She shocked me the first time I saw her. Real old-fashioned shock, the whole bit -- dropped jaw, stunned brain. I was at Reno Sweeney, a Greenwich Village cabaret. She came on stage like the spirit of macho. This 27-year-old skinny punk who hammered out dirty poetry and sang surreal rock songs. Who never smiled. Who was tough, sullen, bad, didn't give a damn. A little Brando, a little Blackboard Jungle. A little Rimbaud, a little rapist, a little off the wall.
Black energy, black clothes. A skinny black jacket. A black shirt buttoned up to the neck. Black peg pants. Black hair, shaggy, coarse. Her face was white and hollowed.
I took only a few notes. "I'm a bad boy" -- a line from a song. "A woman with every vice divine" -- a line from a poem (she's had three books of poetry published). A song in praise of cocaine -- the rhythm was an itch, speed itself.
Mid-act, she dropped her jacket, stripped off her shirt. Stripped down to a white T-shirt, stretched-out and ripped, exposing one bare skimmed-milk white shoulder -- disconcertingly vulnerable. Her hands were vulnerable too -- frail fingers squeezed white on the microphone, waving in the air like seaweed, the nails bitten far down.
"Break it Up" -- a song about the late Jim Morrison. She was seeing him in a dream: he was imprisoned in stone with wings of stone; he was struggling to break free. "Break it up," she sang, "break it up" -- a moan, a prayer, willing him, wailing in a way that twisted my insides with yearning.
A last poem -- a violent fantasy of sex with "Judith Revisited" in a football stadium: "I kick her again, again...."
Nice ladies behind me squirmed in discomfort. I felt both ravaged and exhilarated. And, like I said, shocked -- not by what she said but by the fact that she actually said it. In front of all these nice, these nicely-dressed people. She was a woman who dared to get up on stage and not smile -- not aim to please. She was a dare: be bad, let it out, do it.
May 28, 1975: "I wasn't asking anything of the audience that night," Patti Smith says a year later. "I didn't need anything from them. I held all the energy."
Now, she says, she needs compassion from her audience, "because we're in a growing period. And you start getting more humble when you get more successful, because the audience loves you, and that's what's making you successful, and love makes you humble." Embarrassed, she adds "I'm not saying I'm a pussy or anything. The reason you're arrogant in the first place is because you're not accepted."
A year after Reno Sweeney, she's doing a benefit broadcast for WBAI. Last year, she was the second-billed act. Tonight, and I'd guess from now on, she's number one. She's recently signed a "heavy" contract with Arista Records, the hottest label around, I'm told (her first LP, Horses, is due out in September), and so her days, and nights, as a cult figure are numbered. It's more than likely she's going to be a star.
She's already acting like a star. Last year she had two men backing her (Lenny Kaye on guitar, Richard Sohl on piano). Now, with a third (guitarist Ivan Kral), she has A Group. And the floor in front of her is carpeted with fans. Support everywhere. She's looser than she was a year ago. She smiles, she laughs, she kibbitzes.
"When I was a kid," she tells us, "I didn't have great promise. Okay, so I wasn't a knock-out. And I didn't get a boy and I didn't get a boy so I said, okay earth boys, you've had your chance. If I can't find me an earthling, I'll find me a Mars-shling." Slow, spacy, silvery music rises behind her. "When," she sings, "when will you be landing?" This is a love song to her Martian boyfriend. "Take me in your alien arms and distant fingers."
June 18, 1975. Patti and her manager, Jane Friedman, a small young woman in jeans and short kimono jacket, arrive at my apartment for an interview. Patti is wearing what looks to be a red pajama outfit: a zippered hooded sweatshirt, baggy pants that hover above her ankles, black socks and unique square-toed black shoes that lace up like ballet slippers.
