people who make you solidify your whole plan

illustration for this article

[from "How a Little Girl Took Over a Tough Gang: The Hard-Rock Poets," by Scott Cohen, Oui, July 1976]

The Astor Theater billboard in Times Square is the most monstrous billboard in the world. The blocklong, five-story-high ad for Lucky Lady with an enormous picture of Liza Minnelli and Burt Reynolds has nothing to do with Patti Smith except to serve as a facade for the Astor Building, where her manager's offices are located, and as a reminder of something she says in one of her songs: "Gonna be so big; gonna be a star."

Patti's debut album, Horses, had not yet been released, but already the press was calling her the spirit of macho, and the next superstar. Earl Wilson called her a rock-'n'-roll queen.

Patti calls herself a poet, but she is also a singer, a playwright and a painter. She says she became a performer because applause always makes her cry; she hears applause and starts feeling like Gloria Swanson—even when the applause isn't for her.

Someone suggested that a hole be cut in the billboard so Patti could stick her head through it.

Patti has just returned from a photo session and is sitting on a makeshift couch in the band room down the hall from her manager's office. She is wearing dark glasses, a black-leather jacket and a white-silk shirt—her trademarks. Her black-shag haircut exaggerates the whiteness of her face. Her delicate hands suggest that beneath the tough leather jacket she is really fragile and vulnerable. On her left wrist is a gold I.D. bracelet on which is inscribed the name RIMBAUD.

"I know I'm scrawny-looking," she says, "but I don't like cheap stuff. Once, with the dough I got from a poetry reading, I went straight to Tiffany's. I saw this I.D. bracelet and decided to have my muse's name on it. I usually wear it on my right wrist when I'm writing—for inspiration—and when I'm not writing, I keep it on my left wrist. When I'm sleeping, I keep it on my left wrist, so I can use my right hand, you know, for doing stuff at night."

She would like to think that she was the French visionary poet Arthur Rimbaud in a former life, but she was more likely some elegant courtesan trying to seduce him. If anyone was Rimbaud, she thinks, it was Dylan—which explains why Patti's been obsessed with him since 1963. She's tried to look, dress and even walk like Dylan, ever since she saw Don't Look Back. She found it easy to slip into his persona—as if she were the female side of him. So when Patti met Dylan for the first time, after her opening-night concert at the Other End, it was as if a door in Dylan's chest opened and Patti stepped out.

"Hi, Patti," he said, in a way that spanned 12 years.

"He said 'Hi,'" Patti remembers, "like he knows. He's read all the articles and poems I've written about him. He knows I've fantasized about him, thought he was a sex symbol, blah-blah-blah."

She told him she couldn't talk to him. "I couldn't. He made my teeth buzz. But I was glad to meet him. You know, his records don't matter to me. Because physically, as a human being, he is much heavier than his work—and to me that's so far-out."

There are two questions that everyone eventually gets down to asking Patti: Did he believe in you? and Did he fuck you?

"Obviously he believes in me. Why shouldn't he?" She skips the other question, while her eyes, for a moment, look off into space.

"I didn't always have such great promise. I grew up skinny and creepy, and I made friends by doing Tex Ritter imitations. That's how I first became popular. I would do anything for a laugh."

How far would you go?

"I'll tell ya, it wasn't easy for a girl who fancied herself the cosmic mistress of Modigliani to sing Tex Ritter songs."

Patti grew up in rural South Jersey. She was unattractive, awkward and spaced out; the other kids thought she was weird. She was the only girl who could pee standing up, and she had to. One of her eyes saw double, so that when she went to the bathroom late at night she saw two toilets; invariably she sat on the wrong one and nearly busted her ass.

She knew she was the ugly-duckling type, but that didn't stop her. She figured she'd bide her time and her day would come. That's why "Time Is on My Side," by the Rolling Stones, is one of her favorite songs.

In her fantasies, she saw herself as a beautiful, angular-looking woman in a painting by Picasso, or as one of those skinny weird models she saw in Vogue— something they didn't understand in South Jersey.

"Art saved me," she says. "I never got upset by the immediate reality, because I learned from the surrealists that there were 1,000,000 more realities out there. I knew I could always telescope myself into perfection."

For a time, she tried to telescope herself to God. She was a Jehovah's Witness. She rang doorbells on Sunday mornings with a stack of Watchtowers and Awake, dressed in Brownie socks and a brown-and-white-checked dress. She'd had scarlet fever and had lost most of her hair. She had just little tufts left. Her mother tried to hide them by putting huge plaid ribbons on her head.

"My first heroine was Jo in Little Women. I studied her to see what it takes to be a girl who keeps her family together—who writes, creates, inspires people, likes to teach and to entertain."

