Patti Smith On The Meaning Of Success And The Power Of Improvisation

The music legend’s Tribeca Film Festival conversation with Ethan Hawke was a love letter to Chet Baker and theater.

Creativity seems to know no bounds with Patti Smith.


The singer/poet/novelist has etched out her place as a pop culture legend with landmark albums like Horses and National Book Award-winning memoirs like Just Kids. During a discussion with Ethan Hawke at the Tribeca Film Festival, Smith explained her definition of success, how improvisation has guided her career, and even the Chet Baker collaboration that never was.

When Money Trumps Art: Mourning the Chet Baker Cameo that Could’ve Been

When we were recording Horses in 1975, the last song on Horses was an elegy and the last lines were trumpets and violins. I thought it would be so cool to have Chet Baker improvise for a few minutes. He said he’d do it and then his agent got a hold of the whole thing. Just when he was going to record, they demanded $5,000. Well, in 1975 when you have a $20,000 budget for a whole album, $5,000 is a lot of money. And I was still working at the Strand Bookstore and I was making, like, $2,000 a year. But always when I hear this song he’s there in my head. Even though he didn’t play on it, I hear the echo of him.

Finding Creative Freedom in Learning How to Improvise

Sam [Shepard] and I wrote this play [Cowboy Mouth] because we had a relationship, which truthfully we shouldn’t have had because he had a family. But we were young, and we knew we had to end our relationship. So we write this play as sort of our swan song. I said, I don’t know how to write a play. And he said, you’re the girl, I’m the guy, just do what I say. He writes a little set up and he says something and hands me the typewriter, so I just answer him and we write out a whole play that way. And then he decided that we should perform it. There was a part in the play where Sam wanted us to have a battle of language. So he said this is where Slim, his character, he improvises his language and then Cavale, my character, improvises back. And I said, how do we do that? What will I say? And he said, I’ll say stuff and you just say stuff back at me. And I said, what if I make a mistake? And he said, Patti Lee, it’s improvising–you can’t make a mistake. If you miss a beat, then you invent another beat and that made perfect sense to me. And [with] that little instruction, I learned how to improvise, which has served me my whole life in everything I do. It’s one of the greatest lessons I got from Sam.

Success is What You Make It

The only real success is when you’ve done something well. It’s beautiful to get recognition, and it’s kind of fun, but it’s finishing a poem, or you do a certain performance and you know you’ve done a good job–that’s success.


About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.