a white tiger clawing to get out

[from "Patti Smith: The High Priestess of Rock and Roll" by Lisa Robinson, Hit Parader, January 1976]

"Singing is a monstrous responsibility,
it's such an honor to me... I always thought
of myself as a writer and poet."

(There is going to be a lot of talk about Patti Smith in the coming months, bus as early as a year ago when Hit Parader held this preliminary conversation with her, she seemed as strong and determined as she does today. With her debut album completed and the scheduling of an upcoming national tour, Patti looked fearlessly into the eye of fame and artistic opportunity and found herself ready. So be it. Her band has now expanded to four members, comprising guitarist Lenny Kaye and Ivan Kral, pianist Richard Sohl, and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, and the experience of performing regularly including an epic two month stand at New York's Bowery-front CBGB's, had honed the group into a sparkling machine. Perhaps Patti explains herself best in her poem, "Notice": "...without mother, gender, or country, who attempts to bleed from the word a system, a space base." --Ed.)

*     *     *      *     *      *     *      *     *      *

"I don't want to do a record unless it's fantastic and will really do something to people," Patti Smith told me while ago. "Why should I? There's no reason ... to make a few thousand? I mean I could make a few thousand dollars other ways, I'm a good hustler. I'm real proud of my name even though it's just Smith and I haven't done that much, but most of what I've done is real good and I don't ever want to do a lousy thing,"

Well -- in New York, where it is considered by most of us as the most arresting / compelling / important current musical phenomenon around, her recording contract has been a long time coming for those of us who have grown up with Patti the past five years. Her talent is formidable, the ways she's chosen to express it has developed along the lines of rock and roll and poetry, and it's hard not to be somewhat emotional about someone who can still move you. It doesn't happen that often.

Patti came to New York via New Jersey via Philadelphia where she got hooked on rock and roll at the age of six. "I was in my clubhouse smoking punk ... I was real 'heavy' when I was six, I had my own gang and everything. I had this eye-patch and kids used to be scared of me because they thought I had an evil eye. I had a cast eye and it used to go up in my head and it was creepy looking. So even though I had this eye patch I was about ten pounds and had duck feet and plaid glasses ... Anyway, this boy who had a RCA victrola said wait til you hear this, and it was 'The Girl Can't Help It,' by Little Richard. My mouth just dropped, it was instant recognition, it really got me below the belt. The only thing I had ever heard was Gale Storm singing 'Ivory Tower.' Yeah, Little Richard got my mind at six and never stopped, it was just one thing after another."

"I never really liked the white stuff, it embarrassed me. I hated the look of the 1950's ... girls would wear big crinolines and lipstick and I thought it was so dumb. I didn't want to be a girl because they wore those Elvis charm bracelets and I couldn't get into that. I had a complete Davy Crockett outfit, I was a relentless tomboy..."

"But I was real impressionable about art -- even at an early age. I was real self-conscious about being skinny, and I had one teacher who said I shouldn't be. She took me to the school library -- she was real neat -- and she showed me the Modigliani's and she said I looked like an El Greco, or the Blue Period or Modigliani, and it was the first time I could relate to something physical. I really was tormented, because I was so skinny. When we got weighed in gym class I used to put locks in my pockets ... With a lower class upbringing, it was real desirable to have big tits and big ass, and I wanted boys to like me. But they didn't -- they liked me as a pal."

Patti eventually came to New York at a tender age but with an experienced set of emotions. She says she had no place to go, tried a teacher's college in Glassboro, New Jersey, had a baby, gave it up for adoption,, worked in a record pressing plant in Philadelphia, got laid off and then -- with 16 dollars, she bought some art supplies and got on a train and came to New York. "There was so much inside of me ... I always had these rhythms, but i didn't know what to do with them, It's like that line Artaud said, about a white tiger clawing to get out of him. I always felt there was something good to get out of my body, but I was constipated in a way. Even though I was a real homely kid and creepy I was a happy child, because I had this feeling that I was going to go beyond my body physical, even when I was in South Jersey or Philly -- I just knew it. Even when I was five years old I was kind of waiting ... I was a very impatient, restless kid, and I knew it was a waste ... I was just waiting to get bigger so I could get this stuff out. Then finally I got bigger and that's why I was so frustrated a few years ago, because I felt it coming but I wasn't ready."

