Patti Smith has been one of Billy Hough’s “Ride-or-Die” favorites ever since he heard her debut album, Horses. In his inimitable style, Billy muses on and marvels about the poet, playwright, author, musician and icon; he also messes with her current status as “living saint.” In short, Billy gives us a refreshing reconsideration of the whole essence of Patti, the artist and human being, through the lenses of her albums and published books. Take it away, Billy…
AIN’T IT STRANGE WITH LOVE TO MAYA ANGELOU
There was a news story recently: Michael Stipe (R.E.M.) was on a talk show with a story about how he told Donald Trump to “shut the fuck up” at a Patti Smith show. Everyone online loved the story. I seemed to be the only person who collapsed on the floor with confusion and despair. What the hell was Trump doing at a Patti Smith performance? A little research showed that Patti was actually one of several performers at a charity event, and this occurred before the election. Still I couldn’t understand why was Patti Smith even included on a roster that might draw you-know-who? Her history with Mapplethorpe, her political positions, her very essence should be anathema to people like that. Shouldn’t they? Why was she now “safe” enough for that audience? I know that history takes the edge off everything, but Patti Smith? Not yet.
Full disclosure: Patti Smith is one of my All-Time Ride-or-Die musicians and has been ever since I first heard Horses back in the mid-90’s while working at Tower Records in the French Quarter. Though her debut album was 20 years old at that point, it sounded so fresh, so daring, so dangerous to me—and it still does. Though her reputation amongst some of her peers has always been decidedly mixed—“she’s over-confident, arrogant, mean”—there is no one I’ve encountered who doesn’t acknowledge her power or the brilliance of her best work. What we call “punk” wouldn’t have evolved in the same way without her contributions. The fact that she was a “girl” doesn’t even come up—yes she was early, yes she was unlike anything the punk world had seen—but she was so good, as good as anyone before or after, that she rendered old-world discussions about gender roles obsolete.
But if you Google her, much of that doesn’t come up. What you get are puff pieces, endless fawning interviews, graduation speeches and memorial performances. The publication of her memoir Just Kids has somehow transformed her into this generation’s Maya Angelou: a blemish-free icon of survival and intelligence, whose every word is a bon mot of wisdom and grace. Christ, I don’t deny Patti any of the abundant love she gets these days, nor her new audience. I’m thrilled that she’s making the kind of money she should have made all along; but somehow her current status as “living saint” leaves out what I contend are the best parts of the story. Her messy affairs, her appropriation of other people’s ideas, her mistakes—all qualities that humanize her and return to her the credit and the edge I believe she deserves.
I want to revisit some of these tales of gore and glory, of ambition and its cost. I want to dredge up some of the stories that are now buried under endless tributes—in hopes of creating a more balanced image of Patti, the girl from New Jersey who set the world on fire and gave us the future.
SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROCK-AND-ROLL STAR? PATTI SMITH GROUP’S GREAT RUN (1975-1979)
There are bands who never released a “bad” record in their short career (the Velvet Underground, Nirvana) or bands who consistently put out records of such quality, we may need some time to judge them (Sonic Youth, Radiohead). Patti Smith or ‘The Patti Smith Group’ clawed out a very specific and unique place in New York’s Underground/Punk/Art scene—they released 4 albums in 4 years and then vanished. Though Patti and her band may also be candidates for the “never released a bad record” camp, I contend that the four original albums are all classics. You can debate that, hell we can debate everything, but each album accomplished something very different than those before, and those that came after.
These were the Top 10 songs in the country for the week of November 15, 1975:
1. ISLAND GIRL – Elton John—2. LYIN’ EYES – The Eagles —3. WHO LOVES YOU – The Four Seasons —4. MIRACLES – Jefferson Starship —5. HEAT WAVE / LOVE IS A ROSE – Linda Ronstadt —6. THAT’S THE WAY (I Like It) – K.C. and the Sunshine Band —7. THIS WILL BE – Natalie Cole —8. FEELINGS – Morris Albert —9. THE WAY I WANT TO TOUCH YOU – The Captain and Tennille —10. LOW RIDER – War
This was the American music scene into which Patti Smith’s Horses was unleashed on November 10, 1975. The album’s iconic cover is still jarring: her lover/pal Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white image of an androgynous figure (remember, most boys in the scene had exactly the same haircut as Patti does in the picture), with no make-up or styling, wearing an Oxford shirt and skinny tie, a jacket thrown over her shoulder and staring straight at the viewer. Her look was so bold, so daring (and ahead of its time—boys would eventually adopt that dress code in the later ’70’s and ’80’s), she somehow didn’t look like any boy or girl you had seen before. Certainly not on an album cover. She would have been on the rack with Dolly Parton, Helen Reddy and Linda Ronstadt, all at the height of 1970s heavy make-up and huge hair, high-glamour standard.
