I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Patti Smith was, and is, pure experience … Her reign in the ’70s as a street-hot rock & roll messiah seemed to exist from a void. No past, no future—”the future is here,” she’d sing. I’d hear tales of romance, the girl with the blackest hair hanging out at recording sessions writing poetry. But I didn’t know her. I could only embrace the identity I perceived. I was impressionable and she came on like an alien. The first time I met her was in 1975 in a magazine. It was two poems about three wishes: rock & roll, sex, and New York City. Her photo was stark—no disco color flash. It was anti-glam, nocturnal staring eyes, black leather trousers. She was skinny and smart. She posed as if she were the coolest boy in the city. And she was. I could only imagine her world through her poems: telling, truthful, dirty, hopeful. I wanted to meet her and take her to a movie, but she was so unobtainable and fantastic I could only entrust my faith to the future. The future would allow me to have a date with Patti Smith or at least hang out with her. And the future seems to have come. It seems to be happening, it’s happened. It’s here.
Patti grew up in south Jersey in the ’60s. As a teenager she became involved in a succession of religious experiences: “Catholic lust,” an intense relationship with the Jehovah Witnesses, and a full-on romance with Tibetan Buddhism. She completely immersed herself in the genius of Bob Dylan and Arthur Rimbaud. She loved (and loves) rock & roll with an unbounded passion. It instilled beauty and vision to a complex life of dreams.
Patti moved to New York City late in the decade. I’ve met people who knew her at this time and I’ll stare at them as if to somehow transport myself through their memory to see her. She was skinny and exotic. She had Keith Richards’s haircut. She was sexy and manic. She worked at book stores and wrote and read poetry and did art. She co-wrote and acted in Cowboy Mouth with Sam Shepard. She was muse and lover to Robert Mapplethorpe. They were writers, artists, and rock & rollers—they were young and had any which way to go. Years moved by.
She and Lenny Kaye jammed poetry and electric guitar at St. Mark’s Church. Patti would touch her chest and pronounce, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine …” Word was out that an amazing woman with a wild, intellectual positivism was tearing it up downtown. Local news programs and the Village Voice would begin to monitor her moves. She wrote amazing, celebratory record reviews for Rolling Stone, Rock Scene and Creem. Rock & roll was the sounding tool for modern prayer. She went to hear Television at CBGB and joined forces with Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell. They amplified the influence of Burroughs, Genet, Hendrix, Dylan, Stooges, Dolls and reggae.
Patti and Television spent 1975 at CBGB creating a forum for an excited and completely distinctive sensibility. “We created it, let’s take it over,” she’d shout and brought serious sounds to the people away from the arena-mind of the corporatized music/youth culture. Revolution was necessary. The Ramones came in, Blondie came in, Talking Heads came in. Entrepreneurs hyped the Sex Pistols and a subculture was begun. Its current status as a valid mainstream format is just a commercial of its sublime expansion. By 1979 Patti split to Michigan with Fred “Sonic” Smith (legendary guitarist of Detroit’s high energy prophets the MC5) and got married. They had two kids and did a lot of fishing. She was out of the scene and out of sight. A second generation of artists and musicians had come to New York City and began to make noise in an explosion of punk rock inspired enterprise. The strongest and most original force in the music’s history had been a woman. And this fact alone exacted upon the “punk” culture a situation in which women were empowered and encouraged.
Patti reappeared in the late ’80s with the affirming “People Have the Power.” The song’s video showed a distinguished, serious Patti at home in proclamation amongst images of spiritual leadership. She and Fred played at a celebration for Dylan and another for Jackson Pollock.
Fred passed away in 1995 as did Patti’s brother and close friend, Todd.
Robert Mapplethorpe had also passed away.
Patti doesn’t drive. In 1977 she fell off the stage and her eyesight was damaged. Survival in Michigan is difficult and lonely without Fred. She wants to play. As soon as her 13-year-old ends the school year she plans on moving back to New York. She has no set design on a professional life but she loves performance. And teaching. I could only interview Patti in conversational mode. She speaks with humor and thoughtfulness, her words are at once searching and prosaic.
