Text by Mary Anne Cassata / FFanzeen, 1988
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Lyrics © Patti Smith
Images from the Internet; recording and book covers from personal collection of RBF
This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #15, dated 1988. It was written by high-end rock writer and editor Mary Anne Cassata, who has a number of books under her name, including bios of Cher, Elton John, and Jim Carrey. Since this article was published, Mary Anne has interviewed Patti a few times, including some that have been referenced in biographical books about her. I’m happy to say we’ve been good friends for over 30 years now!
As for Patti Smith, there are few who can argue her first album, Horses (1975), was transformative to the music we heard afterwards. Same can be true about her poetry, many of which have been turned into her songs, but her scope goes beyond that.
Honestly, I can’t remember the first time I saw her play, but I do know I was there at her infamous Bottom Line show (1975), when she played the short-lived CBGBs Theater (1977, with Richard Hell and the Void Oids opening), and her last show in New York at the Wollman Rink in Central Park (1979). There were a few in-between, as well. Infamously, she was the final performer when CBGBs closed its doors in 2006.
The closest I came to having a conversation with her was a time in 1977 when I was toddling down St. Mark’s Place passing in front of Natasha’s Clothing, near Third Ave, and I saw her walking in the opposite direction, wearing a neck brace. She had recently fallen off a stage and broken her neck. As I passed her, I said something like, “Patti! Thank you for all the great music” She replied, “Hey, thanks, man!” and that was that.
When she kind of disappeared when she married Fred “Sonic” Smith [d. 1994] and moved to Detroit, there was a definite void. Since her re-emergence, Patti was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. The only way I know how to say this is that Patti is a force. Like a hurricane, her Detroit phase is the dormant eye, and she has certainly come back with strength. I welcome it. – RBF, 2016
The words, “I’m an American artist, and I have no guilt,” were once said with true passion and much conviction. A poet-turned-rocker, Patti Smith has won acclaim for being the ‘70s female cult phenomenon.
Perhaps to really understand the full influential impact that such classic albums as Horses and Easter initiated to the rock world, you must know where its inventor’s inspirations were originally devised.
Before acquiring her movement as metaphor, Patti Smith was all too captivated by 19th Century poet Arthur Rimbaud. His influence was not widespread at first, but expanded to easily defined areas of symbolism and surrealism. As a young girl, Patti first became immersed in Rimbaud’s words and visions after seeing his picture on a book cover; looking at his face had reminded Patti of her father. The effect: profound; its result: the beginning of a celebration of Rimbaud in her poetry and music.
Patricia Lee Smith was born December 30, 1946, in Chicago, the eldest of four children: two sisters, Kimberly and Linda, and a brother Todd [d. 1994]. Her father worked in a factory and her mother was a waitress. The Smiths lived for a short while on a sheep farm in Tennessee before relocating to South New Jersey. When asked about her childhood hears, Patti replied in a ‘70s interview: “I’m just a Jersey girl. I really loved that I was from South Jersey because it was a real spade area… When I was a little girl, I was a very sick little girl and skinny. They didn’t even know that I would live. We had no money. We were very poor, but I never stopped believing.”
Patti’s father was an “intellectual” type, who preferred that his eldest daughter wouldn’t talk in a New Jersey street slang. “I wanted to be like the kids I went to school with,” Patti said, “so I never intentionally learned to speak good. I thought I couldn’t use it on the dance floor, so what good was it?”
At age six, the riveting sounds of ‘60s rock’n’roll music began to invade her vulnerable consciousness. Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” was the first record Patti ever owned. Escaping into music helped to ease the pain of a traumatic childhood due to her health. Frail, she was struck with tuberculosis and scarlet fever, which more than often left her to suffer hallucinations.
