I was a little loose in the attic. When I was a kid I tied do-rags around my head tight. I was scared my soul would fly out at night. Scared my vital breath would make the big slip. some ventriloquist. So I steered from drugs and threw myself into full frenzied dance.
-- Patti Smith 1973
She'd been dancing awhile when I first saw her. She walked into that Upper West Side party like a Jersey urchin who'd just inherited Manhattan. All in black -- turtleneck and tight black slacks. She seemed more frail than she really was, but not fragile, though you would have counted her ribs, and her jet black hair straggled like waterlogged yarn. Her skin so pale it was nearly translucent, cheeks drawn so tight and thin I was tempted to pull her aside and offer her a decent meal. If only her teeth had been half rotted, she would have passed for Keith Richards' waif sister.
Taking your eyes off her wasn't impossible. But it was pretty goddamned unlikely.
She glided across the room easy as any rock & roll queen in her beat-up Mary Janes, full of sex and innocence; every eye was pulled her way, every blabbing mouth set off in unison. All the women hated her then -- the solidarity of sisterhood was not so firm in 1971 -- but the men were awed.
Even before the party, I had known who she was. Steve Paul, the blue velvet Winter brothers impresario, had stopped by my home in Detroit a few months earlier with a tape of a poetry reading. I didn't care much about poems, but Lenny Kaye, a fellow critic, was her backup guitar. Mostly I was intrigued by the idea of a girl Steve who was a ringer for Keith.
I don't remember what else she read, but she took me right over. In her voice were not simply references but the very rhythms of rock & roll. I wanted to know more, maybe publish a few of her poems in the magazine I was editing. Steve thought bigger -- he was gonna make her a rock & roll star.
have you seen
it got wings
it can fly
Sixteen and time to pay off. I get this job in a Piss Factory inspectin' pipe. 40 hours, $36 a week, but it's a paycheck Jack. It's so hot in here, hot like Sahara. I couldn't think for the heat. But these bitches are too lame to understand, too goddamn grateful to get this job to realize they're gettin' screwed up the ass.Patti Smith grew up in Pitman, a town in South Jersey, near Philly and Camden, whose principal industry is a Columbia Records pressing plant. Her father, a former tap dancer, worked in a factory; her mother, who gave up signing to raise a family, was a waitress.
-- "Piss Factory" 1974
As the oldest of four children, Patti took much responsibility for her two sisters, Kimberly and Linda, and a brother, Todd, about whom she doesn't talk much now. ("He's a butcher or something like that in Philadelphia now, I'm pretty sure," says her manager, Jane Friedman.) To keep the kids interested, Patti made up stories and acted out plays. When she was seven, she had a siege of scarlet fever, during which she lay hallucinating in front of the "amoebic, jewel-shaped indigo flame" of a coal stove. Her imagination improved.
"When I was young, what we read was the Bible and UFO magazines. Just like I say I'm equal parts Balenciaga and Brando, well, my dad was equal parts God and Hagar the Spaceman for Mega City. My mother taught me fantasy; my mother's like a real hip Scheherazade. Between the two of 'em, I developed a sensibility."
The high school Patti went to was "sort of experimental. We had geniuses and epileptics all mixed in." This may be less metaphorical than it seems: Pitman is in the Pines, a swam area that lies between the Jersey Shore to the east and the industrial flatlands to the west. It is regarded as a backwater by the rest of the state. Its residents, called Pineys, are known for such rustic practices as inbreeding, guaranteed to produce such genetic sports as epilepsy. Patti told a friend that the incidence of epilepsy was so high that all the kids carried popsicle sticks in their pockets to use as tongue depressors in case of a class mate's sudden grand or petit mal seizure. Patti's family weren't Pineys -- they were originally from Chicago and Philadelphia. But coupled with her fevered coal stove visions and the UFO magazines, not to mention the Bible, it must have been a hell of a place to live.
"I grew up in a tougher part of Jersey than Bruce Springsteen," Patti says. "I wasn't horrified by Altamont, it seemed natural to me. Every high-school dance I went to, somebody was stabbed." Her first boyfriend was a black Jamaican twin, but her parents didn't mind. "My father was busy trying to get God to make the next move on the chessboard. What's he care about a 16-year-old boy?"