Patti was responsible for her two younger sisters and a brother. Her dad was a track star, -a tap dancer and a factory worker. Her mom waited on tables, but she encouraged Patti to develop her imagination by telling her fairy stories and tales from The Arabian Nights.

"First I wrote stuff that entertained. Then, as a teenager, I discovered Rimbaud and I realized that you can be entertained by words sexually in some place other than your sex organs. I discovered what I call 'brainiac amour'—when you fuck with the mind. Not when you mind-fuck somebody; not like you're trying to be hot shit or out-cool or out-Jesse James somebody, but like when you're fucking with someone. That's what Rimbaud did to me. That's a big step up from Jo in Little Women, I'll tell you."

Patti read Rimbaud and dug Smokey Robinson on the radio and sneaked into rock-'n'-roll shows, where she shimmied to Ben E. King and learned to do the twist. She wanted to be an artist, but she didn't have the money to go to art school, so she accepted a scholarship to Glassboro State College and spent the weekends hanging out with art students in Philadelphia. When she got knocked up and kicked out of school, she retreated to a cabin by the ocean and played Dylan's Blonde on Blonde to her unborn child. When her daughter was born, she put her up for adoption, and with $16 in her pocket caught a bus for New York. She was 18 years old.

Patti didn't go to New York to be an artist, like everyone else—she went to be an artist's mistress. She had a completely French view of art. She used to read biographies of French ladies, like Edith Piaf, who dug their men and worked for them.

"I was also infatuated with my father," Patti recalls. "I always thought he could use a really good mistress, so I decided I would groom myself to become a great mistress."

She was broke and homeless, sleeping on subways and in hallways before she met artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

Patti had had fever-induced hallucinations ever since she was a kid, but it wasn't until Robert that she learned how to transform them into art. Patti became obsessed with art. She even ran off to Europe for art.

In Paris she visited the haunts of her idols; she dragged along rolls of paper and art supplies. Then it occurred to her that, at best, art winds up in a museum somewhere. She didn't like that idea very much. Art became a drag. Instead of enjoying her experience, she kept trying to turn it into art.

She couldn't even get laid without thinking about art. She tried to give it up, but her fingers, which were accustomed to it, wouldn't let her.

Eventually she gravitated toward the typewriter. She played it as if it were an instrument. She would put on a Stones record and type to the rhythm.

She was caught up in those surreal images of Rimbaud and in the rhythms of rock 'n' roll, so what came out was rock-'n'-roll poetry. She wrote about her idols Dylan and Brian Jones. She dreamed for a solid week that Brian Jones drowned in a rainstorm the week before he drowned in his swimming pool. Eventually her poems got published in rock magazines like Creem and later in Rolling Stone as column fillers.

When Patti returned to New York, she read her poetry in churches and small clubs around New York. At Saint Mark's Church, the "in" place in the New York poetry scene, she read such poems as Jesse James, Fire of Unknown Origin and Rape, accompanied on guitar by Lenny Kaye, a rock critic she had met in a Greenwich Village record store. Lenny knew two chords on guitar but had plenty of soul, and together they knocked them dead.

"I did my poetry and Lenny got to play guitar," she recalls. "Whether or not we were good never entered our minds. If we failed, so what? It's like when you try to pick up a chick at a bar. If you fail, it doesn't necessarily mean you were wrong—it could mean that she's blind."

Patti lived in the Chelsea Hotel, a sort of Bohemian Holiday Inn, and half her friends were rock stars—Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kris Kristofferson.

"A bunch of hot managers were thinking of doing something with me because I was in my Keith Richards stage and I was really flashy, but you know I'm not really a great singer; I'm not really tough; I'm not really a leather man; I'm a girl and I'm real fragile."

She split from the rock scene for a while and hooked up with avant-garde playwright Sam Shepard, with whom she wrote and appeared in a play called Cowboy Mouth. It was the classic example of girl from back East meets man from out West.

"Out West, guys think big. Sam thinks so big that he falls in love with dinosaurs, Mt. Rushmore. And me, a girl from New Jersey, coming from the flatlands and the swamps, thinks small. But my big dreams matched his big physical tastes."

She got back on the rock-poetry track after meeting Alan Lanier, a member of the heavy-metal rock band Blue Oyster Cult. She gave poetry readings that were more like performances. She read at the Mercer Arts Center before the opening rock band came on, accompanying herself on a toy piano. She added props and costume changes; at her 1973 Rimbaud reading at Le Jardin, a gay discotheque, she wore a black evening gown and boa and, accompanied by Lenny on guitar and a real piano, sang torch songs. At Max's Kansas City, she sang rock 'n' roll for the first time onstage: "It was like a little bird flew out of my mouth."