She and her record were built to stand out. On the rack, in the store, staring, unblinking at you, daring you to ignore her, while at the same time, seeming not to care if you did. She was not flirting with you, she had nothing to prove. It was your move. So you bought the record, took it home, and dropped the needle.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” There might be other opening lines on debut albums that have grabbed the clueless first listener as hard as this line throws down the gauntlet at the beginning of “Gloria”—but it has never been topped. Then Patti starts talking—Is this a poem? Her lyrics and the strange sound of her voice are joined by the tight/loose quality of her band. Then the song gets faster—much faster. Then it begins to sound like something akin to “girl on girl” erotica before it turns into—a Van Morrison cover? What the fuck is this? To this day, whenever I’m turning a newbie on to this record for the first time, the reaction is just as strong as it has surely been for the last 45 years.
After the huge rushing payoff at the end of six heart-pounding minutes of “Gloria,” there follows: “Redondo Beach” (a reggae beat before much of America had heard Bob Marley) which may be more lezzie stuff? No, maybe her sister? She killed herself? Whoa. Catchy though. “Birdland” is completely different than the first two songs—a spoken word piano ballad that would have been more accessible to the soft-rock ears of late-1975—that evolves into an sonic orgy over which Patti seems to have a nervous breakdown, and then it goes on for another 4 minutes (it’s nearly 10) and gets crazier and creepier and somehow more…innocent? It’s likely the first taste of NYC performance art, perhaps the Ur-slam poetry moment that many of its listeners had ever experienced before. “Free Money” is the only defense you ever need to combat some ignoramus at a party who will inevitably say “Well, Patti Smith isn’t punk.” And that’s just Side One.
With each track, Patti Smith makes it abundantly clear that she is going to make this record in her own image. Her taste and style saturate everything about it: the references, the covers, the explosive performances of both band and singer, the odd length of songs, and all that sex. There was some precedent for some of Horses. There are surely nods to Jim Morrison (who Patti has often credited as an early inspiration)—I can imagine a young Patti listening to the Doors while reading Rimbaud (Yin to Morrison’s Yang of her early inspiration), and hearing the power of poetry in rock music—in both its language and the strange quality of lyrics spoken in the middle of a song. There was Iggy Pop (who also credits Morrison as an influence—which is really, imho, two cases of the students surpassing the teacher, but there it is—Iggy, like Patti, took from Morrison the idea of the “rock star as shaman.” The idea has been toyed with ever since, but credit where it’s due—the shamanistic, ceremonial quality that Jim Morrison started and Iggy perfected, Patti took to a different planet on “Land,” the penultimate moment of perfection on Horses.
In terms of musical influence there was the Velvet Underground, who contributed the fast-slow-fast structure with “Heroin”—and contributed founding member, John Cale, as the album’s producer. (I have written elsewhere on PKM about Horses—Cale’s innovations in the studio, and on the famous tension behind the scenes.) The credit for the overall power of the record is shared between Patti and her band, the production by Cale and the cover by Mapplethorpe. Though Patti herself deserves the bulk of the credit, you were dealing with a bunch of geniuses at the top of their game, and the overall package works together with a powerful magic.
INTERLUDE: HOW TO RESPOND TO A MORON SAYING “WELL PATTI SMITH ISN’T PUNK.”