Perhaps due to illness, combined with a large bout of shyness, Patti retreated into her own special world of fantasy. Even as a very small child, she had the ability to write and would often record her hallucinations and dreams into notebooks. Sensitive, introverted, and consistently creative in her efforts, childhood may have left emotional scars – but it also eventually helped make Patti a renowned poet/rock luminary. “Those who have suffered understand suffering. Thereby, extend their hand,” she would write in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger nearly a decade later.
A growing devotion to rock music and its heroes had solidified itself by her mid-teens. After Patti witnessed the Rolling Stones for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show, there was no turning back. She also enjoyed dancing, especially doing the Monkey, which was popular at the time.
Though focusing her talents on writing poetry and dancing to the latest sounds, Patti eventually conquered her shyness and, in the process, developed a cutting sense of humor. She also learned how to channel her helter-skelter thoughts intro captivating poetry and art. The search for complete freedom in self-expression became Patti’s personal vision. School didn’t mesh with her artistic rhythm either, so she left both ungratified and unqualified for work skills in the real world.
Smith attended Glassboro State College in New Jersey, but left when she was 19-years-old . Though it was a very unsettling period in her life, she also admitted to coming to terms with her own sexuality. Patti also maintained her poetry writing, portraying herself as both victim and aggressor. In a 1973 interview, she explained, “I was always a tomboy. I hated being a girl. I never identified with any female at all. When I had a baby, I was forced to look at myself as a female, although only physically, not intellectually.”
She found work in a New Jersey toy factory, but it didn’t last long. Standing in an assembly line for seven hours a day is unaspiring work. Exit factory. This ambitious, artistic girl had other dreams, like the burning lines in her song “Piss Factory”: “I’m gonna get on that train / And go to New York City / And I’m gonna be somebody / I’m gonna be a big star / And I’m gonna be so big / I will never return / Never return to this piss factory…” Patti, with a vengeance, pursued her dream.
In 1967, she headed for New York City, keeping the poetry flowing, and rock’n’roll close to her heart. She indulged in the greats, such as Dylan, Hendrix, and the Stones for references, and especially her mentor, Rimbaud. Using some of the factory savings, Patti decided to take a trip overseas to see the haunts of her poetic heroes. She made a pilgrimage to Paris, visiting the gravesites of Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. Captivated by the culture and the art, the aspiring poet/artist stayed for six months, working in cafes by day and reciting poetry at night. Patti said of her experiences:
“In Paris, everyone’s a poseur. The French are the best actors in the world. They’re not deceitful, but everyone is conscious of his image. When I left the States, I was still very much into image. I wore my black suit and dark glasses. Paris to me is completely a city of images. I found it impossible to work there.”
Returning to New York and ready to face another new adventure, she met up with avant-garde artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The two moved in together, living in a tiny apartment near Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Motivated by student energy, Patti studied new art forms and was learning how to trade her hallucinations for some serious poetry. She also dabbled in the arts to keep her creative process fresh. From line drawings, cartoons, and using calligraphy to write poems, she remained consistent, while working as a cashier at a Greenwich Village bookstore.
A struggling guitarist named Lenny Kaye worked down the street from Patti at another bookstore. The two met and would soon team up to combine poetry and rock guitar.
From the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s, Patti was an influential part of the Warhol scene, holed up in the now infamous Chelsea Hotel. Patti and Mapplethorpe moved there, soaking up the inspirational remains of Dylan Thomas, Janis Joplin, Allan Ginsberg and the Velvet Underground. It was Mapplethorpe who initially encouraged Patti to transfer her visions and images into art. Some of that constructive energy resulted in a co-authored book with rising playwright Sam Shephard, titled Mad Dog Blues and Other Plays [published 1972 – RBF, 2016].
Through the urging of a close friend, Patti became more involved in the music industry as a means to channel her writings. By her 24th birthday, the poet/artist proved to be an undeniable force to celebrate at a Chelsea Hotel party. Breakthrough – forge ahead. During 1971, she exercised her insatiable writing abilities by co-authoring a play, Cowboy Mouth, with Shepard, appeared on BBC television, and made a documentary film for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA). Patti’s prime inspiration for the MOMA movie was an Italian female beatnik/artist named Valli [Patti and Valli, 1973 – RBF, 2016].