At the time, Patti was completely infatuated with black music, black style. Her fondest adolescent memory seems to have been harmonizing to early soul records in the back of a high-school bus, or dancing to them in someone's basement. "I was just one of a million girls who could do Ronettes records almost as good as the Ronettes."
Her rock & roll breakout began on a Sunday evening: "My father always watched Ed Sullivan, and he screamed at me, 'Look at these guys!' I was totally into black stuff, I didn't wanna see this Rolling Stones crap. But my father acted so nuts, it was like, he was so cool, for him to react to violently attracted me." As she wrote in 1973, "they put the touch on me. I was blushing jelly. this was no mamas boy music. it was alchemical. I couldn't fathom the recipe but I was ready. blind love for my father was the first thing I sacrificed to Mick Jagger."
But the recipe was more complicated. One day, when Patti was still in high school, Patti and her mother had a fight. To make up, Mrs. Smith brought home two Bob Dylan albums, "because he dresses just like you." Like most of us, Patti discovered in Dylan a passion for social justice, a madness for language and a personal style. But Patti learned more. Like Dylan's, the myth of Patti Smith's origins is intricately constructed and endlessly fascinating. Unlike him, she has managed to keep most parts of it straight through several retellings. No one know how much is invented, how much flat fact. Maybe it all happened, maybe none of it. I'd rather not know -- either way.
Unlike Dylan, or rock's other Westchester rebels, Patti was a true working class girl. When she worked in a factory during and after high school, it was for the cash, not experience. (The experience did provide the basis of her epic "Piss Factory," though.) Still, in a tough lower-class town, she was strange, and so was everything about her from her family and ideas to her body itself. It was reedy and breastless even then, as much a boy's as a woman's. Patti knew it; maybe she even exploited it: "Even since I felt the need to choose I'd choose male. I felt boy rhythums when I was in knee pants. So I stayed in pants. I sobbed when I I had to use the public ladies room. My undergarments made me blush. Every feminine gesture I affected from my mother humiliated me," she wrote in her 1967 poem called "Female."
Then she got pregnant. The circumstances don't matter -- she was in junior college at the time -- but she had the baby without getting married and gave it up for adoption. Teenage pregnancies weren't uncommon in South Jersey; in fact, they are just the sort of thing which happens to normal, well-adjusted girls everywhere. But to Patti, the overwhelmingly female sensation of pregnancy was revolting and made her feel defiled. She wrote: "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 rag and claw like a bitch. like a bitch. like a bitch."
But underneath it all, she thought she was still an ordinary teenage girl. "There was nothing different between me and Dot Hook or whoever. Nothing different except the desire to get the fuck out of there. I was just one of a million girls. Ain't nothing illuminated about me."
The pregnancy did change her, though, make her realize just how completely out of place she was. "It developed me as a person, made me start to value life, to value chance, that I'm not down in South Jersey on welfare with a nine-year-old kid. 'Cause every other girl in South Jersey who got in trouble at the time is down there."
After she had the baby, she came to New York in 1967, hanging around Pratt, the Brooklyn art college. She claims she was driven to the city by "Light My Fire," the Doors hit that summer. Maybe she was. A little earlier, in the factory, she had discovered Illuminations, by Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet who wrote all his poetry before he was 20. She spotted his face on the cover of a book and took off. "She looked just like Dylan," she still says with a sense of wonder.
At Pratt, she met Robert Mapplethorpe, an artist "who looked like George Harrison. I was drawing. And he encouraged me to do bigger drawings and then write on my drawings and then I was writing these poems on the drawings. And he loved the poems. I was so nebulous when I came to New York, I had this total maniac energy and my Don't Look Back walk. And I met Robert and he helped me take all this totally nebulous energy and put it in a form."
She wanted to go to Paris to study art. With her younger sister, Linda, she left. "Then I though, fuck art, I want to be a traveler. And you have to travel with all these paints and shit. And I like to be free. Sometimes, I think I'm a singer so I don't have to carry a drum kit around."
