maybe I'll be 48 and die in the gutter in paris

[from "Patti Smith: Can You Hear Me Ethiopia?" by Scott Cohen, Circus Magazine, December 14, 1976]


There's a thin slice of metaphysical time that exists between days, so it's not Sunday P.M. or Monday A.M. -- it's P.S. time. The place is Patti Smith's apartment, around the corner from the Lexington Avenue streetwalkers and above a liquor store. Patti, her younger brother and road manager Todd, and a friend whom Patti met through a fan letter are in the bedroom. Patti has just returned from dinner with the senior editor of a major publishing company, where she was presented with a book contract. The contract states she can write about anything she wants and is the kind no one gets for a first book, not even Dylan. Scotch-taped to the wall is the distinguished Grand Prix Du Disque, an award presented by the Academie Charles Cros, which is in no way to be confused with the Don Kirshner Rock Award. Each year the award is given to the best artist in each field: the best male vocalist, best female vocalist, etc. Jimi Hendrix won it for Electric Ladyland, Jim Morrison won it for L.A. Woman and Patti won it for Horses.

On the floor is another kind of award, Teenage Perversity And Ships In The Night, a bootleg version of Horses which Patti almost prefers to the original. These days they don't bootleg just anybody. The cover is a removable sheet of paper with an interesting photo of Patti that is stuck between a cellophane wrapper and an anonymous, totally blank white jacket. The record itself is thick and heavy, the equivalent of Coke bottle eyeglasses, and looks like a meteor that dropped from outer space. The song titles were made up to hide the fact that the record is actually a bootleg. It was pirated by World Records, which is, along with Round Records, one of the all-time great names.

"Having this is the true meaning of success," Patti says, referring to a hand-painted Chinese bowl filled with Colombian dope, and then, in slow motion, she begins.


Everybody was standing around Electric Ladyland, just hanging out, and the secretary hands me this fan letter. The envelope had all this Ethiopian writing on it and a stamp of Haile Selassie so I opened it up and inside was this heavy letter. It was like a lightning bolt. It was like instant karma. A few years ago I was working at the Strand Bookstore and Oui magazine sent Richard Meltzer to India and I thought that if they would send Richard Meltzer to India, they'd send me to Ethiopia. So I wrote them this letter they could probably sell for a million laughs. It's this pleading letter asking them if they would send me on the first freighter over to Ethiopia. I would do anything -- I would clean the Oui offices, I'd press the editor's pants, I'd write from any angle, I'd become an Ethiopian whore -- anything that would fit Oui so I could go to Ethiopia and write my Rimbaud book.

Rimbaud was the first European to explore Ethiopia. He was there when it was Abyssinia. He was there when it was absence, abysmal. Now it's Ethiopian. It went from absinthe to opium. A lot of things have changed, but the thing that remains is that he was the first and the first is always great. Even if people after the first are greater, the first is always cool.

Anyway, I needed a guide and I get this fan letter from this girl who can do all that stuff -- a guide who can interpret, who knows the language fluently, who knows all the short-cuts and where to buy the dope.


The first record's like a book. It's like a poetry book. You're hardly aware that there's music on it. This one's more feminine. The other's like a little boy. The other one has a lot of abandon, like a little boy. This one's more like Jeanne Moreau.


I have 50's Vogues with early pan shots, pale roses and models with necks that went on forever. I have Scavullo ones when he used to shoot little kids, little girls with big hats and white stockings like in Alice in Wonderland. And the architecture, like Jean Shrimpton with a space helmet, Edie Sedgwick with the white dogs and the mink jacket. Edie Sedgwick with the blonde hair and the dark eyebrows -- she didn't mess around. Platinum hair and black brows. She was really something. I saw her and Andy Warhol in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was like seeing a black and white movie in person. She really got me. It was something weird, you know, like I really think you know your future if you want to. There I was -- I had really bad skin, I was really skinny and really fucked up -- but I knew I was goin' to do work for Vogue, I didn't know how, but I just knew it.