“Then who is, mouth-breather? I assume we’re all too woke for this to have anything to do with Patti’s being a woman, right? Cause, um, I assume that you would give cred to Poly Styrene or Siouxsie Sioux or Lydia Lunch or Kim Gordon? OK, so that’s not it. It must be because you don’t think “punk rock” existed before you discovered it, right? What qualifies for you then? The Sex Pistols (first record 1977)? Props to the Pistols, but they were put together by Malcolm McLaren—and I mean “put together” like a boy band—to ape the New York Dolls (first record 1972) who had fallen apart under McLaren’s short tenure as their manager. So you may mean Black Flag (first record 1981)? Respect to Black Flag, but even they would laugh if you called them the “first punk band.” The California scene was vital and full of great punk, but it followed the Sex Pistols who had followed the Dolls. I’m not saying Patti Smith invented punk, but by Jesus: she predates the Ramones first record by 3 months, and Television’s Marquee Moon by 15 months. There is nothing in the punk canon that doesn’t come from that holy trinity, and Horses dropped first.”
The one thing I found revelatory in the 1975-era reviews of Horses—almost universally raves—was that three of the top reviewers” (Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, and John Rockwell for Rolling Stone) all compared the record to her live performance. It’s a reminder that Patti Smith had been around New York for 8 years, and had been onstage in some form or other, countless times. These guys all root for her in a way more befitting of an older sibling cheering on a younger one—not in a condescending way. In a way that she slays the expectations of even those who knew her well, and there is a level of pride and excitement in their gushing reviews. The consensus was that Horses was better than it should have been, better than it needed to be, and wasn’t a “great work for Patti,” but a great work.
There has been little change, but only because Horses was considered a classic album upon release, so the fact that we still hold it near the top of the “Best of All The” lists would surprise exactly none of the listeners of 1975. Think Nevermind, an album that was immediately iconic in a way that even the death of Kurt Cobain didn’t improve people’s take on it (as it did for In Utero and the posthumous Unplugged in NYC) because there was no place to go. Twenty-five years later, we are still listening to Nevermind, which surprises no one who heard it in 1991. Horses got high marks then, as now, and even its “40th Anniversary Tour” (which I saw and loved) may have added some nostalgia to the mix, but this goddamned record doesn’t need the help.
The reviews for Horses were so good, it gave Patti and her band much to live up to with her sophomore effort. She, herself, has said in interviews that no one expected her debut to be a “hit” by any real standards—which sounds a little humble for the artist who was nothing if not certain of her own rock-god inevitability. But I do believe that Horses blew away even her high expectations.
Sophomore efforts are famously tough in rock & roll. Classic first albums are often the culmination of five or more years of writing and playing, and producers are able to cherry-pick the best songs from band’s catalog. Often, second records are rushed (if the label smells money) and the songs are ether quickly written or “lesser”—left off the debut intentionally. There is a second problem: if your debut makes a splash, do you try to give the people a second helping of what they love about your first record, or do you go in a totally different direction? The critics will often criticize you whichever way you go. It seems the Patti Smith Group chose to do a little of both.
Patti, by her own admission, wanted to be a “rock star” in the grandest sense of the word. There had been no other women rockers who went after the boys at their own game, nor had ever there been anyone in the “hard rockin’ boys’ club” like Patti. The sense, after the huge impact of Horses, was that she could, and would, be as big as she wanted to be. She hired producer Jack Douglas, who had engineered for Bob Ezrin and who had produced Aerosmith’s classic mid-70s albums. The fact that she wanted someone who was producing commercially successful radio-hits was no accident—she said herself that she was trying to reach a bigger audience. She wanted to be a rock star, not a performance artist with a back-up band, and from the “Patti Smith Group” credit on the cover to the big, clean sound on the record, her intentions are clear.
Confusingly, however, she hedged her bets: stylistically the songs are reminiscent of Horses in their variety—“Ask the Angels” is a rocker a-la “Free Money,” “Distant Fingers” has a reggae vibe a-la “Redondo Beach”—though her lyrics weren’t as personal as on “Kimberly” or “Birdland”—and were lower in the mix than at the forefront of it—unlike they had been in Cale’s production of the first album. She did, however, finish the record with another 10-minute noise symphony, though the title track and its second movement, “Radio Ethiopia/Abyssinia,” failed to reach the heights of “Land,” and was considered the album’s least successful track by most counts. The album failed to build on the promise of its predecessor but remained a solid enough contribution with some brilliant songs. It also made her an easy target for those who might have called out Patti’s “pretensions” but had been unable to do so previously, as with Horses she had cashed that check without question.
