a voice of vaseline mixed with sand

[from "Patti Smith: Somewhere, Over the Rimbaud," by Susan Shapiro, Crawdaddy, December 1975]

NEW YORK -- It's 8:30 a.m. on a fog soup Friday, an indecent hour to be conducting an interview, much less making a record. I tiptoe through oil-slicked puddles and into Electric Ladyland Studios, with its wallpapered basement and carpet of silences broken by the occasional ping of a pinball game in progress. By the time this print hits the fans, Patti Smith will either be an overnight sensation (after four years) or an exotic flash in the pan; but no matter which, something is happening here. The air is thickly momentous as some tentative mixes filter through what is in the process of becoming her debut album, four sleepless weeks in the making.

I've been waiting for this ever since Patti first stuffed her amphetamine semantics into my brain at a now-defunct cafe; the endless outpouring of verse accompanied by a band that played traveling music for her flights into fantasy and raw imagery, punch-drunk fists waving wildly, leaning on one thin hip in black suit jacket and jeans, word-crazed and crooning, a cross between Keith Richard and Mia Farrow; an omnisexual high priestess careening freely between the genders, elevating rock 'n roll into incantation.

She sits down next to me on the purple corduroy couch, slouching at a 45-degree angle. This dynamic, jet-haired, finely-etched, still dressed in black and ballet slippers with soles, almost-apparition rock musician Patti Smith is sitting down! Ready to jump up when producer John Cale calls in to say there's something to hear. Electric Ladyland is fitting atmosphere for the godchild-of-Jimi-Hendrix, and Patti resurrects him more than once.

She lops off the g's at the ends of words, says dese, dem and dose, has a voice of vaseline mixed with sand, goes tight-lipped and mute when she doesn't want to answer a question. Mostly, she speaks haltingly and with clarity.

"It drives me nuts when someone comes in and says 'Tell me your life story.' Do you have questions? I love questions, they always have the element of surprise!" (I stutter in admiration for the eight books of poetry she's published.) "My push is to get beyond the word into something that's more fleshy, that's why I like performing. The Word is just for me, when I'm alone late at night and I'm jerkin' off, you know, pouring out streams of words. That's a very one-to-one process, but I'm interested in communicatin'. I'm another instrument in the band.

"I started out as a missionary, but I couldn't find a religion which didn't promise things to some people to the exclusion of others. The personal voyage into some kind of light shouldn't be denied to anybody. I got into painting after that; was turned on to anything that projected a body in motion, like Picasso's blue period. I was a skinny, graceless girl and Picasso was able to take the human form and make it into something graceful. I was taught by art that no matter what you were, if you levitated yourself to your highest form you would be graceful." (She is no longer graceless, but still skinny.)

"Instead of being just a puny outcast, I started walking tall because I was close to the blue period. I got into sculpture too -- Brancusi, for example; anything that had to do with purity of form. Then I began to feel the limitation of a piece of paper or the canvas. I got hung up with the idea that museums were sort of like zoos . . . I decided that the highest place an artist could go would be to get hung up on a wall in a museum. The piece of art doesn't transform itself any more once it's done. The viewer may go through a transformation . . . it's a very subtle thing, how it actually hits people. The move into poetry wasn't accidental. The calligraphic, like arabian writing, always appealed to me. I got into letters, words, the rhythm of certain words together, and gradually started writing poems that were songs because of my obsession with rhythm. I love writing because there's acoustic-type typewriters and electric ones. It's a physical act, but the word is still trapped on the page. The neat thing about performing is it keeps the act of creation alive. I love the process of creation, although the end product in itself is a necessary evil. Still, I'm glad it's there, otherwise I wouldn't have Rolling Stones records and William Burroughs books to enjoy."

Patti has crept into the higher regions of Rimbaud, the French poet, constantly soliloquizing about him in her poems. As a pedestrian, I expect to hear in detail about the meaning of his literature. "The first thing I got from Rimbaud was the power of the outer image: his face. I was a teenage girl, didn't have a boyfriend, I looked at Illuminations, he was a good-looking guy! He even had long hair before the Beatles. It was that simple . . . nothing cosmic. He sorta looked like Dylan. When I got his book I was into rock 'n roll; I didn't give a shit about poetry. But what has always attracted me has been perfection, whether it's a diamond or a Smokey Robinson song. Rimbaud's poetry was perfection on the page, like glittering graphite. I don't really understand poetry. I never even understood Dylan, or 'Mr. Jones' either. I just hear Dylan and the words don't seem to matter. Dylan's delivery, his phrasing, his physical image, his energy. Same thing when I met him. He's a very physical guy. And he has the highest integrity, like Jimi Hendrix." (She looks around the room, acknowledging his ghost.) "I think Dylan recognized the same things in me. We didn't really talk about nothin' but the feelings were there . . . the way he said my name, the way we looked at each other . . . It was very real." (Dylan paid a widely publicized visit to Patti after her performance at the Other End and seemed well pleased to be there.)