I flew to Boston to meet her and Lenny Kaye where we were to drive to Lowell, Massachusetts for a benefit for the Kerouac Foundation. She asked me to play guitar on three songs: one she had written, one by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, and one an improvisation to a poem by Kerouac. We did a show in Lowell and two in Boston, all three in these cool churches. We spent Saturday visiting the haunts of Kerouac’s Lowell. Patti took Polaroids of my hands for a Sunday exhibit at a friend’s gallery in Jamaica Plain. She’d frame the photos with broad white frames and write around them vignettes pertaining to the subject. I was friends with someone I had dreamed of being friends with for nearly 20 years.
This conversation was recorded late night in a hotel in Lowell, October 6, and the next day in the back seat of a car driving to Boston.
Stone Hedge Inn. Lowell, Massachusetts.
Thurston Moore How would Lester Bangs have conducted this interview?
Patti Smith Lester wrote a really nice article about us a long time ago called “Stagger Lee Was A Woman.” But then he turned against us because he felt we sold out with Radio Ethiopia. Everybody thought we sold out. They thought we had turned heavy metal. They found lyrics like “pissing in a river” offensive, they found experimentation offensive, definitely too sonic.
TM It was for its time. It seemed like a very MC5 influenced record. There was nothing like it at the time.
PS Lenny introduced me to their music. I had never heard of the MC5. Radio Ethiopia was influenced by “Black To Comm.” When Lenny introduced me to Fred, it was March 9, 1976, almost 20 years ago. Fred was standing in front of a white elevator in a navy blue coat—the coat which appears in Godspeed. “Walking in your blue coat, weeping admiral,” that’s Fred.
TM I remember a little item in Rolling Stone back then about a love letter you sent Fred.
PS I sent him a telegram: “Light and energy enclosed.” I couldn’t believe they found out about that.
TM How are your children?
PS I really love my kids, I like having them around me. They can drive you nuts and they’re such a responsibility but it’s like a movie you can never see again. You watch it as it’s happening and you think it’s always gonna be like that and then …
TM And then you go see Kids.
PS Or one of your kids turns into Kids. Too much reality for me. I’ve lived reality, so why go see it on the movie screen?
TM What do you think of the whole debate on censorship—parents being offended by pornographic lyrics?
PS I think they have the right to be concerned. Some of the stuff pawned off as freedom of expression, let alone art, is just trash, just jerking off, with no real duty attached. No seeking to elevate. No self-censorship. No conscience. Things seem too open to me now, children are being robbed of their childhood. I don’t know. Somehow I feel like Rip van Winkle who fell asleep in the ’70s and woke up in the ’90s. When I was a child we were much more cut off from the adult world. What I think is, “Toyland, toyland … once you pass its portals you may never return again.” (laughter)
TM What’s the first record you ever bought?
PS Shrimp Boats by Harry Belafonte, Patience and Prudence doing The Money Tree, and, embarrassingly enough, Neil Sedaka’s Climb Up. My mother bought me a box set of Madame Butterfly when I was sick. I always got great records when I was sick. I got Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. My mother was a counter waitress in a drugstore where they had a bargain bin of used records. One day she brought this record home and said, “I never heard of the fellow but he looks like somebody you’d like,” and it was Another Side of Bob Dylan. I loved him. You see, I had devoted so much of my girlish daydreams to Rimbaud. Rimbaud was like my boyfriend. If you’re 15 or 16 and you can’t get the boy you want, and you have to daydream about him all the time, what’s the difference if he’s a dead poet or a senior? At least Bob Dylan … it was a relief to daydream about somebody who was alive.
TM Did you ever see John Coltrane?
PS Yes. Once in Philly in ‘63 when My Favorite Things came out. There were two jazz clubs right next to each other, Pep’s and the Showboat. You had to be 18, so these people helped me get dressed up, trying to look older. I was basically a pigtails and sweatshirt kind of kid. So I got in for 15 minutes and saw him and then they carded me and kicked me out. He did “Nature Boy.” I was in such heaven seeing them, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, that I wasn’t even disturbed that I got thrown out.