Paris was lonely for two girls who spoke no French. "Our only touch with anything was to find something good on a jukebox." They hooked up with a street troupe, singers and a fire eater, who she claims taught her to pass the hat, and when time and finances, were right, pick the pocket. Then Godard's One Plus One, featuring the Rolling Stones recording "Sympathy for the Devil" was released.
"Oh God, we were there night and day. We'd come in the morning and watch it over and over and over again, for five days running. It was May and then I started having all this weird stuff happen to me. First of all, I got an English rock paper and it said that Brian Jones might leave the Stones. God! Wasn't that a heavy thing!"
The Smith sisters and the street troupe moved to a farm outside Paris, Le Puits, the Wishing Well. One Plus One plus the newspaper item created a strange disjunction in her night life: Patti Smith began to dream of Brian Jones.
They were so real, and every one was the same. The first one, I was riding in this old Victorian carriage with Mick and Keith and they were talking to each other in this funny language. They kept talking about ritual, it reminded me of voodoo, Haiti or something. And Anita Pallenberg was sitting there real nervous, clutching her hands. I kept saying, 'Where's Brian? Where'd Brian go?' They'd say, 'Never mind.' Then I thought I saw him pass by in this big picture hat, like a Victorian duchess or something. It was one of these art dreams, like some Renoir movie with all these pastel colors. And then the rain started coming down, like Noah's rain. I got this weird feeling and I got out of the carriage and it was all Victorian, all English. And I looked and there was water rising about four feet and he was floating in this old Catherine the Great black Victorian dress and this big picture hat.
"So I told my sister about it and I forgot it. Then the next night the same thing happened. Now I don't even remember the dreams. I remember the second one was more Kenneth Anger, more homosexual, with switchblades. At the end, I came into the bathroom and his head was in the toilet. It was always water, you know?
"Then this big pot of boiling water spilled on me. In reality, I was in a lotta pain, had second degree burns or something, all over me, so they gave me belladonna and morphine. I went to sleep and I had this dream that I was crawling in the grass. And there was a whirlpool, rocks and river and ocean and whirlpool, and we were slipping, it was me and Brian. He said, 'Throw up.' He's saying, 'Spit it out. Spit it out.' he grabbed my hair and he says, 'Spit it out.' And I remember this white hem, like a Moroccan djellaba, grabbing it and spitting up.
"I woke up. I was throwing up, and it was like I woulda. . . You know, how they say Jimi Hendrix died? Well, that dream really blew my mind. I said to my sister, 'Let's go back to Paris.' Maybe we could call up -- but I didn't know any rock people then, I didn't even know Bobby Neuwirth. That was the whole tragedy, that I was just totally nobody, I had no connections. I had no money, I couldn't fly to London. And I felt like I had this information that Brian Jones was gonna die. So we went back to Paris and the next day, I couldn't even find it in English, it just said, 'Brian Jones Mort.'"
She began to dream of her father now, about his heart. She and Linda decided to go home. When they arrived, her father was in bed. He'd had a heart attack.
She stayed in Pitman only briefly, then moved back to New York, into the Chelsea Hotel with Mapplethorpe. She was trying to write a requiem for Brian Jones. 'That's when my life really blew apart. In a cool way." In the lobby of the Chelsea, she met Bobby Neuwirth, who had played Guildenstern to Bob Dylan's Rosencrantz throughout he middle Sixties. As Patti tells it, Neuwirth accosted her and asked where she had learned to walk. She replied, "From Don't Look Back," the Dylan movie in which Neuwirth was a principal, and the friendship was formed.
"He didn't really understand the whole Brian Jones thing," Patti explains. "But the thing was, he recognized something within the pieces something that I didn't see. I didn't know what I was doing. I wasn't trying to create art to change the world, I was trying to rid myself of my guilt, my mania about it, my obsession." Neuwirth protected her, telling friends she wasn't a groupie, demanding they keep their hands off.
It was a heady time to be at the Chelsea. Throughout 1970, select parts of the Andy Warhol crowd were living there, as were William Burroughs, the Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. So was playwright Sam Shepard. "He saw in me some other kinda thing. Sam liked the way I walked. He always inspired me to start fights in bars. He always pushed this other thing in me." Shepard's vision of her must have been perverse -- The Tooth of Crime, the rock play he later wrote, is rather transparently based on Patti, although the protagonist is male. It is a sadistic work, filled with intimations of murder and defeat, set on a stark stage. Shepard, a leading figure just then in the off-Broadway theatre, and Patti cowrote a book of plays, Mad Dog Blues. But she and Sam didn't last.