“I used to have pictures of her all over my walls. She was a big hero of mine when I was 14,” recalled Patti in 1973. “She lived on the Left Bank. I never considered her a real person. I was confronted with a real girl, and I thought, ‘Oh, man, what am I going to do?’ ‘cause I had dealt with the image for so long.”
She also admired the works of Edie Sedgwick; heroes were always essential to Patti in her younger years. When she became an artist in her own right, however, she learned to put images into their proper perspectives. “I never considered myself to be my own best hero. There’s almost no poet I’d read (other) than myself,” she continued. “I no longer need people to cloak me. Heroes die, images fade. Art for me in the beginning was never a vehicle for self-expression. It was a way to ally myself with heroes, ‘cause I couldn’t make contact with God.”
By late ’71, her next form of self-expression arrived as a collection of poems. Her debut solo book, entitled Seventh Heaven, aroused some interest from Rolling Stone and Creem, who then started to publish her poems regularly.
Though the early ‘70s may have been a lot harder than expected, it still didn’t diminish her energy level any. With Lenny backing her on guitar, Patti gave poetry readings at St. Mark’s Church, located in New York’s Bowery. Her words, supported by Kaye’s electric guitar and a tiny amp, had soon garnered a loyal cult following.
By the time her second book, Kodak, was released a year later, Patti and Lenny were joined by pianist Richard Sohl [d. 1990]. Thus was the beginning of the Patti Smith Group (PSG).
Due to her new-found recognition as a rock poet, Patti recorded her single, “Piss Factory,” backed with “Hey Joe (Version)” on MER Records, an independent label. The sound, raw and energetic, recalled those desperate days of working in a factory, and “Hey Joe,” the ‘60s rock classic [originally recorded by The Leaves, and Jimi Hendrix Experience, among many others – RBF, 2016], gave new meaning to the violent love theme.
“At first it was just me and Lenny Kaye on electric guitar during poetry readings,” Patti told a music journalist in regard to the formation of the PSG. “Then it started to gather force. We advertised for a piano player… And then we started looking for another guitarist. We had days and days of guitar players. We’d make them do 40 minutes of “Gloria”… Then we picked up a drummer.
Toward the end of ’74, an expatriate Czechoslovakian guitarist named Ivan Kral, and former Mumps drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, rounded out the PSG. Rock’n’roll dreams and visions grew stronger and closer to the musical goals of the five-piece band. Alan Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult provided Patti with further reinforcement in her lyrical writing and signing. The group called Manhattan home, and performed on the small club circuit.
In 1973, with the release of her third book, Wītt (pronounced “White”), Patti was fast becoming something of a local legend in the New York poetry circles. On her way to something much more than a career, Patti saw it as a crusade for rock’n’roll.
On stage, even the very smallest, she knew how to connect with an audience, whether it was poetry readings or music. Patti could reach in deep enough to hit a nerve with the public. It wasn’t until a year later that her true fate would await.
Already an established name in New York, PSG was signed on the strength of their sound to the newly formed Arista Records. Their debut album, Horses, was produced by John Cale and recorded at Electric Lady Studio in New York City. The PSG were one of the first acts to be termed “New Wave” or “Proto-punk” by the music press. Producer Cale, a former member and co-founder of the Velvet Underground, employed Lanier and friend of Patti’s, Tom Verlaine (of the band Television), to contribute additional guitar work to the album.
For a new band’s debut offering, it made a boisterous statement, not soon to be ignored. Patti Smith, a new breed of rock star, would eventually become an unforgettable figure in popular music for years to come. All across the country, FM radio stations spread the word and played cuts from the offering that was rapidly becoming a landmark album.