I want to know why all her heroes are men, are all her heroes men? "Most of my heroes are men simply because most of the heaviest people in the world have been men. There hasn't been a woman who has done what Jimi Hendrix did. I don't blame that on anything; if a woman wanted to do it, she'd do it. If I wanted to do what Hendrix had done I should have learned to play the guitar ten years ago. Too bad I didn't have the discipline. Actually, I like women. One of my biggest heroes is Jeanne Moreau. She has perfected all the moves, the high art of smoking a cigarette . . . or walking with a straight skirt. Perfecting those kinds of rhythms are, to me, just as worthy of worship as somebody's playin' a great harmonica. It's completely coincidental that most people I admire are guys.

"I admire Anna Magnani too. Actually, I'm nuts about women, you know? Women are narcissistic and so am I. I'd much rather look at pictures of women than men. Brenda Starr's my favorite comic, Vogue is my favorite magazine. Anyway, nobody -- man, woman or horse -- has topped what Jimi Hendrix has done. His gender is totally beside the point; the real question is, what planet did he come from?"

Questions are popcorn in my mind. What about your record? How do you like the mixes so far? I fight the urge to put my ear to the thick wood studio door. She resists telling me, seems offended.

"I don't feel any kind of pressure . . . commercial or financial. Arista doesn't expect me to be a singles artist. They just want me to be successful. I want to be successful. Jesus wanted to be successful too . . . He wanted everybody to see the light. If I had wanted to live in a garret somewhere I'da stayed in Pittman [New Jersey]. I didn't decide to do a record out of the blue; I've been deliberating for many years. I'm not interested in having a family. My creative instincts are with art, poetry and music. I don't have any other motivation than to do something really great; I mean, I wouldn't want to do a Captain & Tennille record. I'd rather be a housewife, and a good housewife, admired by all the other housewives in the area, than be a mediocre rock singer. The only crime in art is to do lousy art. I'm going to promote myself exactly as I am, with all my weak points and my strong ones. My weak points are that I'm self-conscious and often insecure, and my strong point is that I don't feel any shame about it.

"People like to look at me as this tough, punky shit-kicker. Well, I am like that . . . but I'm also very fragile. It's important that people know that; I couldn't stand being just some leather boy. There are masculine and feminine rhythms in me. We're all made up of opposites, and they often crucify us, but I deal with that by accepting the bad stuff. I don't feel guilty or stupid because of my weaknesses. On my record, I'm trying to reveal as much about myself as I can. Sometimes I sing great, and sometimes I sacrifice great singing for very human moments. I have to let people know I am as weak as I am strong or I'm never gonna make it . . .

"All the cuts are long ones, except 'Elegy for Jimi Hendrix' which is 2:35. I got the idea for 'Birdland' when I read this book by Peter Reich called Book of Dreams . . . there's a passage in it about when he was little and his father [the maverick psychiatrist, Wilhelm] died. He kept going out into the fields hoping his father would pick him up in a spaceship, or a UFO. He saw all these UFOs coming at him and inside one was his father, glowing and shining. Then the air force planes came in and chased the UFOs away and he was left there crying: No! Daddy! Come back! It really moved me. Another song, 'Break it Up', started with a dream I had about Jim Morrison. I went into this clearing and he was lying on a marble slab. He was human but his wings were made of stone. He was struggling to get free but the stone wings imprisoned him. I was standing there, sort of like a little boy, or a child, screaming 'Break it up! Break it up!' and finally his wings broke and he was free to fly away. So I wrote this song with Tom Verlaine called 'Break it Up." (Tom Verlaine is the lead guitarist for a New York rock group, Television.)

"We recorded 'Elegy' on Sept. 18th, the anniversary of Hendrix's death. I also wrote a song about my 18-year-old sister, Kimberly, and rewrote the Van Morrison song 'Gloria,' and 'Land of a Thousand Dances' with an improvisational middle about the Sea of Possibilities . . . a boy slashing his throat and tearing out his vocal cords.

"How am I getting along with John Cale? It's like A Season in Hell. He's a fighter and I'm a fighter so we're fightin'. Sometimes fightin' produces a champ. It's a real honor makin' a record. If I do a great record, it sort of helps me pay back the debt to all the other great records that came to me . . . the Wailers, Minnie Riperton, Stevie, James Brown . . . I mean, they've inspired me throughout the years. I would love to do a record that had just three minutes on it that inspired Smokey Robinson.

"There's great chemistry between me and the guys in the band [which includes rock-critic/guitarist Lenny Kaye; bassist Ivan Kral; piano man Richard Sohl; and drummer Jay Daugherty]. I'll sit down with them and say 'play some simple chords' and I'll start daydreaming and talking over the music, spilling poetry and they'll keep me going by playing a certain way or changing the chord structure . . . and it just grows from there. When I'm onstage, they never know what I'm going to do in 'Birdland.' They give me as much celluloid as I need for my film.

"I control the band only to the point where they get enough freedom to control me. One night Lenny will be hot and I'll just do poetry to his guitar solo. Another night I'll be my piano player; another night they keep up with me. I have my throat, they have their instruments. We're all squeezing this piece of coal and I can see the shoots of light starting to come out, the beginnings of a diamond."

Copyright © Susan Shapiro 1975

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