At first she worked as a clerk in Scribner's Fifth Avenue bookstore, for $75 a week. Later, as she became better known, she wrote for a number of publications (including this one), scuffling for a living. She was willing to do a lot of work (she was a staff writer at Rock magazine for a time) but she always did it her own way. (She lost the Rock job after an interview with Eric Clapton where, according to the myth, she asked only one question: What are your six favorite colors?) Patti never forgot who the star was. And she kept writing.
Gerard Malanga, the Warhol acolyte (he rubber-stamped the signatures on the Warhol electric chair lithographs), invited her to share a reading at St. Mark's in the Bowery with him; with the encouragement of the Chelsea crowd, particularly rock critic Lenny Kaye who backed her on guitar, she gave it a try. It won her a small cult, and the scene makers, ever aware of new faces, courted her avidly for a while. St. Mark's also won the interest of Steve Paul, the former club owner (the Scene, on West 46th Street, had been the biggest rock club in the city in the mid-Sixties), publicist (for the Peppermint Lounge, at 17) and now manager of Johnny and Edgar Winter. She aroused his entrepreneurial instinct as no one since the blues brothers.
But Patti wasn't malleable. Steve wanted her to drop the poetry and start singing, perhaps with Edgar Winter. Although she was attracted by rock & roll, she wanted her poetry, too. "I've known I was gonna be a big shot since I was four," she said. "I just didn't know it had anything to do with my throat."
Then as now, her heroes were more far ranging than rock stars. While she was fascinated by Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin -- who had befriended her at the Chelsea, too -- and particularly Jim Morrison, she equated them with her high cultural idols, William Burroughs, Edith Piaf, Baudelaire and, of course, Rimbaud.
"Steve was one of the prime people who said, 'You'll never make it with the poetry, take it out of the act.' He wanted me to be a sort of leather Liza Minnelli, I think," she ways. "But the whole thing that Steve did for me, he made me fight for what I believed in. Because he was so adamant, I got adamant. We parted with me saying, I ain't never gonna do this shit, I ain't never gonna do a record unless they let me do exactly what I want to do."
Utterly unbroken, she delved deeper into poetry, though she still wrote occasional criticism and a few song lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult albums. (She and BOC keyboardist Allen Lanier have had a longtime on-and-off living arrangement.) Three volumes of her poetry appeared: Seventh Heaven, late in 1971, published by a small Berkeley house; Middle Earth Press put out Kodak in 1972; and in 1973, the Gotham Book Mart published Witt (pronounced white). Sales were small, but steady.
She and Kaye remained in touch -- although he spent much of 1973 in Europe -- getting together for readings which were slowly evolving into concerts.
In early 1973, the Mercer Arts Center began to function as a focal point for glitter rock bands such as the New York Dolls. Patti hung around; she knew many of the musicians and business people from her Village haunts. And she was reintroduced to Jane Friedman, an acquaintance from the Chelsea days and a partner in the Wartoke publicity firm, which had been responsible for coordinating press for Woodstock (as it later would be for Watkins Glen). Friedman was booking rock acts into one of the Mercer rooms and she let Patti open for them. Patti read without a mike or instrumentalist, bellowing through cupped hands or a megaphone at kids who liked to heckle; but both she and Friedman say Patti always won them over the end, often by heckling back.
Finally, Patti, explains that Friedman had always been present at the most crucial moments in her career, asked Jane to manage her. Presuming that she had a poet on her hands again -- she had worked at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village during the era of beat poetry readings -- Jane agreed.
Born to be, born to be me, just the right dark glasses.