"Patti," I say, hoping to establish a suitably serious tone, "what I really want to know is, who does your hair?" She laughs. "You serious? Me. I do my hair. Yeah. I cut it, I dye it. I put henna in it, the kind for black, not red. I get it from Brooklyn, the Arab quarter. It's this green stuff and you put it in water and you pound it in a mortar and it turns green on your hair and it's real beautiful and then it turns blackish-purple. That's the secret behind my hair," she says, landing with a flourish. "How I cut my hair is like in the early seventies, I had real long black straight hair and so everybody used to ask me if I was a folk singer. So I got real pissed off. I don't want to walk around New York looking like a folk-singer. I like rock 'n' roll. So I got hundreds of pictures of Keith Richards, and I hung them up and then just took scissors and chopped away until I had a real Rolling Stones haircut. But then I looked so much like Keith Richards that I'd be walking in places like in airports, especially in Paris, and girls would run after me. But now, ya know, I want to look a little different so I chopped it different. This is my Artaud-Baudelaire look. I always model it after somebody. When I grow up, I know exactly how I want my hair to look. Like Anouk Aimee's in La Dolce Vita."
(If anyone knew how easy my job is... For the next two hours, with only an occasional steer from me, Patti talks. She is some talker. Funny, playful, enthusiastic, intense, earnest. Her face breaks up into light when she is amused, becomes small and white when she's dead serious or hurt. She'll look into space and go on a verbal trip, those oddly fragile fingers waving, circling, possibly propelling her. No sign of the punk Patti. In my white wicker chair, she is a sophisticate, a primitive; she's a precocious, high-strung kid; a wise-ass, clowning teenager; a philosophical ancient.)
"When are you going to be grown up?"
"When I'm done with rock 'n' roll or when rock 'n' roll is done with me. I can't smoke cigarettes now because I'm singing, but eventually I'll just be doing throaty guttural jazz singing, so I can smoke and look real cool. Real French-Italian. Wear black dresses, black silk stockings. Then later, I'm going back to art -- drawing.
"I've had my whole life planned out since I was a little kid. I knew when I was going to wind up in a gutter and when I was going to be in Carnegie Hall."
In a recent issue of Crawdaddy, she wrote about growing up: "When I was a kid, I had an absolute swagger about the future...I wasn't born to be a spectator." And that swagger, she says now, was "my only survival. I've told this story a million times, but it's the truth. I was very unattractive when I was younger. I had bad skin and I was very skinny and totally awkward. And that," she laughs, "is when I was six. But I was never depressed about it because I had a real ugly duckling sense. The tragedy about the ugly duckling was that no one ever took him aside and said, 'Look. You're ugly now, but it's going to pay off later.' And that was my view of myself. I figured I'd just bide my time. I'm a real optimistic person.
"I have this little revenge game, ya know. Like doing an interview for Mademoiselle -- somebody asked me, 'What are you doing today?' And I said, 'Well, I'm doing a revenge for bad skin.' I was like the kind of girl you would never find in Mademoiselle. I used to tell my friends, 'I'm going to get into all these magazines when I grow up.' "
"Did you know you'd do it through music?"
"No, I just knew it. I always had the desire to extend myself. I never get upset about immediate reality if I don't like it, because I always know there's millions of more realities out there, just like the surrealists say. I used to just telescope myself esthetically right into perfection. I got a lot of hope from Vogue magazine because there were all these skinny weird girls in it. And art. Art saved me. My family would say, 'Don't worry about what you look like. Picasso is the greatest artist in the world, and look at his idealistic picture of women.' They'd show me these angular-looking Blue Period women, and it would make me feel real good.
"But as far as having a pulse beat on my future, I just had a lot of desire. And I always do everything I want. I was never discouraged. I'm not discouraged by nothing.
"And when I came to New York, I learned that nothing is impossible. I love New York, ya know? I had a lot of trouble in Jersey, even though I have this big romance with Jersey. Everybody thought I was weird. I'm not weird at all. I'm just probably ahead of my time or something." Her chin rises defiantly, "I wasn't weird" -- her voice is louder as she argues with invisible accusers. "Sometimes I would try in my way to look like Verushka or somebody, but they didn't understand that in Jersey. I came to New York and nobody gave a shit what I wore....So many different rhythms going on in New York. There's no place that seduces you and perverts you and inspires you like New York does.