The prestigious The New York Times proclaimed that “Horses will shake you and move you as little else can.” Across the Atlantic, the New Musical Express (NME) was saying: “Albums this good are pretty few and far between. It’s better than the first Roxy album, good as the Doors, and Who and the Velvet Underground.” Generous praise coming from the notorious British press.
Back in the States, Horses rose up the music charts and into the hearts of record buyers. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine / Melting in a pot of thieves / A wild card up my sleeve / Tick, heart of stone / My sins are my own / They belong to me,” opened the album. Startling lines for a 29-year-old Patti Smith to declare. In 1976, she told Rolling Stone, “It’s time to figure out what happened in the ‘60s. I’m working on a link to keep it all going.”
Her debut single of a remake of Them’s “Gloria” was backed with a live version of The Who classic, “My Generation.” Using nothing less than the unexpected, original Smith approach to Townsend’s lines, “People try to put us down / Just because we get around,” Patti added, “I don’t need that fuckin’ shit / Hope I die because of it.” In England, the offensive words had been censored from the record pressings. Of course, the artist was not amused. Patti rebelled: “When I find out who’s responsible, I’ll break his balls…” Beware, danger lurks!
A notable progressive artist on an American radio station in New York City spells trouble. Just prior to an interview on the famed rock station WNEW-FM, Patti was asked politely to curb her speech. Not one to dispense of profanity lightly, Patti took the request as a personal insult to her artistry. On the air, she broke into a litany:
“How alternative is this radio?... The first thing that happens when I walk in is that you tell me you don’t have a bleep machine and to watch what I say. That’s not alternative, that’s the same old stuff. Notice I said ‘stuff,’ being completely professional at this moment… All over the world there’s, like, these bursts of power and bursts of pleasure. Rock’n’roll is being taken over by the people again, by young kids again, who don’t want to hear about your digital display. They don’t want to hear about any of this stuff.”
Due to being banned from any further interviews on the noted station, Patti took her grievance out in the form of a poem called, “You Can’t Say ‘Fuck’ on Radio Free America.” The manifesto was published in an underground New York newspaper. A portion of it read:
“We believe in the total freedom of communication, and will not be compromised. The censorship of the words is as meaningless as the censorship of musical notes; we cannot tolerate either. Freedom means exactly that: no limits, no boundaries… Rock and roll is not a colonial power to be exploited, told what to say and how to say it.”
Her second album, Radio Ethiopia, proved to be nothing less than another explosion of raw energy and primal rock inspirations. With ace producer Jack Douglas at the helm, the assaulting, innovative rhythms and sounds gratified devoted followers, and at the same time captured new ones. Though some music critics felt her second offering didn’t quite measure up to the brilliant debut album, it still garnered an enthusiastic reception. One record reviewer noted the LP as “just another well-produced, competently played mid-‘70s rock and roll record.” Album sales were a bit disappointing, too, but the music? Never.
On January 23, 1977, in midst of a concert tour, Patti had an accident. She twirled off a stage in Florida, singing, “Ain’t It Strange,” falling 14 feet. While completely immersed in the number, the stage ended – and space began. Patti broke her neck and went into traction for a while. Commenting on the accident, she said, “I know the finger of God pushed me off the stage.” While recuperating from her injury, she began writing a new volume of poetry.
A year later, the PSG got back into action and made a triumphant return to the rock world. Their third album, Easter, was nearly as exhilarating as Horses. With some songwriting assistance from fellow Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen, Easter sprang a huge hit single, “Because the Night.” Patti penned the lyrics, and Springsteen the music. Unadulterated praise from rock critic purists poured in from both sides of the Atlantic. Dave Marsh, from Rolling Stone, proclaimed, “The Magic of Easter is undeniable. It is transcendent and fulfilled. Patti Smith is one of the greatest figures of ‘70s rock and roll.”