TM I suppose youth culture was very familiar with jazz at that time.
PS It was a small culture. Kids who were too young for the beat thing and too old for the Beatles got into jazz.
TM Do you remember your first guitar?
PS I saw this really old Martin in a pawn shop, it had a woven, colored strap and I loved it. I saved my money, but when I went back to get it it was gone. So I bought a little Martin. I didn’t know anything about tuning. I could never understand why my chords never sounded like the songs in my Bob Dylan song book. And then I met Sam Shepard and he showed me. He bought me this ‘30s black Gibson, which I still have. It’s the same kind of guitar Robert Johnson plays.
TM Are you aware of these bands which are referred to as “riot grrl” bands?
PS Now I know they exist but I couldn’t tell you anything about them. Is it a positive thing?
TM Yeah, its main focus and agenda is the communication of self-help and social issues to young women. It’s a network and very band-oriented, fully inspired by punk rock.
PS Well, that’s heartening to know. I hope there’s lots of them.
TM When you guys would come out and say, “Fight the good fight,” I was 18 and I thought, “That’s cool, that sounds right, I’ll take that over the other.”
PS Well, we did one or two things right.
TM You guys were a nice band, you didn’t cop a lot of attitude.
PS We were nice. We shared whatever we had, because we didn’t have anything. No opening acts then. Sometimes I’d do poetry, or we’d show our home movies, footage of us when we were younger, on the road, having fun with each other. I remember once, when we were in Austin, staying in the Lyndon Baines Johnson suite, and this interviewer asked me, “What is the future of rock?” And I said, “Sculpture.” Then he asked me about the future of art, and Richard’s lying there beached, eating cheesecake, and says, “The computer. It will take over everything.”
Want to hear about my fish story? Did I ever tell you about my pet fishing lure named Curly?
PS It was purple and had a little curly-q tail. I would cast it and we would have telepathy. I would get into such in-depth conversations with this lure that I would actually see inside the water. I could see fish lurking. It was like Herbert Hunke’s poem about Jack Kerouac and his notebook. This lure was an extension of me. I love that lure. If you ever come to Michigan I’ll show you Curly. You know how people say certain lures catch fish, this lure never caught nothing. But we used to have the greatest thoughts. He’d tell me things like how he once went fishing with Arnold Palmer. I much preferred going out with Curly and catching nothin’. I always meant to write a story about him, I forgot about it till right now.
TM When did you first meet Bob Dylan?
PS Backstage at the Bitter End. We didn’t have a drummer yet. It was just the four of us, we hadn’t been signed yet.
TM Did you see him in the audience?
PS No. Somebody told us he was there. My heart was pounding. I got instantly rebellious. I made a couple of references, a couple of oblique things to show I knew he was there. And then he came backstage which was really quite gentlemanly of him. He came over to me and I kept moving around. We were like two pitbulls circling. I was a snotnose. I had a very high concentration of adrenaline. He said to me, “Any poets around here?” And I said, “I don’t like poetry anymore. Poetry sucks!” I really acted like a jerk. I thought, that guy will never talk to me again. And the day after there was this picture on the cover of the Village Voice. The photographer had Dylan put his arm around me. It was a really cool picture. It was a dream come true, but it reminded me of how I had acted like a jerk. And then a few days later I was walking down 4th Street by the Bottom Line and I saw him coming. He put his hand in his jacket—he was still wearing the same clothes he had on in the picture, which I liked—and he takes out the Village Voice picture and says, “Who are these two people? You know who these people are?” Then he smiled at me and I knew it was all right. The first time I ever heard him was way back in 1964. I went to see Joan Baez. She had this fellow with her. Bobby Dylan. His voice was like a motorcycle through a cornfield …
Saturday: Driving from Lowell to Cambridge: We stop for Polaroid film and Patti buys a present for my daughter, Coco. Then we head on to the grotto where Kerouac used to write, and light candles for Fred. From there, we go to Kerouac’s memorial, granite slabs with lines from his Dr. Sax carved into their surface. Patti leaves her guitar pick at his grave.