-- "Balance" 1973
What Patti Smith was about to attempt had been pulled off by no one before her. She fits no female rock stereotype, not the suppliant lover Joni Mitchell epitomizes nor Janis Joplin's brassy but vulnerable Little Girl Blue. To get the total adulation she wanted, Patti would have to be as much her own creation as the greatest male stars. Like all of them -- Jagger, Dylan, Bowie, Stewart -- intense sexuality was sped along by gender ambiguity. This fascination with androgynous creativity and he own ability to exchange sexual roles influenced her early works. The aggressive lesbian imagery of her first book, Seventh Heaven, gave way to aggressive heterosexual fantasies. But the material was still outrageous enough to prompt Jim Delehant, A&R director at Atlantic, the company where Patti felt she most belonged ("After all, I am the last white nigger"), to characterize "Piss Factory" as too filthy to be considered.
In mid-1974, she and her band went into the studio to record a single on Mer Records, a level that had been invented and financed for the purpose by Lenny Kaye, Robert Mapplethorpe and Wartoke. The 45 contained her two key performance pieces, "Piss Factory" and "Hey Joe." The latter began as a sort of toast to Patty Heart -- "I was wonderin' were you gettin' it every night from a black revolutionary man and his woman," she said in the introductions, calling forth the sort of deep racial fears that inspired rock in the first place -- and exploded into joyous cacophony. The cult grew more intense as a result, even if the booking agents and major record company A&R men didn't respond.
Somewhere, Patti firmly believed, there was a place where Rimbaud's intense aesthetic lust met the Ronettes' boyfriend's stud passion. Surer than ever, she began to locate it, not just in her poetry but in her music -- discovering ways to rework raunch classics like "Gloria," "Hey Joe" and "Land of a Thousand Dances" to fit her style -- and in the look on her audience's face.
She found it at Max's Kansas City, where she and her trio played for several weeks, in the rhythmic grooves the band imagined with her; she found out that it connected with the uninitiated in San Francisco, where she went with a booking at a tiny Berkeley record store for a reading and wound up singing at Winterland, Bill Graham's Fillmore surrogate. Part of it was her firm belief that it all tied together at its core, rock & roll and High Art. Part of it was simply inevitable: "Of course I wanted to work in the rock & roll tradition. I didn't know any other tradition existed."
Throughout the winter, the band played CBGB, a tiny Bowery bar which featured many of the acts displaced by the folding of Mercer and Max's. Their confidence grew with their repertoire and a few of the braver record company A&R people began to express an interest. Stephen Holden of RCA went so far as to record a demo tape in the Sixth Avenue RCA studio in February 1975. John Rockwell found out and wrote a column about in the New York Times.
Suddenly, interest sprang up in another quarter. Clive Davis, president of Arista Records and formerly of CBS, was on the phone. Davis maintains that his interest had been piqued by Patti's friend Lou Reed; Rockwell's column, he insists, had nothing to do with it. Others are more skeptical about the coincidence.
In a way, it was a perfect matchup. All of Smith's benefactors have had a parental bent and Davis is the Great White Father of the record industry. His stars aren't signed so much as courted and wedded. Today, there is obviously great affection between the two: he, concerned not to push too fast, she, respectful of his care.
Signing had one immediate result: At a May date at the Other End, Bob Dylan showed up. (Davis said that he went as a personal favor.) "It was neat that I got to see Dylan, got to spend anytime with him before I did my record. I never discussed nothing. We never discussed nothing. We never talked. I mean we talked. . . You know how I felt? I been talking to him in my brain for 12 years, and now I don't have nothing to say to him. I fee like we should have telepathy by now. Me and my sister don't talk."
Through spring and half the summer, Patti sought a producer. Finally, she settled on John Cale. "My picking John was about as arbitrary as picking Rimbaud. I saw the cover of Illuminations with Rimbaud's face, y'know, he looked so cool, just like Bob Dylan. So Rimbaud became my favorite poet. I looked at the cover of Fear [Cale's 1974 solo record] and I said, 'Now there's a set of cheekbones.' The thing is I picked John . . . in my mind I picked him because his records sounded good. But I hired the wrong guy. All I was really looking for was a technical person. Instead, I got a total maniac artist. I went to pick out an expensive watercolor painting and instead I got a mirror. It was really like A Season in Hell, for both of us. But inspiration doesn't always have to be someone sending me half a dozen American Beauty roses. There's a lotta inspiration going on between the murderer and the victim. And he had me so nuts I wound up doing this nine-minute cut ["Birdland"] that transcended anything I ever did before."
