Patti Smith has the most famous fan club in the world, but she carries her superstar connections lightly. She may be a multimedia artist who counts Dylan, Springsteen, Bono and Michael Stipe as friends, but the charismatic rock poet still thinks of herself as a "19th century personality", and prefers to play fanfares for the common man. "I don't have an image of myself when I'm walking down the street as a rock star," says Smith, still a lean and intense live wire at 61, even beneath a straggly thatch of greying hair. "I'm a human being and a friend and a mom and a writer and an artist. I play electric guitar and all that, but I'm just a person. I don't believe people playing rock 'n' roll should have crowns. We're not kings and queens. Rock 'n' roll belongs to the people."
These are prolific times for Smith. She has released five studio albums, four retrospectives and one live recording since emerging from a long period of hibernation in 1995. Three years ago, she curated London's prestigious Meltdown arts festival. Last year, she was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Right now, a major exhibition of her artwork and journals is on show at the Cartier Foundation in Paris.
Meanwhile, in between writing songs for her next album, Smith is currently promoting a remarkable low-budget documentary about her life and work. Mostly shot in dreamy monochrome by the former fashion photographer Steven Sebring, Dream of Life is an impressionistic screen portrait of the singer, her music, her passions, family and friends. Dream of Life traces a stream-of-consciousness journey from Smith's working-class roots in rural New Jersey, where she devoured William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud, to her current global renown as a rock icon, poet and political activist. It's an unorthodox and self-indulgent portrait in places, but haunting and touching too.
"We met in Detroit in 1995, on a photo shoot," Sebring explains. "Michael Stipe brought me to Patti and there was an immediate spiritual connection." "It was like God gave me a new brother," Smith recalls. "I'd lost my brother at the end of 1994, then Steven came. It only took me a few minutes to know that God had given me a new brother." The earliest footage in Dream of Life dates back to 1995, when Smith was reeling from the untimely death of her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, and brother Todd in quick succession. Formerly of the radical Detroit rockers MC5, Fred Smith died of a heart attack in November 1994, aged just 45. Smith credits him with expanding her political and musical education during their 15 years together as a family in Detroit, when both put music largely on hold to raise their two children, Jackson and Jesse.
"The most important and beautiful thing Steven did in this movie, without even planning to, was to make my husband felt so much in it," says Smith. "It made me so happy because he's very present to me in the movie. Through his kids, through reminiscences, through his photographs, through hearing his voice." To help the newly widowed Smith overcome her grief, friends encouraged her to make music and play live again - friends like Michael Stipe of REM, who recorded a duet with her, and Bob Dylan, who invited her out on tour.
"Bob Dylan gave me my first tour in 16 years," Smith gushes. "To start out again after 16 years with Bob Dylan is just the greatest experience. He knew it was difficult for me, not just because I hadn't performed for 16 years, but because I'd lost my husband who I thought I would be scrubbing floors for - for the rest of my life - happily." Dylan appears briefly in Dream of Life, in a typically elusive background cameo. Other celebrity fans are not so shy. The playwright Sam Shepard, a friend from way back, strums a guitar duet with Smith while Stipe, Bono, Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers all pay homage to her inspirational music.
"All of these people, I listen to them and I can't really hear any influence," Smith frowns. "If they say we gave them any inspiration then I'm proud of that, but all these people have done great work. I know Bono well enough to put him in the movie. Michael Stipe and Flea are two of my best friends. Sam Shepard too, all good people. They were all supportive when I had to come back, because of fate, into the public eye."
Another of the ghosts haunting Dream of Life is photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith's former lover and longtime friend, who took the iconic androgynous cover shot that adorned Smith's 1975 debut album, Horses. Mapplethorpe became notorious for his sexually explicit images before dying of Aids in 1989, aged just 42. Smith paid homage to her late soulmate with her 1996 book The Coral Sea, setting it to music a decade later in collaboration with the avant-garde guitarist Kevin Shields. An album of this performance is being released in July, while the singer is planning a further literary tribute to Mapplethorpe.
"I'm writing a book about Robert," Smith nods, "because I promised him I would, before he died. Also, many people have written about that period. But I can tell you, anything you read about that period of my life and Robert's - my main criticism, aside from all the lies and exaggerations, is that it's devoid of magic. That period had a very special magic and no one has ever captured it." The New York Times has dubbed Smith the "Godmother of Punk". But she points out that she began performing with her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye in 1971, five years before punk rock was even christened. Kaye has even called The Patti Smith Group "the last of the Sixties bands." That said, Smith was certainly a key catalyst behind the US punk boom, which emerged from legendary downtown Manhattan dives like CBGBs and Max's Kansas City in the mid 1970s.
"We wanted to get rock'n'roll back to the grass roots, back into the hands of the people," Smith recalls. "CBGBs gave us a place where we could play our own music and dress the way we wanted. None of us had any money, we just came and did our work, and it was a great outlet for us. The idea for me was that rock 'n' roll could start a universal people's movement that would be anti-war, vigilant towards our environment, and free... then things flowered and evolved into punk rock."
Smith's political rage has sharpened since her 1970s punk-poet days, as Dream of Life demonstrates. A fierce opponent of George W Bush, she supported the Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and the Democrat John Kerry in recent US election campaigns. Bruce Springsteen still plays her rousing 1988 solidarity anthem People Have The Power, co-written with her late husband, at Rock the Vote rallies. "Artists have been very dull through the Bush administration," Smith complains. "I'm disappointed, but a lot of it was out of fear after September 11. There has been a lot of fear and silence in my country. I don't think the Bush administration has been good for anything. It wasn't good for art, it wasn't good for music, it wasn't good for the world, and it certainly wasn't good for Iraq."
Smith's 2004 album Trampin' contained one of the first recorded protest songs against the Iraq war, Radio Baghdad. More recently, she has written angry lyrics condemning Israel's air strike on the Lebanese town of Qana, and the four-year incarceration of the Guantanamo Bay prisoner Murat Kurnaz. "I don't want to be politically active, I want to do my work," Smith shrugs. "I want to write poetry and make people laugh, I don't want to have to go to rally after rally against the war. But one has to do that. It's just common sense. We have to speak out. But I would like to see an environment where one could actually concentrate on creating instead of protesting against people who are destroying."