Do you know why I like to be a rock & roll star? The other day the guy who's gonna produce my next album, Jimmy Iovine -- they call him Jimmy Shoes because he's like the Outlaw of the Record Plant. He's the Record Plant's black sheep. He worked on the Springsteen and John Lennon records. Eddie Kramer had Hendrix and Rothschild had Morrison, and Jimmy's gonna have me. This is how cool he is: I called him up one night and said I wanna get this magazine, can you give me a lift? He comes all the way from Brooklyn in his little Mercedes with the top down, with his sunglasses on. I throw on my silk raincoat, get me a cigarette, get in the car, and he drives me to a newsstand where I buy a Paris Vogue -- ten bucks. What a rush it is to lay out ten bucks for a fashion magazine. Then we get back in the Mercedes, he drives me back and makes sure I get in my house. Now, there's a producer! I get back in my house and he splits -- nothing more than that.


Americans just don't know what being a movie star's all about. That's the whole thing to me -- movies. I used to think it was being a model. When I was in high school, to me being a model was the heaviest. It was the logical extension of being an artist's mistress. Like in Modigliani's time, it was always the mistress that held the great artists together. Fuck art. It was obvious the chicks were where it was at.

I modeled at the Museum School. I modeled for Robert Mapplethorpe. In fact, when I went to work and stuff, where it says "profession," I always put "artist's model." Once I wrote "rock & roll star" just for the hell of it.

I'd like to model for DeKooning. I know how to get to DeKooning. It's easy. I met DeKooning once in a bar and he put his hand on my knee right away. I knew I could model for him.

I was so fucked-up-looking in school, but it just didn't matter. Besides me wanting to be an artist, I wanted to be a movie star. I don't mean like an American movie star. I mean like Jeanne Moreau or Anouk Aimee in "La Dolce Vita." I couldn't believe her in those dark glasses and that black dress and that sports car. I thought that was the heaviest thing I ever saw. Anouk Aimee with that black eye. It made me always want to have a black eye forever. It made me want to get a guy to knock me around. I'd always look great. I got great sunglasses.


My sunglasses are like my guitar. It's real important. I have Wayfarers. I keep wantin' to say they're Fender Wayfarers. I got 'em in black, just like in Don't Look Back, and in shell, just like Roy Orbison. I always lose 'em. I buy a pair of sunglasses a week. I have to make money. It's 12 bucks a week just for my sunglasses.


My daughter. I have a daughter who's 11 years old. Maybe she'll grow up independent and really really heavy and become a movie star and she'll play me in my life story. She'll be doin' the movie and then, all of a sudden, it'll hit her -- I'm her mother. She'll go through all the records, and through the whole process of doin' the movie and she'll be startin' to search for me. Then she'll come to this heavy realization about the mother she never knew. This will be after I've had my opium o.d.


When I went to Paris I stayed at this hotel called the Hotel Of Strangers, in the attic room where Charles Cros and Rimbaud lived together. In fact, I'm sure it was in the same bed because they said no one had been in that room in years. The guy says nobody rents this room because it's the attic room, and from reading the biographies I know it's the room where he stayed with Charles Cros. I said I will pay anything, just let me stay up there. It was so dirty. It was like in the movies when they go into the haunted house and they hit everything and there's tons of dust and spiders and the bed is shaped like bodies. It was a tiny bed on a metal ramp. You could see the bodies where the people slept. It was the bed where Charley and Rimbaud slept.


Everyone thinks there's one heaven. Mohammed personally mapped out seven heavens. If he got to seven, you know there's more. Christianity made us think there's one heaven. Jesus might be top dog in one heaven, but there's other heavens. Mohammed saw Jesus and he went further up, and there's people past him. Kids today pass him. Where Jesus is is small time. He's of the flesh, like a rock star -- you can fuck him.