The most striking review I found from the era is from Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh, who takes the view that Radio Ethiopia works like an alternate universe version of Horses: one where all the decisions that worked so well the first time were wrongly made here. The review is snarky in tone and takes Patti to task for “sitting back and letting her band take over.” Robert Christgau, who can be remarkably tough on artists he loves (and he loves Patti) gave the record an “A-“ (Horses had received an unadorned “A”). From Lester Bangs—who had written a thesis-length love letter to Horses in 1975 (not that the length of that particular review was atypical for Bangs’ “Meth/Id” writing of the time)—I found only a passing mention of Radio Ethiopia. In a 1982 interview, Lester kills two birds with one stone when asked about Christgau’s concise “Consumer Guide” review column: “…It’s good that it exists. It is kind of amazing how he always has things… well, not always, but a lot of the times he has things exactly opposite. Like Iggy was no good until he did his RCA albums. Radio Ethiopia is Patti Smith’s best album. Things like that.”
My Unwarranted Opinion: There was no way a second record could appeal to all of Horses fanatical devotees. I love Radio Ethiopia’s messy, angry sound, and its less-focused song sequence. I love it much in the way I love Nirvana’s final studio album In Utero—basically, all of the things that make it different than its own nigh-on-perfect predecessor (Nevermind)—less polished production, less “finished” songwriting, experiments that do and don’t work. Those qualities, which were sniffed at by detractors, are exactly what I love about the record. Radio Ethiopia remains an invigorating, challenging listen from start-to-finish, but those songs like “Pissing in a River” and “Distant Fingers”—out of the context of the album—need no help to succeed.
There is a story about three great records by three great artists at pivotal moments, all being recorded at the same time at the Record Plant in NYC. In Studio A was Lou Reed. After the ups and downs of “hits” (Transformer and, god help us, Sally Can’t Dance) followed by commercial disasters (Berlin and Metal Machine Music), Lou had redeemed himself with the critics and the public with Coney Island Baby and signed with a new label, Arista. His first record for them Rock and Roll Heart was loathed by everyone, and there was much worry that he didn’t have another great record in him. In Studio B was Bruce Springsteen. Following the meteoric success of Born to Run, Bruce had noticed that even with one of the bestselling records of all time, he wasn’t making any money due to terrible predatory contracts with his manager and his label. In a legal entanglement that banned him from playing his own songs, he had taken a 3-year sabbatical against his will (a period of time that would seem short between albums today, but in 1977 everyone put out at least a record a year) and was finally recording his next project. In Studio C was Patti Smith. After threatening to take over rock & roll, she had more than delivered with Horses. Her follow-up, Radio Ethiopia had been mocked and panned by critics and had sold poorly. It’s safe to say all three artists had much to prove, and a bad record from any of the three of them could have been the end of their careers. They ended up collaborating, and luckily all three released ‘career best’ records in 1978. Lou’s Street Hassle featured an uncredited Bruce on one track, and Bruce gave Patti a mostly finished song (according to him) or a couple of words and some chords (according to her) that he cut from his Darkness on the Edge of Town. The song, “Because the Night,” would be a huge hit for her on her third LP Easter which would restore to her the promise of Horses and then some.
The title’s easiest metaphor is of Patti’s own “resurrection” from a broken neck, suffered while touring Radio Ethiopia. At a huge concert in Florida she was “spinning like a whirling dervish,” planted her foot on a monitor which (unbeknownst to her) had vibrated over the lip of the stage, the she and it tumbled 15 feet to the concrete.
Doubling down on her desire to be a mainstream rock band, she hired Jimmy Iovine to produce, and learning from the perceived missteps of Ethiopia, she brought some of the loose, improvisational quality back to the arrangements, focused on the lyrics and her voice, and delivered a blistering set of songs. She also had a huge hit.
It was later in 1978 that Patti would enter the larger culture when Gilda Radner debuted her Patti impersonation “Candy Slice” to great success on Saturday Night Live. Maybe those skits are the best way to understand how Patti appeared to the culture at large—wild, crazy and punk rock in a way that nobody had been before. Patti had been around New York a long time by then, and everyone there was familiar with her unique performance style, but SNL shared her with the world, and it was Patti—not Sid, not Verlaine, not DeeDee—that thus personified “punk rock” to the entire country.
Easter also casts Radio Ethiopia in a better light; that transitional set now seemed like a necessary bridge between two classic albums.
