patti 'n' the record biz

[from article by Tony Hiss and David McClelland, The New York Times Magazine, December 21, 1975]

'Gonna be so big!
Gonna be a star,
Watch me now!'

So sings Patti Smith, legitimate
poet turned rock artist. She has
lived; her lyrics show scar tissue.

Patti Smith is having a wonderful time these days. She's 29, she started singing two years ago, and five weeks ago today Clive Davis's new record company, Arista, released her first album, "Horses," to immediate praise from, among others, this newspaper's pop music critic and columnist, John Rockwell. Rockwell called it "an extraordinary disk every minute of which is worth repeated hearings." The cover of "Horses" shows Patti posed à la Frank Sinatra, standing with a suit jacket thrown over her shoulder -- Frank's a Jersey kid like Patti. This is a conscious allusion and typical of Patti's humor: She doesn't see any reason why she shouldn't be as big a star as Frank, but she finds the whole business of stardom worthy of parody. So far, both Rolling Stone and Earl Wilson are calling her a rock 'n' roll queen, and her album is selling briskly -- 80,000 copies to date. Next weekend, Patti will be giving seven already sold out shows at New York's No. 1 rock club, the Bottom Line.

Naturally, over at Arista everyone's feeling fine and pondering graceful and efficient patterns for inserting Patti into the vocabulary of every receptive American household, and wondering just which and where those households might be. Now this is an alchemy much like politics. If you can put together a broad enough coalition, you get elected. At the moment, Patti's music -- a unique combination of fairy tales, gleeful excitement, melodic singing, spitting, unshed tears of childhood, hypnotic reiteration, teasing, dancing, masturbatory fantasies, sheet-metal schooldays and chunks of real 50's and 60's hard-rock songs -- appeals to these namable groups: the New York SoHo hip, weird kids in remote towns, socialites and Clive Davis.

"She knocked me out," says Davis, who has a talent for being knocked out by people who will knock out millions. Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Sly, Paul Simon. The problem in the music business, as they say, is breaking talent out of the pockets -- meaning little isolated areas that show an interest -- and Clive's bedazzlement is an indication that Patti can transcend her particular pockets. There is an apocryphal story in the music business: David Geffen, a young record executive who wanted to strike out on his own, asked Ahmet Ertegun, the chairman of Atlantic Records, how you really make it big. Ertegun put on his overcoat, pulled a hat down over his eyes, stared at the floor and began stumbling around his office knocking into furniture and walls. "Get it?" "No," said the kid. "All right, I'll do it once more." He did it again. "Explain," said the kid. Ertegun explained. "You walk down the street and you run into a genius." Davis says, "I myself have always naturally gravitated toward someone who is unique." A big-time public-relations guy who makes his stand where Madison meets 57th says, "Sure, she'll be a star. Clive needs one."

Record companies need silk to make silk purses. Talent destined for monstrous nationwide recognition -- old industry phrase -- still needs that old intangible. At 29, Patti Smith knows she's got it. On stage, she burns like a white filament dressed in black, spitting, crooning, screaming a volcano of lyrics about sex, U.F.O.'s, horses, internal voyages, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, loneliness, adolescence, beaches, possibilities, Arthur Rimbaud. You have to listen hard to Patti Smith, and that's part of her appeal. She's the first legit, published (two books) poet to move her poetry completely into rock 'n' roll, and because rock is now 20 years old, she can play on a wealth of associations that any audience will be bringing to her performances. So she splices phrases like "Do the Watusi!" and "She's so fine" into her intricate and often highly intellectual songs. The very sight of Patti on stage evokes images of rock history -- shaggy black hair like that of Keith Richards, pegged black pants like those of the young Bob Dylan, and a high-strung youthful defiance that: harks back to dozens of hard-rock hopefuls in local clubs in the late 50's and early 60's. But she also sometimes looks like a pretty little girl, and all the influences are fused into a presence that is instantly recognizable as original. She talks her songs in places, but when she sings she has good pitch, good breath control and command of a full range of tones -- sharp, rasping, rounded, sweet.