Suddenly Johnny gets the
feelin' he's bein'
surrounded by horses
Comin' in in all directions,
white, shinin' silver studs
with their noses all
in flames . . .
Do you know how to Pony?
--Patti Smith, "Land of a Thousand Dances"
It was the culmination of a dream. "Everybody always says no, you can't, you'll never be able to do it. Nobody's going to sign a poet. You'll never be able to get the kind of record you want. It's really easy -- all you have to do is know what you want and be strong. Clive Davis never argued with me once about the material on the record. It wasn't any big sweat; he trusted us." (This may be slightly off the mark; Davis did ask that two songs have portions remixed.)
But the central issue, to Patti, remains clear. "People are so sure of the impossibility of things that it's like in 'Land of a Thousand Dances' -- they don't see the sea of possibility. All I know is I got to do exactly what I wanted to do. It took me four years to get i but it was worth the wait."
Recording Horses pushed Patti even further into the scarlet fever fantasy she had inhabited since childhood. And when her sense of mission becomes confused with her sense of fantasy, problems can arise. "I'm into rock & roll right now because there's a place for me. I don't think it's no accident that Bob Marley and me should be coming up at the same time. Not because I have anything to do with Bob Marley -- I just feel like a whole new thing's happening. It's time to figure out what happened in the Sixties What we can get from the Sixties is that people got so far out that old concepts were really dead. Everything that keeps us part is really old news, man. People don't know it yet, but future generations will figure it out. That's why I'm working on a link -- to keep it going."
This is excellent rhetoric but there are some fearsome contradictions in Smith's specific application of her fantasy to reality. Talking about Jimi Hendrix's reasons for operating in the white idiom, she remarks: "He had to become white because it's a white tradition to do high art and Jimi was really into poetry. And Rimbaud was totally into black people, Rimbaud believed totally that he was part nigger, because of the Ethiopians being a totally relentless physical race. Jimi Hendrix had to be like that because of synthesizing." Or speaking of how reggae has led her to a fascination with Rastafarianism, the Jamaican religion: "So many kids are getting into it, they're gonna have to change the rules. It's not a black thing anymore; it's not even Jamaican. It belongs to us now."
Those fantasies are like nothing so much as Norman Mailers' White Negro, the ultimate cultural usurper; worse, they are reminiscent of Mailer's championing of Charles Manson, another white man who wanted to appropriate black revolution for his own purposes.
Some of Patti's theories are more charming. Her perspective on women is illuminating: "I don't like categorizing stuff, but women's roles all through history have been to act as hierophant or someone who's guarded the secrets or guarded the temple. I'm a girl doing what guys usually did, the way that I look, the goals and kinds of things I want to help achieve through rock. It's more heroic stuff and heroic stuff has been traditionally male. Like Hendrix and Jim Morrison and all those people. I mean, Jim Morrison was trying to elevate the word; he was the poet in rock & roll before me. He was an academic poet. Lou Reed -- another academic poet. I'm more like down-to-earth than them guys."
But what if everything fails? In mid-November, Horses, manufacture at the Pitman Columbia plant, was released by Arista and in January Patti goes on her first, full-scale tour outside the coasts. If she is as fragile as some think, she will break and run at the first sign of rejection. If she's as tough as I think, she'll find a way. But what if it all falls through, no more records, no more songs? "The cornerstone of the little temple Jane and I built is poetry. I always had that. It's like in Hollywood, if you've got good tits. So Russ Meyer'll take you. It's the one thing you've got. You can get Lloyd's of London to insure 'em, but at least you've got your tits."
But some have thought beyond that point of failure, to complete success. "My father," Patti laughed one day, riding down to the Village from her Broadway rehearsal hall in a taxi, "has already put in his order for a car."
A Mercedes, a Bentley, a Lincoln?
"Oh I don't know. A Corolla or something? Is that the name?"
Or, as she wrote about a dream of the return of Brian Jones two years ago:
I can't help it. I cry out. How are you? Have you been all right. He smiles. He turns away and says: 'I have everything under control.'
Copyright © Dave Marsh 1976