TM You know, I grabbed your ankle once at a concert. It was during an encore when you were doing “My Generation.” There was mayhem and you were real close and I reached up and grabbed you. But I got freaked out as if I was going too far and I let go.
PS You were sonic youth.
TM When we named ourselves Sonic Youth the word sonic wasn’t so common. “Sonic boom” was a technical term; but in rock & roll I only knew of Sonic Smith.
PS Fred loved that. He always said, “They got that from me!” I’d say, “Well, you don’t know that.” It was a source of pride for him. He was sonic.
TM The only other time I saw you was in Bleecker Bob’s in the ‘70s. You walked in eating pizza and wearing aviator glasses and Bleecker Bob showed you an Ian Dury picture sleeve and you said, “I don’t listen to music by people I don’t wanna fuck.”
PS (laughter) Yeah, that was me.
TM One time I went to see you at CBGB and it was totally packed and you guys were wearing these black leather pants, you were totally bad-ass. It was a pretty intense scene, I was standing there biting my lower lip and you looked at me and bit your lip right back at me like, “I’ll show you how to bite your lip. Kid.”
PS I was kind of mean. I’m so glad I’m nice now.
TM Well, I didn’t think you were mean.
PS Well, I spotted you.
TM That night William Burroughs came to the gig.
PS I remember that. I was in heaven that night. Afterwards, he said to me, “Patti, you are a remarkable chanteuse.” He was wonderful and so handsome. I had dinner with him recently and he’s still handsome, such a good dresser, like he had the lead in Guys And Dolls.
I grabbed Brian Jones’s ankle once. It was in 1964 and they were playing with Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles in a high school auditorium in South Jersey. There were only about 450 people and folding chairs. The American flag and the school flag were up. I had never seen the Rolling Stones. The weird thing was that the only other time I’d seen any white rock concerts was Joan Baez. We went to see the Motown Revues. They didn’t have white rock concerts, at least not in South Jersey. You went to the airport, it was five dollars a carload and the Motown bus would come in, and in one day you could see Little Stevie Wonder or Ben E. King. It was called the Airport Drive-In. So, anyway, I was sitting in this auditorium, with mostly other white girls. Everybody was sitting there politely during Patti Labelle, nobody danced or anything—it was kind of square. And then the Rolling Stones came on and all of a sudden girls started screaming and ran towards the stage. I had a front row seat. And I had no choice, they just pushed me into the edge of the stage. I had never seen anything like this ever. I was so embarrassed. They acted like such freaks, screaming. One girl broke her ankle. It was some kind of collective hysteria they had learned reading about people going to see the Beatles.
TM They must’ve rocked when they came out.
PS Mick Jagger looked very nervous. The funniest one was Keith because he was really young and nervous and his ears were big and he had pimples and his teeth were kind of bucked and cute. But I loved Brian Jones. He was sitting on the floor playing one of those Ventures electric sitars, and these girls kept pushing me and pushing me. They pushed me right on the stage and then I felt myself going under and I was gonna be trampled and out of total desperation I reached up and grabbed the first thing I saw; Brian Jones’s ankle. I was grabbing him to save myself. And he looked at me. And I looked at him. And he smiled. He just smiled at me. (sigh) My Brian Jones story.
TM “Brian, Brian, I’m not cryin’ …”
PS “… I’m just tryin’ to reach you.”
TM I used to really love that poem.
PS Where did you and Kim meet?
TM Through a mutual friend. I was in a band called The Coachmen and we were coming out of the no-wave scene.
PS What’s “no-wave?”
TM Contortions, DNA, Lydia Lunch, Mars …
PS Oh, I missed that.
TM It was the next generation of the downtown music scene, all these new kids from art schools moving to New York and taking over the scene. Blondie became radio-friendly and they created this real harsh, nihilist music called no-wave. It was atonal, chordless, noise rock played by these weirdo personalities.
PS Sounds like I could’ve got a job.
TM It was total anti-rock. The Sex Pistols were supposedly destroying rock & roll, but they were just playing Chuck Berry chords a little faster and sloppier and louder.