Patti had been in a relationship for years with Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult, a band that Patti had written songs for and for whom she had almost become lead singer before her own group took off. She met and fell in love with Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, with whom she would withdraw from New York and the music scene to move to Detroit to start a family. I’ve always found it interesting that she knew this so suddenly—the album’s title is a large indication of this. Why did she seem so certain, so sure that this relationship would either require or (at the very least) encourage her departure from the career she had longed and worked toward for the better part of a decade?
The first two tracks on the album are some indication: “Frederick” is the purest love song she had written to date, and the following track, “Dancing Barefoot,” seems to conjure a sexual mystery that never comes completely into focus. It’s a song that seems both direct and obscure in turns, and a track that never reveals its dark secret. So, the circumstantial evidence in favor of an all-consuming love is right there on side one.
The album’s third cut is a cover of the Byrds’ “So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll Star” which feels—after Patti’s long silence that followed the album—to be a summation of the four years of The Patti Smith Group. It’s clearly a call-back to the young girl from New Jersey who must have heard that song and thought “Fuck yes!” But, as some reviewers noted, it’s delivered free of the irony that imbues the original version so completely. Some critics suggested that Patti had missed the point. I suggest that some of the critics missed the point, as this is a different song than the original, a huge rolling machine of adrenaline and id that was meant to inspire a new generation of girls from New Jersey to get out. Mission accomplished. The remainder of the album contains several more “farewell” songs—“Seven Ways of Going” and “Broken Flag” (a song that often leaves me in tears with no warning) before ending with the haunting title track.
After Easter received the best reviews of her career, Patti was again under pressure to deliver a fitting follow-up. Her choice of Todd Rundgren as producer was either heralded or bemoaned by critics, and the Patti Smith Group seemed to be making yet another move toward “radio friendly” rock. It worked—in that both “Frederick” and “Dancing Barefoot” received airplay—though neither single was the hit that “Because the Night” had been.
That year Patti made an appearance on the Saturday morning staple Kids Are People Too singing a version of “You Light Up My Life” to the roaring of the crowd. That she had become popular enough to be recognized, even lionized by a roomful of kids, is some indication of how far into the public’s imagination she had worked.
Though not as big a seller as Easter, she was now a legitimate rock star. The critics found this album less consistent than its predecessor, but as that predecessor had been a near-masterpiece, that response was inevitable.
FAREWELL REEL: “AND THEN SHE WAS GONE”
Patti and Fred Smith moved to Detroit and basically disappeared from view for almost a decade. The first murmurings of a new album, a collaboration between the two of them, followed the death of her soul-mate and one-time lover, Robert Mapplethorpe—a casualty of the seeming tidal wave of AIDS deaths in the 1980s.
The album Dream of Life was released in 1988, and was greeted by many as the “surprise” it was. After nine years of radio silence, came a legitimate “Patti Smith album.” Softer by design, it wasn’t considered her best, but it seems like her absence had created a different level of appreciation for her unique abilities, and people were happy to have her back.
The rallying-cry single—“People Have the Power”—was timely then, and has only grown more apt as the years have passed. It’s likely that a whole new generation of people heard this as their first exposure to Patti, and it was a hell of an introduction.
Then she was gone again until the untimely death of her husband seven years later. With her children grown and, by her own admission, “having no real income,” she heeded the encouragement of friends and went back into performing (I saw an early appearance in Boston of mostly poetry reading), then singing (opening for Bob Dylan on several dates), and inevitably back into the studio.
The death of her brother and road manager, Todd Smith, followed cruelly on the heels of Fred’s passing, so she explored the grief she was feeling and turned it into a fantastic comeback record, Gone Again in 1997. The concept of loss extended to the recent suicide of Kurt Cobain on a song called “About a Boy” (a riff on Kurt’s “About a Girl”).
When I saw her on tour, an opportunity I had assumed I would never have, she blew my mind. My own punk band, GarageDogs, was at the top of our game, yet I felt like her energy was something beyond even my own youthful capacities. It was a revelation.
She has continued to release albums and to tour, having now released more albums post her 70’s period than she had originally.