In England, Sounds stated, “Here you get unbridled perfection merged with raw fury, and it is stunning. NME followed suit with: “Patti Smith’s energy is irrepressible and contagious. She pours enough of it into Easter to keep an average artist going for years.” Having received such a grandiose reception by both critics and fans alike, how could the PSG’s third album be any less than a commercial success?
Some of the purest forms of the PSG’s assassinating rhythms are best displayed on tracks like “Till Victory,” “Space Monkey,” and “25th Floor.” Producer Jimmy Iovine channelled Patti’s original lyrical sense and the band’s commanding music appeals, and cleverly meshed it together in a suited rock style that would be identifiable enough to the Smith-starved legions worldwide. “Because the Night” had delivered a new means of respect for the group.
“Here we are condemned to navigate back to our beginnings,” stated the androgynous, thin female figure at the release of the album. Even some of Patti’s own religious convictions are passionately conveyed in such enlightening cuts as “Privilege (Set Me Free)” and the title song.
As Easter made chart history, the poet-turned-reluctant-rock-star released her fourth and widely read book of poems, Babel. The collection became her most indulgent work ever. Sources of inspiration varied from rock’n’roll heroes to the Bible to sexual identities and role reversals. Rimbaud, of course, lurked between the lines.
One alarming poem, perhaps her most familiar, “Rape,” caused quite a foundational shake at a New York live reading. The controversial rock poet was abruptly cut short as she recited the offensive words that excited spectators, but angered the police.
An outraged law enforcer jumped onstage in an attempt to pull the plug on Patti’s microphone. However, it was too late before he noticed his efforts were in vain. Patti, standing at the side of the stage, was grinning like a Cheshire cat. After all, she had been using a wireless microphone!
“Yum yum the stars are out. I’ll never forget how you smelled that night. Like cheddar cheese melting under a fluorescent light. Like a day old rainbow fish. What a dish. Gotta lick my lips… I’m gonna peep in Bo’s bodice. Lay down darling. Don’t be modest. Let me slip my hand in…”
In her earlier years (pre-rock and roll heroine), Patti remembers her writings being consistently rejected by magazines. However, in the wake of success, acceptance now seemed trivial. In a 1976 interview, the emotionally wounded poet told Penthouse magazine that publishers “objected to the style and content of my work. They said I had sick attitudes for a woman. I’d get letters” ‘We find your thinking and ideas and morals very immature. Write back when you are mature.’ I was 26.” Mature or not, by the late ‘70s, Patti’s dominating presence and invincible talent was definitely felt.
By the time her fourth album, Wave, arrived in 1979, the artist had pretty much accomplished all her poetic and musical goals. The time had come to end an era and move on to explore new horizons in life. The LP, a combination of quiet reflection, romantic love, and equalled revenge, represented the band’s fame, success, and their past and future.
Compared to the previous release, Wave commanded listeners, but was subdued next to Radio Ethiopia. The PSG, still recognized for its artistic integrity and previous musical accomplishments, rose eloquently above the shallow criticism.
Rolling Stone set the pace with: “Though a long way from being a total disaster, Wave is too confused and hermetically smug to be much more than an interesting failure.” Across the seas, England’s more populist music newspapers wrote in a more positive sense: “Wave will just as effortlessly endure the passage of time. If you are on the same wavelength, Patti Smith will always reach you to awaken some primal instinct that is dormant in all.”
Todd Rundgren-produced LP received moderate FM airplay. Patti’s choice in producers dates back to the time she used to write about his music in the pages of Creem many years ago. Opening with the friendly, “Hi, hello” in “Frederick,” Patti’s own special love ballad, Wave starts off in an unexpected mellow mood. Lines like, “But tonight on the wings of a dove / Up above to the land of love,” present a soft, gently side to Patti’s femininity. A welcomed change to some, and a deadly mistake to others. The pace soon turns mysterious in the moody “Dancing Barefoot,” but finds its way back to warm sentiments in the title track and “Hymn.”