By the time she played CBGB, a seedy bar on the Bowery that serves as a showcase for local underground talent, she had a full band behind her—Lenny on guitar, Richard Sohl on piano, Ivan Kral on bass and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums.

"I knew that I was a really cool poet," she says, not really bragging, "and that I could grab the top laurels if I wanted. I would be a poet and my boys would be backing me and that would be it. But why grab a gold ring when there was a platinum ring swinging against my nose—we took the next plunge."

About "her boys," she says: "Each one of them has his own passions. Lenny's are internal. He's into playing. Despite having been a critic and using his mind, Lenny isn't cerebral. He's, like, a dumb guitar player. He's also a fan, and all a fan can do is become the other end of being a fan—an idol.

"Jay, the drummer, reminds me of a young Todd Rundgren. I can't explain it. I don't know him that well; he's the newest member. He's got a certain lilt and he's also from California, which is like a foreign country.

"Ivan's from Czechoslovakia. When he was 13, he was in the biggest rock band in Prague and he was real well-known. Then the Commies moved in and he had to leave, and he's been trying to fill his dream up ever since—like when he was young—to re-create it. He called us for months and months to play with us. We had auditioned all these guitar players, these geniuses, but Ivan was so soulful. The others didn't say they just wanted to be with us. They said, 'How much money?' or 'When are you going to do an album?' Ivan's more into the 'privilege' side of rock 'n' roll. You know, the rock star as martyr."

One night Clive Davis, who had earlier signed Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Sly Stone and Paul Simon, came down to CBGB to catch Patti's performance. Before the night was over they had a six-figure contract.

Just a few years ago Patti said rock 'n' roll was a man's job. She wanted to see a man's muscles and a man's veins up onstage; she didn't want to see "some chick's tits banging against a guitar."

"Well," she says now, "I never saw a woman do it cool. See anyone move good lately? Whatever I said a couple of years ago . . . I mean, I change hourly. Underneath it all, my heart's been in the same place. In those days, poetry was as far as I could go."

She says she doesn't publish, because she's working on a big thing. "I'm not like a poet who does this month's or this year's volume and puts it out. That's old-fashioned. That's what Suddenly, Last Summer was about; a guy goes away for a month of his life and writes his summer poem. That ain't real no more. You gotta work on your project until you get illuminated. Like, Gandhi wouldn't stop in the middle of nirvana and say, 'Wait, I have to publish.' You gotta keep working on your project."

Is writing poems different from writing songs?

"Consciously I don't sit down to write anything. I just love the creative process. It's really sexy. Genet wrote to turn himself on so he could jerk himself off. But women are multi-orgasmic, so they can do it all day."

Rimbaud predicted that, once liberated, women would be poets; he also predicted that women would discover strange and unfathomable things that would make them shake and wet their pants.

"There's only one knowledge," she states, "and that's the knowledge of what makes people come—what makes them go, 'Oh, God'; like when you first hear a new Rolling Stones song that's perfect; like when 'Paperback Writer' first hit, or a Phil Spector song or a Rimbaud poem or a really well-made Yves St. Laurent shirt.

"I ask the same questions the generation before me asked: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why's the sky blue? I check out the streams and try to find the origins. Like, I used to want to be an archaeologist, so on one of my streams I discovered that the Egyptian Book of the Dead was written by women. Women used to be the greatest poets. Men were magicians and the women were poets. It was natural back then. They'd get a woman in Egypt, and they wouldn't kill her; they'd get this mixture of oil, cinnabar and henna and spread it over her so she would think she was dying, but instead of dying she would go off on a voyage and she would babble. She babbled in the original tongue, like the Tower of Babel. This stream created the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Tibetan Book of the Dead—all the Books of the Dead were written by women."

How does she see her role as a poet fitting into the rock scene?

"Well, Rimbaud elevated the role of the poet to one point and then Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison took the possibilities even further. See, Jimi Hendrix had the process and Jim Morrison had the words, but neither one had the whole formula. So, you know, I just tried to take it from there."

Patti recorded Horses in Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studio. Her producer was John Cale, a former member and cofounder of the Velvet Underground, who, like Patti, was once the darling of the New York underground. Patti says that Cale was so much like her and her band—"totally inspired and technically deficient"—that the album is no miracle. "I would have called it Young and Unskilled if I weren't so old (29)."

Due to Cale's insistence that she improvise more, "Birdland," once a four-minute song about Wilhelm Reich's son "gently easing himself into his father's spaceship," turned into nine and a half minutes of what she describes as a "Peckinpah science-fiction nightmare." Patti had difficulty getting through the song. But whenever she closed her eyes, she saw Jimi Hendrix in the studio. She saw his neck, teeth and hands. Whenever she began to falter, she shut her eyes and he was there to guide her.