ANOTHER SEASON IN HELL “ABOUT A BOY”
Patti published Just Kids in 2010, and here is where everything changed, both for her personally, and in terms of people’s perception of her. The book, which you’ve likely read, tells the story of her youth in a very different New York City with her partner in crime and sometime boyfriend, Robert Mapplethorpe. Mind you, it’s a wonderful book. It’s tale of love and friendship, struggle and artistry, romantic bohemianism, and late-60s New York’s erstwhile “fairy tale” quality. All of the experiences she writes of are both specific and universal, and she explores them with honesty and wisdom, while at the same time reinforcing the same “fairy tale” mystique that I think she intended to dismantle.
Patti’s late-in-the-game career swerve to “author” was (I presume) an attempt to fill in the blanks of her career, to recast the past as prologue to her eventual success. Remember, writing about the start of something is inevitably colored if you already know how it ends. But I fear that the book, while attempting to illuminate her later contributions to the culture, has accidentally usurped it.
Here at PKM, Patti is a “founding mother,” an indelible part of the history of punk and rock, and an artist with few peers in terms of contribution to the canon of music we love, write about, and respect. But she was too noisy, too profane, too shocking, to ever achieve the kind of wide-success that some of her peers in the CBGB scene (ie: Blondie or Talking Heads) eventually enjoyed. And that was just fine with her fans. Unlike her wealthier, radio-friendly friends, Patti was constantly name-checked by punk’s first revival generation: the 90’s “grunge” scene (who, as fellow Gen X-ers, were loathe to associate with anyone “too mainstream”).
Patti’s underground cred was as immutable as Burroughs’, or Johnny Thunders’. So why did a book about her relationship with a gay man (the above-mentioned Mapplethorpe) in their sea of drugs, hustling, infidelity, and social disruption, appeal to so many of the same people her music was intended to upset? In Just Kids (released in hardback, softcover, a new hardback and recently a coffee-table “illustrated” edition) and the books that have followed it (about one a year) The book’s “origin story” about who she was before she was “our” Patti Smith, has, inadvertently, become the story.
WHERE PATTI GET A PASS “JUST KIDS?”
Patti did (and does) have a complicated reputation too. I have heard stories about her for years from some of her best friends and old chums, and though I’m not here to share gossip and stories I can’t prove, don’t want to, and (mostly) don’t care about—you can certainly find plenty of her peers’ opinions about her in the pages of Please Kill Me. But with Patti’s ascension to “Living Saint” there are several chapters of her life that are, at least, problematic. Episodes that aren’t considered with the same scrutiny we apply to Bowie, or Lou Reed, or John Lennon. But there are a couple of legitimately complicated moments that I believe are vital to her story that seem fair to examine.
Patti’s relationship with Sam Shepard, with whom she moved in a year after his marriage and six months after his child was born, is little discussed. Their affair was intense—according to both participants and everyone around them—though I am not certain anyone has asked Sam’s then-wife about it. I’m not saying that men don’t get a pass on that kind of behavior—of course they do. In today’s ‘poly-woke’ climate, it is considered in poor taste to impose any moral judgement on lifestyle choices (as long as everyone is consenting). But, in the early 70s, that was not the case. Though we seem to have decided to mostly give Bowie a pass on the “Sable Starr” story, and I am happy to give Patti the same respect—why would it be her fault more than Sam Shepard’s anyway?
One of the reasons this story is not widely known and seldom commented upon is that both Patti Smith and Sam Shepard were still unknown in the boho art world of 1971. Shepard did have a few successes under his belt, but he gave no indication of his future as a “Top 10 American Literary Icon,” and neither did Patti. The two actually collaborated on a play—Cowboy Mouth—which was written line by line, with each author passing a typewriter across the table to the other as the play formed. The characters are barely disguised versions of the authors, with Patti’s character (“a woman who looks like a crow”) kidnapping Shepard’s character (“a man who looks like a coyote”—Joni Mitchell fans take note)—a significantly more flattering description than the one afforded Patti’s character. Whether Sam chose both, or they each chose their own gives some insight into the way he saw her, or how she saw herself. Shepard’s character has been taken at gunpoint by Patti’s, and is being kept away from his young wife and child. The “coyote” eventually blames the “crow” for filling his head with “dreams of stardom and fortune” in the rock world. The play finishes with her explanatory monologue being cut short when he points a gun at her head and pulls the trigger. Curtain.
