As I mentioned to Patti, what I love the most about Just Kids is that it is not about their success. I think a book about success can makes for a bit of a boring story. Just Kids is about their struggles and their striving. It’s also a shared journey, where they saw life through one another’s eyes, and it’s all the richer for it. It shows that beyond success and fame, life is made richer by the people around you, and it is always better together. Patti and I also shared a similar thought on success. As she put it: 

“The important thing is the work itself, and everything else around it is - as they say - fleeting.” 

Recognition is not nearly as important as simply doing good work that you’re really proud of – no matter how small or simple that piece of work might be.

Patti and I also discussed the importance of keeping a diary to chart your memories. From the extraordinary moments in your life, to the little things like recipes and passing conversations, it’s always wonderful to look back on these moments and share them with your children and grandchildren. 

Beyond struggling and writing, we also spoke about everything from understanding sexuality, to substance abuse, the power of collaboration, the art of forgiveness, and learning how to shake the dust when sad or bitter feelings do arise. One part of our conversation I loved the most was discussing our shared fascination with Peter Pan, and how we both maintain a childlike sense of wonder. As Patti said:

“As long as I can maintain that sense of things, that sense of myself and yet a sense of wonder, I’ll be able to stay at least 11 going on 75.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I feel all the more youthful after speaking with Patti. I hope you all enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

 You can also join my Literati Book Club here.