In the first moments of "Land," the most difficult and most haunting song on the album—and one Patti has been writing for the past couple of years—Johnny, her alter ego, is raped by another boy. From there on, the song is a voyage of spliced images—horses, seductive angels, switchblades, pituitary glands and light fevers, and it ends with the image of a long black tube—Jimi Hendrix—wrapped in a white sheet. "Elegy," a tribute to Hendrix, was recorded on September 18, the anniversary of his death, although no one realized it at the time.

"I knew travel was a key," Patti says about her album and of her work in general, "and there was a time when I thought one of the ways you get to travel is sexually. I think that a lot of answers—flashes, illuminations—are possible through sexual means."

When she was a kid, she had a lot of sex fantasies. Before Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, Anne Frank was the big deal. Whenever she went to the bathroom, she took pictures of Nazi war atrocities with her instead of pornography. It was her initiation into weird sex.

"Until recently, most of my fantasies have been about women. I had acted like a boy for so long that I didn't know how to act like a woman. I hadn't worn a dress for years. Then I got completely captivated by girls, which everyone took for a lesbian thing. But all I wanted to do was make myself more feminine, and the only way I could learn about being a woman was from other women. I liked guys so much that I used to think the way to a guy's heart was by doing his homework. Now I know the way to a guy's heart is by being a woman. I even once decided to have an affair with Anita Pallenberg. That's how I got into my Keith Richards period. I thought if I looked enough like Keith Richards, Anita Pallenberg would pick up on me, and maybe after we were done messing around, Keith and I could mess around. But these fantasies were completely intellectual and had nothing to do with my body. I didn't even know a woman could masturbate until I was almost 25."

Who does she jerk off to?

"I can jerk off best to Rimbaud, just because he's perfect. Perfection is the best thing to jerk off to. I really hope people jerk off to my records. This is what I'm trying for. I'm trying to write porno rock 'n' roll in an illuminated way, so that not only will you wet your pants but your mind will crack like an egg. That's my project."

Lately, when Patti gives a concert, she is her own opening act. She talks to the audience, cracks jokes and reads poems for 20 minutes before the band comes out—sort of the way Johnny Carson opens up his show with a monolog. Like Johnny, she knows that if her fans like her, it doesn't matter if a line flops once in a while.

After a show, she wants to know what the boys in the audience thought of her and especially what the girls said in the ladles' room.

Patti knows about fans, having started as one. She's been a fan since she heard "The Girl Can't Help It" by Little Richard. "I've been a fan," she says, "since back when they first invented fans—before air conditioning."

A true fan knows all the elements of greatness. She says the coolest thing for a fan to be is a rock-'n'-roll star.

Being a true poet, Patti gives interviews in epigrams. Here are a few lines of self-portrait:

On her dream date: "A dream date for me would be something classy. First, he would send me a box from Balenciaga and in it would be the classic black dress, an orchid and dark glasses. He would send my whole outfit. I would look like Anouk Aimee in La Dolce Vita. Then he'd call on . me in a Jaguar that had wings and we'd fly to the south of France. Then we'd go out for a classy dinner and there'd be a menu with no prices. After that, we'd go to a roulette house, like in Band of Angels. I'd end the evening looking like Jeanne Moreau. Then he'd drive me back and kiss my hand. And we wouldn't do nothing, if you know what I mean."

On her first poem: "Let's see, the first poem I remember writing was really cornball. It was called 'The Unfinished Symphony.' I used to go out with this boy in high school—he was like a Jamaican spade, like a Bob Marley-type guy. He was real cool— cool before his time—he was a piano player Anyway, we broke up and I wrote 'The Unfinished Symphony,' and it started out with a color scheme: 'His brown bony fingers on the ivory keys'— you know, real kid stuff."

On the best people: "I like people who make you solidify your whole plan. If I'm gonna be a true archaeologist, I really got to go down and down and go into the tomb and get the king out."

On being alone: "When I'm really alone, I just like to smoke dope and read someone like Rimbaud until I can't see anymore, until the page is blank and all glittery—glitter and graphite; then I rearrange everything and start writing. I see all this glitter, and I feel I have to translate it."

On rules to live by: "I always wash my own sheets. I won't let anyone wash the sheets that me and the one I love sleep on."

On her image: "What's sacred to me, my still life, is a cup of coffee [Java], a pack of cigarettes [Kool] and a pair of dark glasses, like Dylan wore [Don't Look Back]."

On her epitaph: "Something I think Cole Porter wrote: 'A woman drowns her regrets in black coffee and cigarettes."'

Copyright © Scott Cohen 1976

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