Even after writing this paragraph, I am acutely aware the undercurrents of misogyny and “woman-blaming” in the work itself that I regret my first paragraph about complicated politics of their relationship. For instance, Patti never (to my knowledge) forced anyone to do anything, and it’s likely that Shepard’s own guilt about their affair led to his coloring her (in the play) as a villain from whom he was powerless to escape, and who had to be killed for him to be free. (Drama queen methinks.) Anyway, the two of them actually performed the play, but Shepard quit after the first performance, deriding the “psychosis of playing my real life out on the stage every night.”
1974—HEY JOE/PISS FACTORY
The Patti Smith Group’s first single featured a raucous cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” retro-fitted with lyrics about Patty Hearst and the SLA. For those of you who don’t know, or like myself, once knew and have grown a bit foggy here’s a quickie:
Patricia Hearst was the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, the mid-20th Century’s cross between Bloomberg, Bezos and Trump—basically the founder of the largest newspaper chain in the country, creating a monopoly so powerful, he is significantly responsible for the anti-trust laws that were later implemented to “keep one man from having so much power.” Another innovation was his use of sensationalism, bullshit and ‘yellow’ journalism also makes him the father of Fox News and the National Enquirer—(propaganda has existed since the dawn of time, and throughout history, people’s willingness to ignore facts if the story is titillating enough has been weaponized by those in power who want more) fabulously rich with an indomitable ego (Orson Welles’ brilliant Citizen Kane is very much based on his life). Hearst’s granddaughter “Patty” was 19 when she was kidnapped from her dorm at Berkeley by the Symbionese Liberation Army—a radical left organization (not my opinion, interwebs) what we would call a “homegrown terrorist group” by today’s standards. The 1970s were a crazy mix of Leave it to Beaver suburban barbecues, Black Panthers and student riots, though even by those standards the SLA were a rough group. They kidnapped Patty for publicity, but also to trade her for the release of two of their members who were in prison. Several months later, after attempts to find her were unsuccessful, a tape was released on which Hearst (who had changed her name to “Tania”) said she had joined the group. She was involved in a bank robbery and other violent shoot-outs, on both occasions carrying and firing a machine gun, and making no apparent effort to defect from her group. It fascinated the country on so many levels—rich kid gone bad, girl with machine gun, celebrity crime-spree—that some version of the case remained in the news until her arrest 19 months later.
In the song, Patti’s riff on Hendrix’s blues included lyrics like:
“And Patty Hearst/You standing there in front of theSymbionese Liberation army flag with your legs spread I was wondering were you gettin’ it every night/From a black revolutionary man/And his women Or were you really dead”
Patty Hearst, during her trial and after, described being kept blindfolded in a closet for weeks, beaten and repeatedly raped by at least two of her captors. That her “joining” the SLA was presented to her as her only alternative to being killed. As for her seemingly voluntary actions later in her captivity, much of it was explained as “brainwashing” and “Stockholm syndrome”—two concepts that have been a part of our conversation ever since. She was convicted, but eventually pardoned, and has assimilated back into the culture as an actress in numerous John Waters films.
Patti seems to have never been taken to task for her assumptions about Hearst, nor her lack of generosity to a sister—though in fairness, the consensus in the mainstream at that time was that Hearst was a villain and there of her own volition. But the graphic sexuality of the song (and, sorry, the racist undercurrent) are ugly. They were meant to shock and they did. We can forgive Patti for being unaware of the truth behind Hearst’s captivity, but to my knowledge, she never corrected the record—in fact, I can’t find that she has never been asked to.
THE MYSTERIOUS CASE OF LOU REED
So Lou Reed was an asshole. That is the consensus. I have not a single firsthand piece of evidence to provide in defense of that statement, just a bunch of anecdotal snippets. However, the anecdotal evidence is strong, and even his best friends (he doesn’t seem to have had too many) and others who loved him disproportionately (I love him hopelessly myself) do concede that, by all practical standards, “Lou Reed was an asshole.” It is the same kind of anecdotal evidence we have that Patti was arrogant. Or at least it was.