"When I came to New York people immediately accepted me in the sense that I was anonymous. And I liked that, you know sometimes in South Jersey I wouldn't get served in a restaurant; and I never understood it -- because I wasn't that conscious of myself. Image ... I would wear black turtlenecks because I liked it. I never tried to look any way for shock value or anything like that, but I always would affect people in a certain way. I never premeditated what people would think ... you know like, 'I'm really going to get them up the ass with this thing' ... Then I came to New York and nobody paid attention."

"I went to Brooklyn first because Pratt was there and I thought it was like Montparnasse. I could look at all the art students. I was really into that. I was reading all these artists' biographies ... Brancusi, Modigliani, and they all had mistresses; my idea was to be a mistress. Patti met Robert Mapplethorpe, a poverty-stricken artists who was going to school, she started working in Scribner's bookstore and as she put it, "he started teaching me, he taught me how to direct my energy. I was a victim of intense nervousness ... hallucinations, manic energy and I didn't know what to do with it."

After a trip to Paris (which included, among other thins, Patti singing on the street, working with a fire-eater ...) she and Robert decided it was time for them to show their art to the world, which, in those 1960 days meant coming to New York City and moving into the Chelsea, for a start. "William Burroughs was there, and Gregory Corso, and the Jefferson Airplane and Janis and Matthew Rich who was also an early influence on me, and it was really a good time. It was time for us to strike out on our own ... Robert as an artist, and I had been writing some of my poetry. At this time I was writing a lot of poems in a little orange notebook, and I was writing my Brian Jones poem; of course they were rock and roll oriented because they were about Brian, and I would write them in the rhythm of the Stones music."

"I wasn't trying to be 'innovative' -- I was just doing what I thought was right, and being true to Brian. And one day I was walking across the lobby and this guy said, 'hey kid, where did you learn to walk like that' ... I turned around and it was this guy in dark glasses and a dark suit, and I've always been a sucker for guys in dark glasses, and I said, 'I learned that from "Don't Look Back."' He started laughing ... it was Bobby Neuwirth and he said, 'come here, what do you have in that notebook?' I said 'nothing,' and I was really into acting tough but I was instantaneously and totally in love."

"I had just had my hair cut like Keith Richards and Bobby looked in my book and asked me who wrote that stuff and I told him I did ... I think he immediately recognized something in me that I didn't even recognize in myself, and he immediately took me under his wing. In the space of four days I think I had met every rock and roll star in New York through Bobby. And of course, I was acting real unimpressed then because, well -- I think because I thought I was going to make it in the art world, and also I was so crazy over him ..."

"You know -- I've been interviewed a dozen times about this ... people always ask me why I have this tough, swaggering image, and now I remember. It was to keep up with Bobby. He'll always be cool -- but then, then he was the last vestiges of the 60's cool which really got me by the heart. He tried to open all these doors for me, and get my stuff published and he was the one who really pushed me into writing poetry and kept inspiring me to keep the music in the poetry, he said we needed a poet."

The first public "thing" Patti did was a poetry reading at St. Mark's Church. "Seventh Heaven" was a small book published afterwards. Patti has said that poets never had anything to do with her "getting anywhere"; it was all people like Danny Goldberg who published her poems in a rock magazine, and Bobby, and people in the music business ... "The Chelsea opened up a whole new thing for me, the rock and roll thing, and then William Burroughs being there. Bobby got me into being able to say yes, I'm a writer, and then Burroughs showed me whole new tunnels to fall through ... He was so neat, he would walk around in this big black cashmere overcoat and this old hat. So of course Patti gets an old black hat and coat and we would walk around the Chelsea together looking like that."