Patti has come to rock not only as a poet but with a professional background as a playwright (who has collaborated with Sam Shepard), an actress, an artist who has exhibited at the Gotham Book Mart Gallery, and a rock journalist published by Creem and -- on one occasion -- Rolling Stone. She began as a singer only two years ago and has quickly worked her way up through the clubs. For an account of where she's now headed, and how she's going to get there, we turn, via phone, to Michael J. Klenfner, director of national publicity for Arista, a young man who -- industry expression again -- gives good phone.

"Tony and Dave, this is one you've got to handle with kid gloves, as tastefully as possible, tastefullier, if possible. When you're on the road without any product, as we are this week, you try to spread a word on her, get people ready so they'll listen to Patti from side to side. It may take one good listening, two good listenings, for them to find out she's not a New York street punk chick. There's no cursing in the album, so it shouldn't offend anybody. You have to treat it very gently, we can't just include it with a stack of new releases. If you go in and say, 'I've got the new Bob Dylan,' they'll laugh at you. It's not the new Bob Dylan, it's the new Patti Smith. Patti's not just another artist to me. You always have a doubt, but there hasn't been a real good chick like this in a long time. I find her real bright and easy to talk to, and with Patti and her manager, Jane Friedman, we're dealing with management and artist attuned to what we're trying to do. Sometimes, managements and artists are a hindrance."

Us: "Mike, Clive Davis told us that 'sometimes' means 95 percent of the time."

Mike: "Clive's a great guy. The point with Patti is: As much as we put out, she'll put out for us, and that's a great feeling, you really have to have it. That means we can take her out to a city like Philly and do a little day of radio-and-press combined tour, and when they meet her they'll like her. Any time you have any little hook other than the little piece of vinyl, it really helps. You've got to promote your own promotion staff -- a key move -- promote them, turn them all on, move them beyond their own job level, become so they're burning in their own office. So now the local man in Denver knows who produced the album -- he's had all that information injected into his head -- and now he's waiting for the album with baited breath, and he's forewarned: He knows she's never appeared before a group larger than 250 people -- she's only performed in a few places. I would pick the album to start big in San Francisco, Boston, Philly, and then you've got to expand into the Clevelands, the Houstons, Texases, the Albuquerques, the Missouris, the Kansas Cities -- that's going to be the really hard part. But, of course, the country's not that big. News can filter from L.A. to Maine in a couple of days. Try to create the excitement in strong areas and then take it where it has not happened yet.

"You must build an FM base for an artist. FM radio's in this ballpark to stay, and it's big. I mean, no-joke big. More than tens of millions of people listen to FM stations every day. If you don't have a Top 40 single, and you don't have an FM base, there's nothing to fall back on. And extensive FM play of the album can create demand for a single. If it don't get played, it don't get hoid, and if it don't get hoid, it don't get bought. It's key, it's crucial. The way to do it is to make people feel like this is their discovery, just like I'm sure you, Tony and Dave, like to feel that she's your discovery. You have to build up your own little army of Patti Smith knowers. Then the army becomes troops, the troops become legions, and then you've got mass appeal." Nevertheless, Patti is something of an acquired taste, and all the hype machinery can do is set the table.

At the Arista first-anniversary concert at the City Center in September, Patti faced a couple of thousand people for the first time and received an ovation. On stage, Patti opts for black in order to emphasize her pallor and seeming emaciation. Her costume is replete with metonymic significance. Every article of clothing evokes a name and every name evokes a state of mind. For someone who looks rather like the 101st Neediest Case, Patti pays a great deal of attention to the way she dresses.

She explicates: "A black boy's suit jacket from Saks Fifth Avenue. Once, I went to Saks and watched a 13-year-old Catholic boy and his mother choose a suit, then I bought the same one. It's my Baudelaire dress suit. Then a white cotton T-shirt -- either one with Keith Richards's picture or a Performance Cycles shirt. On top of that, a black silk shirt. Black pegged pants. Sometimes a black schoolboy's tie or a black ribbon satin tie. Then white shoes, a tribute to the Rolling Stones' 'High Tide and Green Glass' greatest hits album. Brian Jones always wore white shoes, Mick does. It's a rock 'n' roll tradition. Jeff Beck always wears white sneaks. I wear either white ballet slippers or white Capezios." Patti's notebooks reveal that she disliked the clothes her mother chose for her: "Easter . . . condemned to my fresh starched dress (blue)."