I never thought I was gonna live to 30. I only planned it out till I was 28. I figured at 28, the black dress, the gutter in Paris, I had it -- like a B movie of Piaf. I had it all wrong. Maybe I'll be 48 and die in the gutter in Paris. I was still a baby bird when I was 28. I like gettin' old. First of all, anybody who has lasted 30 and went through the 60's is really a survivor. Now I can get fucked up. Now I can start takin' drugs. If drugs take 10 years off of your life, then I'm takin' off different ones. I want to make 40. I want to see it. I can't believe I lasted. I feel like I'm just beginning. At first I got really fucked up because I thought I was too old to be in rock & roll. I'm not a little kid and that's what makes it a gas. I look at these kids, you know, and I could be their mother, their mistress, their older woman. Some of the kids at the concerts are 15. I got a kid who's 11. For a 30-year-old woman, wolf, whatever -- for a 30-year-old animal to give a 15-year-old boy a hard-on is so great.


* My mother answers all my fan mail. She's got a box number: Radio Ethiopia, Box 188, Woodburn, New Jersey. This is the mother who beat the shit out of me if I was an hour late from school.

* Will anyone dare do the Marlon Brando Story while Brando's still alive?

* I didn't get a whole page in Vogue, but I got half a page. Like I told the lady at Mademoiselle, me gettin' in Vogue is revenge for bad skin.

* Johnny Ace rolls the barrel of his .45 around like a hit record. He shot himself with a .45 while he had a hit single. It's no coincidence that a gun and a record are called a 45. They should call a Saturday Night Special a 33 1/3.

* There should have been a Vogue around to do a centerfold of the Queen of Sheba.

* Lead guitar players get 42 seconds to do their solo. My lead guitar player got 12 minutes and 10 seconds. On Radio Ethiopia it's all Lenny and I battling Fenders. It's all me and Lenny playing lead guitar in our own way. Me and Lenny were radioin' to each other.

* An artist is somebody who enters into competition with God. The guy who built the Tower of Babel was the first artist. If I had to check out where I was in other centuries, I was his old lady. If I wasn't the guy, I was his chick. He knew that there was more and God got jealous. Even gods get uptight. Women make gods uptight. Everyone thinks of God as a man -- you can't help it -- Santa Claus was a man, therefore God has to be a man. But a man comes once. A woman never stops coming.

Copyright © Scott Cohen 1976

[Sidebar piece by K. Stein]

On Radio Ethiopia, Patti Smith stakes out her own lost continent, and puts transmitters in Atlantis. While producer Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, Montrose) permissively allows for surreal sounds and accidents of Fate and randomness, the slave-boy band of Horses shucks its bonds and plays with genuine musical competence. Yet there is still no one making records like Patti Smith's.

Much of the lyrics sound like they were recorded while Patti was asleep; someone installed a microphone in her brain. "Poppies" is either the documentary of an OD in progress, or someone severed from the waist giving birth to a tractor while an artist paints it. There are excellent overdubs by the poet, so that she seems to be coming at you from all sides. Unrelenting. "Pissing in a River" could be a song of religious uplift, but Side Two is all Hell. If you like "Pumping," you're one of those people who can't stop moving: Patti's voice is an involuntary muscle here, and you will begin to feel like an aorta, too. She wrote "Distant Fingers" with Blue Oyster Cult's Allen Lanier, a close friend, and it's a sexier, softer song, with exotic empty spaces. The arrangement is a mix of Eno's synthetic Victorianisms and Patti sings like a Crystal or a Ronette filled with yearning and waiting.

"Radio Ethiopia" is a 10-minute mood piece: bloated moons, oceans, feedback cymbals, dissonance and percussion. It could be ammunition for a tribal war, a white girl poet's dream of a confrontation in Botswana, for example. And are those psychedelic effects we hear? Or just cries and whispers, vomit, shredding of skin? If you liked the Doors, you'll love Radio Ethiopia.

Copyright © K. Stein 1976

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