"But anyway, when I came to New York, I had a lot of growing pains. I was very, very shattered because I had gone through a lot of different things, like going from one life to another, I'd had a kid...."
Patti had done time at a teacher's college in Glassboro, N.J., where, with her trench coat and dark glasses -- "I was in my Greta Garbo period" -- she was assumed to be a subversive and the head of an anti-war group. "I was so innocent," she laughs, "I didn't even know there was a war on. All I knew was Smokey Robinson, James Brown, Bob Dylan." She had wanted to be an artist, but couldn't afford formal training. So she accepted a scholarship to Glassboro and spent Saturdays hanging around an art school in Philadelphia. There she learned to dress like a beatnik. "All I knew in South Jersey was black culture. In Philly, I learned about the Jewish culture. They were so hip. They wore black leotards, they had sports cars and all these art supplies. So I went back to Glassboro dressed like a Jewish art student." Glassboro was not enchanted. And Patti wasn't exactly a terrific student. "I failed everything -- I was so undisciplined." And then she "sort of got in trouble," she says, a little awkwardly, "you know, the way girls get in trouble."
...bloated. pregnant. I crawl thru the sand. like a
lame dog. like a crab. pull my fat baby belly to the
sea. pure edge. pull my hair out by the roots.
roll and drag and claw like a bitch.
like a bitch. like a bitch. 67 'april
-- Seventh Heaven, Telegraph Books, '72
She had the baby, gave it up for adoption, and then she came to New York.
"I was a very naive person," she says. "Even with getting into trouble, I was sort of virginal, and there were so many weird things in New York. A lot of sexual stuff -- not just happening to me, just happening -- that I had to realize was part of life. I had lived such a sheltered childhood, so family-oriented, and all of a sudden I was on my own. And that's when I learned that anything is possible. People in Jersey..." she leans forward in her chair, almost angry. "They don't realize that all you have to do is get on the fucking train and you're in New York. In New York, all you have to do is get on a plane and you're in Paris. It seems impossible. Money is one thing. You can always hustle the money. People don't realize we have these built-in seven-league boots. The body can go anywhere. It is physically capable of sustaining almost any kind of abuse, or any dream."
Her "sheltered, family-oriented childhood" was spent, as you may have gathered, in South Jersey. She has two sisters, a brother, she's the oldest, "and we're just real close knit. I wasn't like rebellious or anything, because we had it really tough financially when I was young. My father and mother worked all the time. My mother was a waitress and my dad worked in a factory. My father is a really intelligent man. He's always into developing the country of his mind. He hungers to read almost everything -- the Bible, flying saucers, physics. And he developed in us a hunger for learning without trying to cash in on it.
"My mother is really fantasy-oriented. No matter how bad things were, if we didn't have any food, or my father was on strike, she was always great in weaving a fantasy world, telling us fairy stories, or getting us involved in stories.
"I was pretty creative too. I would write a play and make everybody a part, with costumes. We didn't rely on toys and television sets for our pleasure. We relied on our cleverness. I think that helps me a lot now. On stage a lot of times, I'll find myself with my throat messed up and I can't sing, or I'm too uptight to sing, but instead of falling apart I try to use that old cleverness. I try to think of a joke or use the situation to my advantage. Like Johnny Carson. I learned a lot from Johnny Carson -- bailing out, ya know. He's a real big influence on me. Anybody great is. I admire greatness in any form. A great cook, a great hairdresser. I'm known as being like a street kid and that's true on one end, but I love all really good stuff. If I had millions of dollars, I'd buy all my stuff at Bergdorf's. I love real good cloth -- I'm a cloth fetishist. Good cottons, silks -- that's what I like to wear most."
Those red "pajama" bottoms turn out to be raw silk, bought in Paris a few years ago, and made in China, from whence comes this year's most honored looks. Fashionwise, Patti Smith is crazy, crazy like a fox.
"I'll probably always wear black peg pants and little T-shirts because I look good in them. People think, ya know, that I wear what I wear to shock people. I don't. That's the way I've dressed since I was 17."
What I want to know now is where she gets the nerve, not to wear what she wears, to say what she says.
"It's not really nerve. It's because I was versed in art. The difference between me and entertainers, say like Helen Reddy, is that maybe they wanted to be entertainers most of their lives so they fit what they did into the rules and regulations of the entertainment business. but I was always into art, and you don't have any rules and regulations in art. You don't have any morals or gender in art."
"But, I say, you seem not to care about being liked up there. At Reno Sweeney, you were standing in front of a middle-class audience and saying things that middle-class people don't say because they want to be thought nice, they want to be liked."
"You have to understand," she says. "I'm not a middle-class person. I was like a lower-class person with upper-class esthetics. I was like a girl with no money living in a farm and reading Vogue magazine. Those were my two references. I wasn't really aware of the middle class, of their rules and regulations, so I don't have any self-consciousness about offending them. I'm always real surprised and sometimes hurt when people say stuff like that." She looks hurt now.
Once again, she has to defend herself. "First of all, I really do want to be liked. I tell jokes all the time. I mean, why do you think people get on stage? I'm not a masochist. I want people to applaud. I mean, just like Lenny Bruce. Do you think Lenny Bruce didn't want to be loved by everybody? He did, and anybody who gets on a stage wants to be loved. All that stuff I talk about on stage, that's completely spontaneous. My goals on stage are no different than Edith Piaf's or Mick Jagger's. Without being neurotic about it, ya know, I want everybody to love me." She's focusing on her lap; now, lifts her head and half-smiles: "Look it. If they don't love you, how you gonna make a buck?"
The cynicism is unconvincing. Her eyes look wounded. They are huge, those eyes, a deep Mediterranean blue, the lashes dense and black, the eyebrows black lightning bolts. The eyes are extraordinary in that stark face, a woman's eyes.
female. feel male. Ever since I felt the need to choose, I'd choose male...
-- Seventh Heaven
Like Mick Jagger, Patti is often labeled "androgynous." Her third book of poetry, Witt, begins with a notice identifying herself as being "without mother, gender or country."
"That's just an artist statement," she says. "It has nothing to do with me personally. You can't worry about gender when you're doing Art on its Highest Level." (She was talking in capitals there.) "I mean [back to natural], Rimbaud talked about the male and female within him, Artaud talked about it, every great artist does. I'm working on it in popular forms, but the rules in my heart are the rules of art which are almost no rules at all, expect to aspire for greatness, aspire to heavenly heights and all that stuff.
"I'm just saying that androgyny isn't a concern of mine. Critics talk about that kind of stuff. I'm a woman and I love men, but also I enjoy women. Female images excite me more than male images. In my poetry, I write about women because I'm a woman and artists are very narcissistic. People are narcissistic."
...there she is on the hill pale as a posy
getting soaking wet. hope her petticoats shrink.
well little shepherd girl your gonna kingdom come.
looking so clean; the guardian of every little lamb.
well beep beep sheep I'm moving in...
-- Witt,Gotham Book Mart, 1973
"When you write about yourself as a seducer of women," I ask, "or as a rapist, are you fantasizing how you want to be treated?"
"I think of myself not as male or female or rapist but as a comedian. When I writ [sic] that poem, I thought there were great jokes in it, like 'I'm a wolf in a lamb skin trojan.' When I'm writing, I'm just like a novelist. Novelists have to slip into the skins of all kinds of people and so do I. I'd like to taste everything in life and I probably won't get a chance to rape or murder anybody, so sometimes I just psych myself up to feel like a rapist or a murderer. To write that rape poem, I read all these articles about Richard Speck. He was really a disgusting guy -- he wore ski sweaters and had short hair. And I just lurked about the room for a while, letting the saliva come out of my mouth, till I felt like Speck.
"And the truth of the matter is I'm really a late bloomer. I'm still a tomboy, old as I am. When I was writing my Seventh Heaven book, which has a lot about women and seducing girls, I was in my early twenties and going through this big crisis that I had to learn how to become a girl. Then I was a total boy. I was walking around like 'Don't Look Back,' I was part Bob Dylan, part Keith Richards, and I figured, fuck guys, I got to learn how to be a girl. So I went totally overboard. I started buying dresses and gold bracelets and going to watch Jeanne Moreau moving over and over and over again. Watching the way she walked, trying to walk in high heels, buying silk stockings, garter belts, sitting around completely self-conscious with all this stuff, trying to figure out how to mingle a garter belt with a Rolling Stone hairdo. I was trying to find out what all this girl stuff meant. I still don't know how to put on makeup. I still don't know how to walk in shoes higher than sneakers. When all my girlfriends were learning how to pull girl tricks, how to be a girl, I was like 'Ah, girls are stupid, girls are dumb.' All I cared about was art and being pals with the guys, being tough.
"And then I got real involved in being a seducer of women. And if I couldn't do it on a real level," she grins, teasing, "and maybe I did do it on a real level, but I ain't telling all yet -- I'll wait for Kenneth Anger to call me up -- then I'd do it on a fantasy level. And some of those poems, I writ to me. You know, I'd sit right down and write myself a letter. Sometimes, if a guy would do me wrong, I'd pretend I was the guy talking to me.
"I get into so many genders I couldn't even tell you. I've written from the mouth of a dog, a horse, dead people, anything. I don't limit myself to anything. Some of the best sex I ever had was with Rimbaud or Jimi Hendrix. I call them my brainiac- amours. Nothing sick about it, ya know. I get a lot of good poetry out of it. Me and Rimbaud have made it a million times.
"Is he good?"
"Oh yeah. Really big hands. I'm obsessed with hands. And really, part of the reason I was so obsessed about women, and so acting like a snot all the time, saying 'women are stupid, I don't like women's lib,' was because I was afraid of the woman in myself. And I didn't want to admit to myself that I really didn't know nothing about how women are held back. I never felt held back. I was like a little animal all my life. I was given free rein.
"And I'm not the kind of person who likes movements. Dogmas, tests, rules -- I'm a real anti-person that way. Anything I ever got involved in, like religion, like school, these rules came down like a big shutter, to shut out all the light from pouring in. But I always admire change, and I see these movements initiating change. I just don't like getting stuffed in categories.
June 26, 1975: Patti is appearing at The Other End, a Village club. She walks in during the first act, greeting friends, touching hands -- there's something of the young Frank Sinatra in her now, his con-man cool, his wiry grace. On stage, she is now backed by four men: finally she has a drummer -- Jay Daugherty ("I never wanted a drummer, but Jane said 'Vachel Lindsay had a drummer,' so..."). Underneath the black silk shirt is a Keith Richards T-shirt, in honor of the Stones' visit to New York. Also in New York is Bob Dylan, who is perched unobtrusively at the bar, a Patti Smith fan. (Later, backstage, he and Patti will be almost speechlessly shy with each other, and pose together for photographs that make the first page of a few newspapers: Dylan confers blessings on Smith.)
Hard to believe this is the same Patti Smith I saw a year ago.
She is exuberant, clowning. As her opening song promised, "We're
gonna have a real good time together." And she's become a real
good rock singer. She closes with "Gloria" -- a storm of a song -
- knocking herself out, which is what one wants of a rock singer.
She's changing the lyrics as she goes, announcing the new
drummer, "And nothing can stop me now," she is chanting to the
rhythm, "not even...slow motion."
Copyright © Amy Gross 1975