"Of course he was never too crazy about women, but I guess he liked me because I looked like a boy. And all the time Bobby would be pushing me, then I met Steve Paul and he saw me perform. I don't think he understood it, but he understands applause, he wasn't too crazy about the poetry. But Bobby helped make that St. Mark's reading (February 10, 1971 -- L.R.) an event. I just had a feeling then -- Robert was into the Jet Set by then and he brought Scavullo and all those people, and Lenny Kaye brought you guys and Lou Reed, and Bobby brought all the pickers and the rock and roll people, and it was really a neat cross section of people. It was again that flash that something was going to happen."

"You know, it's hard to say stuff like this, but I've always wanted to give something. I was so lonely in South Jersey, and I was so in love with anything that made me happy. And I wanted so much to be a rock writer, I used to devour those magazines ... but then I wrote for Rock Magazine and I got fired, because they told me 'we can't put our finger on it, but your stuff is weird...' and I was never trying to be weird, that's just the way it came out."

After the St. Mark's reading, everyone was instantly excited about Patti in the avant- garde / underground / hip sect of the "music biz." Steve Paul thought perhaps she could be the Barbra Streisand of the 70's. (Of course who knew Bette Midler was right around the corner and Patti was way ahead of all that?) Patti knew, she knew that she didn't want to make a record, not be a pop leather queen anyway, and after an initial flurry of excitement, a few more readings, and lots of articles written about and by her in the "rock press," Patti sort of disappeared.

"I realized at that time I didn't know what I was doing. I knew I wanted to do something, I knew I could read poetry -- but I didn't know how to sing. I didn't have the skill ... and so many people were asking me to do things. They wanted me to front the Blue Oyster Cult, everybody was asking me to do stuff, and I just got fucked up. So I went into hiding. I had been through so many shattering experiences, especially with men ... Bobby broke me heart, he really did, and I was dispersing myself all over New York. So it was the right thing for me to just sit down and find out what was going on inside of me -- I had been working on the surface for so long. I was never phony, it's just that I was moving more on an image basis than on a heart or soul basis."

What happened during the time of "hiding" was that Patti became involved in a "domestic" situation with Alan Lanier (Blue Oyster Cult); "It was my decision, I was really trying to be a woman for this guy, he really took care of me and was the first person to support me and to expect me to be faithful and honorable and also wash his socks ... It was a great thing to happen to me, I learned a great deal. I got stronger, I learned humility, and a certain kind of compassion -- and I also learned what it meant to be female."

"You know, I always wanted to really learn about being a woman; because I never really considered the female within me. When I wrote the 'Seventh Heaven' book, every poem, the ones about Marianne Faithfull or Edie Sedgwick ... people would ask me if I was a dyke, or did I love women, but actually, it's all about me. And when you're onstage, it's real important to know every inch of who you are in your body. I read this Suzi Quatro interview -- and she's a cute kid and I don't know anything about her really except that she's got a great name. But she said all this stuff like women don't get anywhere as musicians unless they stop thinking about themselves as women. I don't agree with that at all, I think you have to know what you are and who you are physically before you can be a great mover on the stage."

"Basically I'm shy," Patti said -- (no surprise to those of us who have watched her through the years, although it's not the projected image), "I mean all my toughness comes out of my desire to be cool and be accepted by cool people. But basically I'm shy and nervous, especially around girls, but I think I've learned how to use all that to my advantage. You should never deny what you are, I've tried to use all that to my advantage. I'm still nervous, I'm still awkward, I'm still high-strung. When I was 16 I was horrified by those kinds of deficiencies, but now I can use them as charming aspects; I used to hate being a girl -- but now I think I can manipulate people better by being a girl. I can do things on stage that guys couldn't get away with because I'm a chick. People ask me if I feel held down because I'm a girl, not al all ... I feel like I have a certain kind of carte blanche. You know, I can make mistakes, I can tell dumb jokes ... I can hit bad notes, I can get real flustered, but I can get out of a jam. I mean ... could you see Jim Morrison ever doing that?"