In many of her interviews -- and she has a good rap, having interviewed herself inside her own head for the last 20 years -- she talks about going beyond gender. The general effect on stage is before gender. There's often a sort of a strip during the act. The jacket is thrown on the floor fairly soon; then she untucks the black shirt and opens it at the rate of about a button every five minutes. Ultimately, it comes off. The T-shirt stays on. The jacket goes back on only during "Birdland," a song about Wilhelm Reich's son Peter getting picked up by a U.F.O. after his daddy's death.

Two other components of the act:

Dancing: She doesn't run around the stage a lot, but she is continually moving in place, punching at the audience with both fists or waving her long fingers, tossing her hair, pumping her pelvis and strutting. Patter: Her manner invites catcalls, and she enjoys fielding heckles with lines derived from Johnny Carson's monologues and "The Joker is Wild," Frank .Sinatra's film bio of Joe E. Lewis -- "If you had your life to live over again, don't do it."

Behind her are "my boys," as she calls them, her band: Lennie Kaye, M.A. in American history, Rutgers, lead guitar; Richard Sohl, a.k.a.. DNV, piano; Ivan Kral from Prague, bass, and Jay Daugherty, drums. They just play loud, hard, driving rock.

Patti's a smart performer. Using techniques similar to those recommended by Antonin Artaud, who created the "Theater of Cruelty," she sets up a powerful dramatic tension by alternately scaring and eliciting protective feelings from an audience. She aims for the groin and the spine, and as soon as people realize she wants them to like her, they usually do, and things start to cook. Energy flows up the spine. The words, Patti's own, are generally very important and occasionally just there to set up a texture of good old straight id material. Patti explains that she tries to work herself into a certain state where she won't know what she's going to say next, but can speak directly from a certain myth-generating part of her mind. She is really an expert at that and can obviously do it under any circumstances. "I have a lot to learn about records and mixing and things like that, but nobody can tell me about the magic. The magic is completely under control."

It's certainly the most literate magic in rock 'n' roll. "Birdland," the song set at Wilhelm Reich's funeral, was written after Patti read Peter Reich's "A Book of Dreams." It is her visionary interpretation of young Reich's experience as a little boy, his experience imagining his father returning for him in a fleet of black flying saucers that looked somewhat like the black limousines in the cortege. Patti's "Birdland" lyrics phosphoresce with a dark glow never before found in any kind of rock:

  and the little boys face lit
	with such naked joy
  that his eyes were like
	two suns the sun burnt
  his lids and his eyes were
	like two white opals
  and he saw everything
	just a little too clearly
  there was no black ship
	around no funeral cars
  cept him raven and he
	fell on his knees and
  Nooo daddy dont leave
	me here alone*

A far cry from "Purple People Eater." The British electrogalactic rock 'n' growl group Pink Floyd produced early on in its career sci-fi sound collages, such as "Set Your Controls for the Heart of the Sun," but Pink Floyd was deadly serious, while Patti, who is writing rock songs about saucers and death and sex and gritty street violence, can look at all these potentially scary subjects with a sense of humor and thereby demonstrate that they do not have real power over her. Patti's songs, in a sense, are counterspells, attempts to release herself and the audience from all the dark forces of late 20th-century delusions. To accomplish this feat, she will sometimes play off deeply disturbing lyrics against comfortable, upbeat, finger-poppin' rock tunes. "Redondo Beach" is a stark lyric about a girl friend's suicide at a Lesbian beach:

  everyone was singing
  girl is washed up
  on redondo beach
  and everyone is so sad

  I went looking for you
  but you are gone gone

  pretty little girl
  everyone cry
  she was the victim
  of sweet suicide

  I went looking for you
  but you are gone gone

Patti makes the song bearable by throwing it away as a light Jamaican reggae tune and singing it almost as a parody with stylized 50's tear-drying mime.

When Patti was a little girl out in very rural southern New Jersey, she was the family entertainment. After her mother got home from work, she enjoyed having Patti spin together long wondrous tales out of the "Arabian Nights" and all the fairy-tale books she'd bought for her kids. It apparently comforted her mother, and it makes audiences feel good, too. In the months we've been showing up at her performances, her confidence in her ability to conjure for larger than family-sized audiences has grown steadily.

At the Arista concert, you could see the trials and accomplishments of a year's work in the small New York clubs. Very nervous at first, defiant, here I am; can I do it; oh, no, I can't do it; I've got to do it; I came all this way to do it; I'm gonna do it. She said as much to the audience in the middle of her third song, "Land," and in songs four and five she then did it. She never really played to the second balcony, where we sat, but then neither did any of the other Arista artists on the bill. Bette Midler, encountered in the lobby, said, "I like her!"

On the new record, "Land," which is based on, or encloses, Fats Domino's smash 60's single, "Land of a Thousand Dances," and which has always been one of Patti's most violent songs, concerns itself at length with the death of Jimi Hendrix, an archangel in the Smith pantheon. It's the song Patti's worked on the longest. She began it two years ago when she first thought of merging singing with spoken improvisation. The recorded version of the improvisation, the six-minute "la mer(de)," comes straight from Patti's magic center, her molten nickel-iron core. It's a spiraling, full-tilt surrealist fantasy that evokes the "sea of possibilities" and ends in a culminating image of Hendrix's final, soundless death scream. It's the longest song on the album and, as far as Patti's concerned, the most important she's written. The central figure of the "Land" improvisation is always a Patti-persona named Johnny, but his adventures vary with Patti's "current obsession," as she calls it. One of Patti's interests is discussing her own work -- humorously, but with a meticulous, critical, analytical curiosity.

In discussing "Land" with us, Patti spun out a quick recap of her and Johnny's obsessions. "I'm never bored, I always have a new obsession. I started the first 'Land' -- this was Upstairs at Max's Kansas City -- with a recitation of a New York poem from 'Witt' [her second book of poetry]. The poem's about a carnival of fools in a city where you can't see the stars, but I gave it a New York ballad rendition -- you know, let's keep on laughing, let's keep on dancing. Then, as I got more confident, it was Scheherazade: 'Welcome to the Palace of a Thousand Sensations. It hopes you will lose it here, baby.' Then it got real sadistic, I don't know how that happened [short laugh], and got mixed up with a dream I had when I was 16 about a hallway plastered with six-foot posters of nuns and me running along burning holes in their groins with a cigarette. Then it was Arabia, Mexico, U.F.O.'s, razors, jackknives, horses and in some notes I wrote last Dec. 16 -- the 701st birthday of the great Persian mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi -- Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. Twenty versions got lost when I lost a notebook I had been writing in for three years. The way I'd write versions of it -- I learned this from Genet, who wrote in prison so he could turn himself on and masturbate -- I'd sit at the typewriter and type until I felt sexy, then I'd go and masturbate to get high, and then I'd come back in that higher place and write some more. But no matter how much, how many times I tried to transform the song in my notebooks, I always landed in my immediate environment. Because I am a performer, I am influenced by my environment, even though I get the weird plots from the country in my mind. So it's not a Ninja song on the record. ...You don't know Ninja? Listen, nobody else has this -- I'm giving you guys the scoop. Sixteenth-century Japan - invisible assassins, masters of disguise who could mix and melt into any situation. A proverb of theirs: 'A raincoat does not necessarily intimate the presence of a man.'"

"What kind of people did they off?" we asked, whipping out the notebook.

"Yeah," said Jane Friedman, Patti's long-time friend. "Poor, hardworking folk."

"No, no," said Patti. "The enemy. Oh, I guess I'm getting abstract."

Patti prefers to be concrete, having often had to face many concrete realities while growing up. Her father was a factory worker in Chicago, and she was born on the South Side, moving to G.I. housing in Philadelphia when she was 4. In Philadelphia, she contracted scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, mumps, chicken pox and double pneumonia. She had a wandering left eye and wore an eye patch for years because her parents couldn't afford an operation. A strong childhood memory is of getting lost in fever hallucinations.

When she was 8, the family moved to a small development house in southern New Jersey near a swamp and several pig farms. Her father worked a night shift in a factory and her mother was away during the day as a waitress. Patti, who didn't like living in the country, spent most of her time with her younger brother and sister. She thought of herself as Jo, in "Little Women," raising a family. Her father read the Bible, Bertrand Russell, mythologist Joseph Campbell and books about U.F.O.'s. Patti idolized her father, but didn't see him much. When she was punished by her mother, she felt objective and observing, as if she were watching it happen to someone else.

As a teenager, she had bad skin and felt she was homely. She wanted to be a boy and recalls feeling angry when her breasts began to develop. She turned on to rock at about the age of 6 and has always loathed folk music. Her childhood ambition was to be an archeologist. Several kindly souls took an interest in her -- an early art teacher and a professor of art history at Glassboro State College, a school she attended before becoming pregnant.

While pregnant, she lived in New Jersey's Pine Barrens with a hippie vegetarian couple. When her child was born, she gave it up for adoption. She worked in Philadelphia in a factory, and then came to New York in 1969 with $16 and the vision of becoming the mistress of famous artists. At that stage of her life, she was still having fairly frequent and highly disorienting visual hallucinations. Robert Mapplethorpe, her first artist and continuing friend -- he took the cover photo for "Horses" -- showed her how to draw her visions instead of experiencing them while crossing a street. There got to be more and more words on the pictures she drew, and she became a poet.

She has remained a poet ever since, although during the six years between then and now she has also tried out nearly every other medium of artistic expression. She acted at LaMama and at the American Place Theater; she wrote plays as well as music for two movies shown at the Museum of Modern Art. She lived at the Chelsea Hotel and became deeply involved in the rock 'n' roll scene, going out with Bobby Neuwirth, Todd Rundgren and Kris Kristofferson, among others. She wrote and illustrated broadsides, and first attained some real notice by her public readings of Rimbaud. She alternately advanced into and withdrew from the social world. Until she joined forces with Jane Friedman, who has a good head for business, she never thought of capitalizing on the momentum her work and her appearances generated. It was Jane who suggested she read her poetry each night before the first rock act of the evening at the Mercer Arts Center four years ago. Patti appeared with a toy piano under her arm, and that is how her musical career began.

This career has now been sealed by a six-figure record contract nearly as thick as the one that has the Rolling Stones' signatures on it. It calls for seven records of new material in the next four years. She was offered her Arista contract, according to one version, when Clive Davis read in this newspaper that she was being courted by RCA. At one of her first meetings with Davis, she told him, "I'm not getting any younger. I have to be in a rush -- I don't have the strength to take too long becoming a star." The feeling at Arista is that Patti is incredibly ambitious and wants to be on top more than anybody. This makes her likable to her record company executives. As Bob Feiden, Arista's second in command, said, "If artists are not willing to kill themselves selling themselves, why sign them? It's not worth it."

The last words of "Piss Factory," the single she made a year ago which details the horrors of the assembly line she worked on in Philadelphia: "I'm going to get out of here. I'm getting on a bus. Go across the river. Go to New York City. Gonna be so big. Gonna be so big. Gonna be a star! Watch me now!"

Patti sees herself as a poet, an artist, a performer -- someone in a position to give hope to the "M.M.O.'s" -- Mere Martian Orphans -- her phrase for kids in desperate isolation. And she knows she is approaching her musical career realistically. "I've been a rock 'n' roll widow," she says. "I've seen friends totally fall down to death. I've been through it from so many sides, I know the cynical side, the exciting side and the lonely side. I'm totally not afraid of improving. It's fun. I've learned how to become a real piggy banker of moments."

Copyright © Tony Hiss and David McClelland 1975

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