The titular “Wave” on the cover can be interpreted as either a hand signal (perhaps Patti saying goodbye to her career for a while), or water finding its way to the shore. Whatever her intentions, Wave was a challenging album not to be ignored. The fiery sentiment on “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star,” the Byrds’ classic ‘60s cut, portrayed our late ‘70s female cult hero to perfection.
Another strong point was “Citizen Ship,” an aggressive song about memories, castaways, and seeking liberty in the land of the free. Ivan Kral was the inspirational focal point behind the song. The music, explosive, combined with gravel-digging vocals, gave Smith purists exactly what they wanted to hear.
If anything, the music on Wave presented the events and emotional bond the PSG had experienced by 1979. The statements of her faith alone range clear on the title cut and “Hymn.” While most music critics continued to complain that Patti had softened around the edges, Patti started making plans for a new future. At the height of all her rock dreams, she walked happily away to a life of marital bliss with Fred “Sonic” Smith, of the MC5 [m. 1980], in Detroit, and the subsequent birth of their son, Jackson [b. 1982], and daughter, Jesse [b. 1986]. Patti didn’t even have to change her last name, she had joked to the press a short time after. It’s been said that the lead guitarist of the legendary Detroit-based outfit was one of Patti’s long-time music heroes. [In fact, on the back of Radio Ethiopia, read the words: “Free Wayne Kramer,” who was Fred’s co-guitarist in the MC5 – Ed., 1988.]
In the midst of the PSG’s last American concert tour, their Burbank California show was forced to cancel due to the town’s mayor. Smith, as well as other scheduled concerts by Todd Rundgren and Blue Oyster Cult, were disapproved. Patti, as one artist who never takes issues lightly, voiced her opinion in the City Council’s office:
“I am very sorrowful about the behavior of the City Council of Burbank in refusing to allow the Patti Smith Group to perform a concert because they object to the personal and political convictions of our audience. As I do not judge the children of the Councilmen and the citizens of Burbank, let them not judge mine.
“It is very hard to believe that in America the use of the public facility for a performance can be denied on the groups of personal prejudices of a few City Councilmen. Who will be the next one to be banned? Does it start with this audience and then move on to racial and ethnic groups? Who will determine? This is a dangerous precedent and contrary to the very essence of this country.
“I do not wish to be labelled as anything except as an American artist and allowed to present my work to whomever wishes to come and experience it. I am saddened that because of the bigotry and prejudices of a few, I will not be able to perform for the people of Burbank.
“When I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and state the rods, ‘One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,’ I mean these words will all my heart. I feel that the people who have prohibited me and other performers from performing do not truly understand the meaning of these words.”
Whatever she executes, Patti Smith does it with not just her heart, but with her entire being. How can a rock and roll enigma such as this dark haired, strange woman-child settle for being pressed neatly between the pages of music history? Her lyrical, poetic and other writings today are still left unchallenged by other lesser artists. In the rock star category, she once reigned supreme on the same level as male contemporaries David Bowie [d. 2016], Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen. Her sexual ambiguity allowed Patti to appeal on a mass level to both men and women. An originator combining modern poetry and rock, she had chosen not to be another pretty Suzi Quatro decked in black leather or an alluring Debbie Harry laced in glamour.
Not once did the ever faithful Patti Smith purists worldwide believe her career would be over permanently. The phenomenon that brought the masses “Gloria (in Excelsis),” “Privilege (Set Me Free,” “Ask the Angels” and other landmark contributions, wouldn’t just fade into oblivion. Too much talent and energy is at stake. For the past seven years, anticipation has been settling in, waiting for the arrival of the new Patti Smith Group album. Due for release by winter [Dream of Life, released 1988; as of this writing, there have been six albums released after that one – RBF, 2016], it will be their fifth album together. Inside sources reveal the new music will certainly bring back fond memories for old fans, and at the same time, recruit other fresh young adherents.
Only time will tell.