So after Lou, Bruce and Patti emerged from the studio, Lou released Street Hassle (with Springsteen’s uncredited cameo on the title track) and Patti released Easter with Bruce’s song on it. Lou followed up with a series of live shows at the Bottom Line, recorded into my favorite album of his (today) Take No Prisoners. The 1978, double-LP features one of the best bands he ever worked with, doing a run through of his greatest hits and songs from the new record. There are only 2- or 3 songs per side because he’s so fucked up—he talks, rambles, and jokes, while his band impatiently vamps behind him, waiting for him to come back in on the verse. He seldom does. Anyway, during “Sweet Jane,” he says: “Fuck Radio Ethiopia man! I’m Radio Brooklyn! I ain’t no snob.” This isn’t worse than what he deals out to everyone (his take-down of the very critics who were in the audience that night are the most brutal by far), but it was the only comment I actually own where he references Patti. So I googled “Lou Reed…Patti Smith” and up came 6 million pages of (uniformly) “Patti Inducts Lou into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” or “Patti Smith Cries During Her Eulogy for Old Friend Lou Reed”—and I’m not saying any of that is wrong. But Lou’s comments—literally “on the record”—about Patti are nowhere to be found.
SUMMER CANNIBALS “I’ll TELL THAT STORY”
The sheer volume of information that is added to the “Patti-wagon” on a weekly basis (I’ve clocked 11 interviews with her in recent publications since I’ve been working on this piece) somewhat obfuscates anyone else’s take on her. She has told her own story so completely, that firsthand accounts by friends and lovers are nearly impossible to find. As in the Lou Reed story, once Patti takes over the narrative, it seems to become the “official version.” That doesn’t mean it’s not true, or at least that Patti doesn’t think it’s true, but it does mean if you and Patti have different memories of a specific event—you will invariably be assimilated into her version of it—if through nothing more than the incredible dirigible of information she generates these days.
She has written about her affair with Shepard—poetically. She has written about Mapplethorpe, recasting him as the young, virile, bisexual genius that she saw him as all those years—and I’m not saying he wouldn’t have loved the gorgeous portrait that will now be history’s preeminent image of him—who wouldn’t? Some folks I know, who were there, suggest there maybe a little wish-fulfillment or honest mis-remembering in her retelling of the story. Maybe it’s a way of writing prophecy into the past with the benefit of already knowing the ending. Her version of how many of the older artists on the scene recognized in her some undeniable potential, exist only in her telling of it.
There are many accusations of her appropriation of other people’s stories as her own in Just Kids and elsewhere. These contrary narratives are not widely known and impossible to prove, as she is far more famous than her detractors—and most of the participants are now dead. I cannot speak to her critics’ motivation—some may be accurate, others inspired by jealousy. But they are out there.
Frankly, I do the same thing—both intentionally and accidentally. I retell stories all the time, and I am as guilty as anyone of tweaking details to make them cleaner, funnier, or to make a message more apparent. I have created an image—as a performer, as a singer, as a punk rocker—that is much closer to who I’d like to be than who I am. It’s not that different from how many of us “curate” our lives on social media. Who doesn’t use a filter on a selfie, preferring the gentle softening of wrinkles to the fluorescent glare of truth?
ELEGIE: “ASK THE ANGELS”
Patti has always been a romantic—in the classical definition of that term: like Byron and Shelley, she has written about trees and love and life as being much closer to their Platonic ideal than their boring reality, and like them, she has invested many of us with an appreciation for a kind of beauty we can “feel” even if we can’t always see it. She writes of love as “something to die for” and though we ascribe those feelings to teenage poets and pubescent indulgence, frankly, who wouldn’t want to live in a world like that? I would, and I do. And in this, Patti has not changed, she’s right on message.
Axel’s Castle is the title of a brilliant work of literary sleuthing by critic Edmund Wilson, and its title is taken from a legend that was near and dear to the romantics. Wilson was analyzing the “symbolists”—a genre that he traces back to Rimbaud, and had become pervasive in the (at that point) new writers of challenging and experimental fiction (Joyce, Stein, Proust). Rimbaud was the personification of the romantic ideal. In just two collections of poems, both written before he “quit writing” at 17 (yes, stopped at 17), the young Rimbaud had reinvented poetry. Rimbaud’s work possessed the kind of life-and-death cynicism that comes from overly dramatic young poets. Those who are seeing the false modesty and conservative restrictions of adult society, and railing against it. His message was the same as mine at that age, the same as all of us who “saw through” the adult world and pledged to hang on to our youthful ideals and passions. Sadly, he was eventually assimilated into that same culture he had rebelled against, becoming a businessman and importer who never wrote another line.
Patti, I think, may have found a way to never grow up. At least not in that way. And I will forever be grateful to her for that.