About a year or so ago Patti started to get her music together. She would open for bands like the Dolls or Teenage Lust, and started performing again from scratch. Initially backed only by guitarist Lenny Kay, then Richard Sohl on piano, Patti did smallish gigs at Le Jardin, Reno Sweeney's, then came Max's Kansas City where this past fall she sang -- as well as performing her poetry, for real. "At that Max's job it was like a bird flew out of my mouth or something. I started singing and all of a sudden about halfway through the job I realized that it was a fantastic thing -- to be able to sing, but also frightening, because you never think it's going to be able to happen to you. It's such a monstrous responsibility, because it's such an honor to me; even now I still think that music is the highest art, and whereas I always thought of myself as a writer -- and poet, I am now honestly starting to think of myself as a singer."

"At first I was trying to sing like my mother, I guess. My mother sang, and I was always crazy about those 40's and 50's white jazz singer like Chris Conner and June Christy, and when I grow up -- I mean really grow up -- that's what I want to do. I mean I won't be able to do 18 minute versions of 'Land of 1000 Dances' forever ... I never want to repeat myself or peter out. When I know I'm finished I'll just let the new generation take over and I'll just go into jazz singing."

"When I'm performing, I'm conscious of having an effect on people. But when I write -- which is a lot, and every day, well -- it's the one totally uncompromising thing that I do. I don't think of anybody but myself when I write poetry, I try to hit the highest standards that I have within myself. It's the most selfish thing I do, and I don't write it to be published. That's why I'm not published much ... because I think it's bullshit, I'm not that interested in it. I mean someone like Gerard Malanga has 15 books of poetry published and it doesn't mean shit in the face of history. Rimbaud used to sit in cafés with people who had 40 books and he wrote one and a half books and he's considered one of the greatest writers in the world. Quantity doesn't mean anything to me, I really don't have that much desire to get my name plastered or anything ... I get a fantastic feedback from audiences and I like to see my name in print so that's enough ego stuff. When it comes down to writing, well I just get totally down to it. I guess what I'm trying to say is I'm not trying to be a star poet."

"I just want to do great stuff because there is so much mediocre stuff being done. I would rather be a great thief, you know ... I was a great book clerk at Scribner's, I was one of the best salesgirls they ever had, and I felt really proud doing that. I don't like being half assed in anything."

"I'm moving hard now, because I know I can do it. To be an artist -- within rock and roll ... part of being a great artist is having control. There are rules within art ... and you don't have to be an artist, it's cool to be a star. Jim Morrison probably got the closest to being an artist within rock and roll, I think. I don't know what Hendrix was -- he was like some prophet madman. He was like a rock and roll Artaud, because he had some kind of demon within him and he was trying to express it, or find a forum for it, but it just swallowed him up like it did to Artaud. I don't want to be like that, I have a real romance about that stuff, and I want to live. I want to be able to do that -- hopefully the 1970's and 1980's will be about that; people will be able to be artists without burning themselves out. Without having a real cosmic discussion about it, let's just say I have an optimistic feeling about the future. When I get a chance to talk about it I realize I get sick and nervous and crazy, but I remember what I'm trying to do and what it's all about."

"What I really want to do with my life goes far beyond getting a few reviews here and a record contract there. I'm really history-oriented and I want to be someone. The things I'm writing now are like my first baby projects at merging poetry with rock and roll and feeling like it's the birth of something new. I'm starting to learn about sound as opposed to linear motion with language. It's like pumping blood into words. Poetry goes hand in hand with anemia. Poets are always anemic looking and I just want to pump a lot of blood into it -- I don't want to get away from poetry ... but there's no reason why the two have to be separated. I think I've proven it with what I do with 'Land of a 1000 Dances' ... it's totally impossible to distinguish what is poetry from the poetry in that and the rock and roll, they're so integrated. That makes me so happy ... and you know, when I say I want to be somebody, I don't mean just somebody ... 'cause all the kids in my high school know who I am, that was what it was when I was younger. Now, I would really like to be my own best her."

She will be.

Copyright © Lisa Robinson 1976

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