PS They were a pop band. Pop music used to be derogatory, but, especially since Pop Art, the word has been redefined. Pop is something, at its best, both pleasurable and inspiring.
TM Do you have a lot of friends in New York?
PS Yeah, I have a lot of new friends, a couple of old ones. A lot of my friends from New York are gone. My main friend in New York was Robert (Mapplethorpe). He was my best friend. And I really loved Richard Sohl. Whenever I came to New York after I moved to Detroit I’d always get excited as I’d see the skyline because I knew somewhere in that city they were working or cruising or whatever. I like coming back to New York. I love walking around, I’ll pass cafés and people will say, “Hi Patti,” just like when you’ve grown up in the neighborhood.
Are we lost? (We ask for directions at a gas station.)
TM You wrote a poem for the Dalai Lama.
PS Yes, I have always cared for him since I was a kid in 1959 when the Chinese invaded Tibet and he disappeared. I prayed for him constantly. In September I was asked to work with him at The World Peace Conference in Berlin. Everytime I saw him all I could do was smile. At dinner I sat across from him but I couldn’t say anything, I just waved and smiled. I felt so … young. So happy. For my young girl self so deeply loved him.
a small entreaty
May I be nothing
but the peeling of a lotus
papering the distance
for You underfoot
one lone skin
to lift and fashion
as a cap to cradle
Your bowing head
an ear to hear
the great horn
a slipper to mount
the temple step
one lone skin
baring this wish
May Your hands be full
May your toys
scatter the sky
tiny yellow bundles
bursting like stars
and the laughter
of a bell (1994)
TM You studied Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama when you were 13?
PS Before then … 11, 12. I was leaving the Jehovah Witnesses so I was studying other religions. My frame of mind was that if you left a religion you had to find another one. I realized after time that that wasn’t necessary. I fell in love with Tibet because their essential mission was to keep a continual stream of prayer. To me they kept the world from spinning out of control just by being a civilization on the roof of the world in that continuous state of prayer. The prayers are etched on wheels, they feel them with their hands like braille and turn them. It’s spinning prayer like cloth. That was my perception as a young person. I didn’t quite understand the whole thing but I felt protected. We grew up at a time when nuclear war seemed imminent with air raid drills and lying on the floor under your school desk. To counterbalance that destruction was this civilization of monks living high in the Himalayas who were continuously praying for us, for the planet and for all of nature. That made me feel safe.
TM Buddhism has become a socially recognized religious philosophy for Americans, whereas it used to be considered an exotic religion.
PS When I was a child, Jehovah’s Witness was a completely misunderstood religion. We used to go door to door, and people would throw buckets of water on us and curse at us. It was awful. I don’t agree with the dogmas of any church. They’re just man-made laws that you can either decide to abide by or not. Buddhism is a lot like the truest aspects of Christianity. It’s based on caring for one another. Like Jesus gave to us an 11th commandment: “Love one another.” You can have aesthestic, scientific or philosophic differences, but if you saw somebody in trouble, wouldn’t you give them a helping hand?
TM Giving and forgiving.
PS Wait a minute … Do you have this thing where you start thinking something and your mind takes it over and it’s not in a language that you can translate yet so you’re sitting and waiting but your mind’s like … it’s like in those movies where the computer starts talking to itself and locks the guy out. Sometimes I sit here and I feel like a shell harboring my brain and my brain is faxing different thoughts to other parts.
TM (whispers) Look, a Dunkin Donuts.
PS Is there? Oh man, I’d love some coffee and a french crueller with chocolate.
TM Here, let me get it for you.
Saturday night performance, Smith Baker Hall, Lowell.
“This poem is dedicated to the members of Sonic Youth … .
from high on rebellion
what i feel when i’m playing guitar is completely cold and crazy. like i don’t owe nobody nothing and it’s a test just to see how far i can relax into the cold wave of a note, when everything hits just right (just and right) the note of nobility can go on forever. i never tire of the solitary E and i trust my guitar and i don’t care about anything. sometimes i feel like i’ve broken through and i’m free and could dig into eternity riding the wave and the realm of the E …”
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee