her alley cat ballsiness

[from "Patti," by Cliff Jahr, New Times Magazine, December 26, 1975]

The punk -- from Elvis Presley to Bruce Springsteen -- is a
classic hero of our times. Now a skinny rock 'n roll poet
named Patti Smith is trying to "drive 'em to a frenzy in Japan
and New Jersey" and sing her way into the punk pantheon

She and Bob Dylan sit at the top of tile stairs at a hush-hush Greenwich Village party, trading whispers like two schoolboys. Below them, a motion picture camera wrrrs softly while the crowd around the nearby punch bowl tries to look bored, all sighs and folded arms, but fooling no one. After all, this is a rare moment: America's greatest rock hermit, here before our eyes, getting it on with a soon-to-be star who, as an adoring fan, cops some of his style.

Her appearance is startling. Wearing a little black Chaplin jacket, a saffron scarf and denim pants that are pegged with the long laces of her shoes, she looks something like a medieval chimney sweep. The ratty, raven hair appears to have been blunt-cut with a tin snips, and, when she pats it away from her narrow face, one notices fine blue hands like those of a little girl who's lost her mittens. Her name is Patti Smith.

Since the wretched excess committed on poor Bruce Springsteen a few weeks back, a lot of people will see Patti Smith's bid for stardom as another media snow job-which is unfortunate because Patti is something else. She has been kicking around in Greenwich Village literary and freak circles for nine years, attaining status as a minor muse and a cult hero, mainly for her poetry. About three years ago she tried adding a guitarist to back up her readings, which were shoestring affairs in church halls and seedy clubs. It worked, and gradually she was able to put together a group, learn how to sing and develop her own rock 'n roll style. This past year has seen her playing clubs like the Whiskey in L.A., Reno Sweeney and The Other End in New York. In March, with several record companies sniffing the air, Clive Davis of Arista caught her performing at C.B.G.B., a hip Bowery dive, and signed her up. "I was struck by her presence," he says. "She has such a strong sense of who she is and where she's going." Now Horses, her just-released first album, is winning fat praise ("An extraordinary disk . . .,"says the New York Times, "every minute of it is worth repeated rehearings"; "Hits you right in the face," says Crawdaddy) and some mixed reactions too ("attractive [but] an 'art statement,'" grouses the Village Voice). Meanwhile Patti is becoming the new media darling, which, while it gives her a shot at the top, also threatens to bruise her delicate persona.

Recently returned from SRO gigs at the Roxy in Los Angeles and the Boarding House in San Francisco, Patti plays New York's ultimate rock emporium, The Bottom Line, on December 26-28, days before her 29th birthday. It's all rolling in fast now, and her cult followers from the old days wonder, Will Patti be a star? while her new fans wonder, Just who is this tough little chick?

Speculation by the crowd around the punch bowl puts the money on her making it very big.

One of Dylan's pals, MacDougal Mike, is throwing the party to launch the Rolling Thunder tour and to provide a backdrop for a documentary film named Jack of Hearts. The Dylan-Smith summit is being staged as a sequel to their widely reported first meeting backstage at The Other End last July. She was strung out on awe that night too.

"I've been talking to him in my fantasies since I was 17," she tells me later, relating the schoolboy whispers. "We were trying to make something happen. connect, make a poem. Somebody said 'baseball field,' so we got right on it and made baseball diamond, then we made the diamond crystallize, then melt, then Dylan said--," she catches herself. "See, I gotta be abstract with you about that." As with Howard Hughes and Elvis, Dylan quotes are not to be passed on lightly by those who wish still to participate in his mystery.

Dylan leaves Patti and comes downstairs to mingle with the punch bowl gawkers, stiffly, at 34 looking a bit like Edward Albee; and, with this, Patti looks crushed. Her face is small and anxious and she gazes at him longingly across the room until finally he beats a star's exit (the first to go). She stays awhile, glaring into the middle distance, speaking to no one and no one daring to invade her space. Then the little chimney sweep descends to MacDougal Street alone and vanishes in the night.

A week later, Patti is sprawled on the floor of her Times Square rehearsal hall with me, alert, businesslike, her curious aura at the party vanished like blue smoke. "When I work hard for something, I don't like people telling me, 'Oh, you're so lucky,' " she says, holding in her hand a copy of People that contains a photo of her and Dylan on the stairs. "I ain't lucky," she insists, irked by some invisible accuser. "Your ship comes in because you're the captain of it."

Can she see where she's headed?

"Yeah. now more than ever. It's funny. When I was young, I just took it for granted I was going to do something. If I watched Popeye, I wanted to be Popeye. I hated being a spectator."

Two members of the band wander into the studio, exchange greetings and settle down on a purple sofa to listen politely. Perhaps this makes Patti think of her leader's role.

"We're heading toward what everyone's heading toward," she says brightly, "--makin' the Perfect Hit Single. To make a song that communicates with everybody, that'll drive 'em to a frenzy in Japan and New Jersey."

So it entertains?

"So it connects. Connects. Look, it has to be physical, y'know? Either in their brain or in their crotch or in their heart. They have to get pissed off. hatchet up the house, throw the record out the window-some black saucer going through the sky...."

Although Horses misses the wacky good humor of her live performances, it is a powerful work, honest and unflinching. At its best, it joins spoken verse with basic rock 'n roll licks to make "songs" that extend earlier experiments by Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa, The Fugs, the Velvet Underground and others. Patti uses wrought-up imagery and metaphor that can short out your synapses with their dark world vision: rough sex, violence, apocalypse, suicide and death. Four of the eight cuts are lamentations for the departed (a young girl washed up on a beach, psychologist Wilhelm Reich, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, though none is named). Two cuts celebrate young girls; one is "Gloria," the Van Morrison hit. The other is "Kimberly," about her baby sister. Another cut is an understandable, full-throated wail for "Free Money."

What are these songs about?

"I don't say nothin'. It's just regular talkin'. There's nothing to decipher." But their dark intensity prompts the listener to scour for politics blowin' in the wind somewhere. At times the words are obscured altogether, and there is no printed lyric sheet to help out -- but no matter. Patti's artistry is not in the content, which is raw and puerile; it's in her form, her bold styling, her sure sense of how far to go.

The best example of this is "Land," a 9 1/2-minute cut with an ambiguous narrative about a boy named Johnny who is violated somehow in a hallway by a second boy. As it builds, overdubbing of her voice combines with the rock back beat to reach a shrill "Johnny gets a feeling he's surrounded by HORSES, HORSES, HORSES, HORSES." This cues "Do you know how to Pony?" and a straightforward rendition of "Land of 1,000 Dances," the 1963 hit by Cannibal and the Headhunters, dissolving into rushes of visceral and sexual imagery, with Patti incanting, "...the waves came in like Arabian stallions gradually lapping into seahorses...he picked up the blade and pressed it against his smooth throat and let it dip in." After the urgent ebbs and flows of such verse, the song ends on a tiny whisper.

"We're not looking for hit singles on this one," says Clive Davis. "She's not mass-oriented." Indeed, Horses may not be for AM radio play or disco dancing, the usual path for hits, but it is rich in word pictures for listening in the dark and filled with throbbing adolescent preoccupations of the kind that draw faithful legions to a Melanie or a Janis Ian. But make no mistake about it -- Patti is not sentimental. When the arrangements are raunchy rock 'n roll, and loud -- like a Sixties group in the high school gym -- they most resemble the disbanded Velvet Underground, from which came the album's producer, John Cale.

Oddly enough, if her style of fusing rock and poetry puts Patti in the big time, she will fill a unique space in rock's male-dominated spectrum of images -- the urban street punk. An American icon popularized in the Dead End Kids movies of the Thirties, the punk image -- has traveled through the style of James Dean and Elvis Presley up to Mick Jagger and Springsteen, providing four generations of adolescent males with lessons in street macho. Now, folks, for something completely different -- the punk as a girl.

Onstage, at 100 pounds, with all the hulking mass of a UNICEF poster child, Patti jabs and swings and slams home a song like a contender for the flyweight crown. Her stage presence is glaring and "cool," one of her favorite Fifties words. Her patter is top-of-the-head scat ("Did you know Sonja Henie died in a plane crash?"), sometimes foxy ("Friends of mine like Perry Como like to stop by and catch my act, but Perry couldn't be here tonight cuz he's in Las Vegas"), often deadpan heavy ("I'll put John Lennon over Walt Whitman any day").

If a bit of Dylan mystery dust has rubbed on her coat, it may have to do with her dangerous intensity. Will she burn out? an audience wonders. And could this aging adolescent ever learn to cope with menopause and denture breath? At the very same time, it is her overreaching and her skinny frame that help audiences accept her omnisexual swagger (the same goes for Jagger and David Bowie). Her alley cat ballsiness comes off vulnerable, non-threatening even slightly comic, which is a reflection of the age-old theatrical tradition she is breaking through. Before now, toughtalking female entertainers who were not pretty had to relate to audiences by playing their difference for laughs -- comediennes like Cass Daley, Martha Raye and Nancy Walker. But Patti's music and ad-libbing makes audiences jive and grin and slap their knees, charmed by the lack of defensiveness, becoming themselves her defenders. It's the stuff that cults are made of.

Her punkiness may be the thing that most grabs the mass imagination, at least in big cities, and especially because it's not a put-on or some kind of political statement. It is simply Patti in harmony with herself, the way she is.

She's not a light-my-cigarette feminist like Helen Reddy or a pretend girl gang leader like Suzy Quatro: "I don't give a shit about women," she says, "or the role of women or 'The Year of the Woman.' As far as I'm concerned, being any gender is a drag." On her suggestion, Arista's promotion describes her as "beyond gender," but a close friend of hers insists, "Some of that is crap. Y'know, secretly she loves Bergdorf Goodman and little lace panties."

If there are clues to Patti's complexity in her Italian/black-Irish ancestry or her working-class childhood in Pitman, New Jersey, nobody's talking about it much, especially Patti, who has come to find discussion of her biography a bore. Born in Chicago, December 30, 1946, she's the oldest of four children, two sisters and a brother, in a family that's close-knit. Her mother waited tables, her father read the Bible, worked 29 years in a factory and spent a lifetime betting on race horses. "He was always searching for the perfect system," she says fondly, "and my mother liked to fantasize. I'm a real perfect synthesis of them both." Though she grew into a tomboy who ran with the local dead end kids, her sense of style and fantasy eventually led to experiments with ways to look interestingly female. There was her Verushka period. her Anouk Aimee period, her Garbo period, each followed by a return to her trademark of pegged pants and T-shirt, "because I look good in them," she says rightly.

Later, when she became pregnant, ending a freshman scholarship to Glassboro State College, she had the baby and gave it up for adoption in nearby Philadelphia. She wrote of it in a slim volume, Seventh Heaven (1972, Telegraph Books):

...bloated. pregnant. I crawl thru 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.

"She's soft under that tough outside," says an old girlfriend, "and I don't think she quite got over the baby...maybe it's the thing that drives her so."

After that Patti took off for New York, where "nobody gave a damn what I wore," she told Mademoiselle. "There's no place that seduces you and perverts you and inspires you like New York does." She began to paint and draw in a style reminiscent of George Grosz, with human figures speaking inside cartoon balloons. (A half dozen of these drawings are leaning against the rehearsal studio wall: "Ooops," says one little fellow. "Oh shit!" says another. They are amazingly good but not for sale or I'd buy one.)

Drawing little figures who spoke finally lead her to writing. With the help of playwright Sam Shepard, guitarist Al Lanier (Blue Oyster Cult) and the celestial inspiration of 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, she waded into the rapids of symbolist poetry. From the start, her public performance of it, complete with props and costume changes, won over the gallery with its closed-eyed earnestness and full-bodied delivery.

When rock critic Lenny Kaye joined her as a guitarist, he was unhindered at first by knowing just two chords. Later pianist Richard Sohl became her musical collaborator.

Together with Tom Verlaine (her longtime boyfriend, now guitarist) with Television, a New York group), they cut a 45 that was pressed into 1,000 copies and fast became a collector's item, mainly because of "Piss Factory," a hot scat monologue remembering her days doing piecework in a Jersey sweatshop ("So hot in here/hot like Sahara/These bitches are just too lame to understand/Too goddamn grateful to get this job to know they're getting screwed in the ass").

In 1973 Witt appeared (Gotham Book Mart), her second important book of poetry, as unbashful as the first:

... I'm gonna peep in bo's bodice. lay down darling don't
be modest let me slip my hand in. ohhh thats soft thats
nice thats not used up. ohhh don't cry. wet whats wet?
oh that. heh heh. thats just the rain lambie pie. now
don't squirm. let me put my rubber on. I'm a wolf in a
lamb skin trojan. ohh yeah thats hard thats good. now
don't tighten up. open up be-bop. lift that little butt
up. ummm open wider be-bop. come on. nothing. can. stop
me. now. ohhh ahhh. isnt that good. my. melancholy be-bop...

Patti is annoyed at the suggestion that Witt contains some poems written from a lesbian point of view. "Labels are finished," she says with feeling. "I don't write lesbian poetry. Look, a human being turns me on. If it's Anita Pallenberger or Mick Jagger -- either one of them is going to inspire me to write something. Y'know, if my cunt aches, I don't think like it's a boy or girl doing it. I just don't." She pauses to glance out the window. "When I was real young, my sister Kimberly's mouth used to drive me crazy. I thought it was the sexiest thing I ever saw. That has nothing to do with incest, lesbianism. I just recognized a good mouth when I saw one."

The band is warming up now, complete with bass guitarist Ivan Kral and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. Patti says to hang around the rehearsal if I like, and I do.

Watching her run things, one is struck by the firm but gentle control of her direction, her decisiveness, her concern for nuance. Then you realize that what may seem freewheeling and off-the-wall about her, the tacky old rock 'n roll riffs, the eclectic sound and styling from Lotte Lenya to Laura Nyro to Jagger to the Ronettes, the undisciplined verse, even the "I don't give a damn how I look" look -- you realize, after all, these are acts of her conscious will. As is most everything about Patti. Her hair, for instance, gets its blue-blackness from dye schlepped from the Arab section of Brooklyn. Though as messy as if she'd done the hustle in a speeding U-Haul, it is sensibly cut in bangs that cover a high forehead, shorten a narrow face, punctuate her beautiful smoky-blue eyes and frame the profile that one begins to notice is handsome as a hawk. Or her trademark T-shirt: While it stresses her matchstick arms, I think she's imagined our delight in discovering that underneath the face of Keith Richards stenciled on its face there are nice cupcake breasts.

Art conceals art sometimes by wearing a spontaneous and simple look, like Chaplin's pratfalls, Dylan's hogcalling and Jackson Pollock's paint spills. Patti's little "Ooops" and "Oh Shit!" people who study me from their frames against the wall have that spontaneity and simplicity. So does Horses. In fact, so does Patti. "I don't get anywhere by accident," she says.

Patti knows what she's doing. By filtering her unschooled perceptions through a fine talent, she is creating herself most of all.

Copyright © Cliff Jahr 1975

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