It's a night off in Milwaukee for Patti Smith, and she has just scrambled into guitarist Lenny Kaye's room to take a phone call. "There's a buncha kids hangin' out in my room," she had said, "Let me sorta sneak over to Lenny's. Call 753 in five minutes." When she arrives, Elizabeth Taylor is playing Cleopatra on the late movie: "She's got real interesting eyes," says Patti conspiratorially. "I see how Richard Burton fell in love with her. She's starin' into a fire now. She says... 'You will have a Top 40 single.' "
"Because The Night," the stormily romantic single Patti wrote with Bruce Springsteen, is kicking at radio's Top 40 stronghold even as we talk. Patti's new album, Easter, (Arista) isn't far behind. "We're getting what we always asked for as a band-the privilege to be loved, to be trusted, to break certain barriers and reach a state of mutual ecstasy. When we come on now the atmosphere is so intense it's like pullin' a knife through silk or something."
Lenny, speaking briefly when he picked up the phone, had put it this way: "Patti doesn't let 'em sit around."
Smith's showmanship was evident at least three years before, on late nights when she, Lenny, and bassist Ivan Kral would play New York's CBGB's before a fervent knot of fans. The stage was about one hand high and Patti, dressed in black high-collar shirt, would take it right after toking up in the next-door entryway of a Bowery flophouse.
Songs from that era, like "Space Monkey" and "We Three," have had to wait through her Horses and Radio Ethiopia albums to make it to vinyl. That comes from the time when she trained as a rocker by hanging out with musicians at 23rd Street's Chelsea Hotel. Janis Joplin was learning "Me and Bobby McGee" from Kristofferson, Johnny Winter was in residence, and Bobby Neuwirth, later the Rolling Thunder Revue stage usher, was a mentor. But it took joining up with Lenny to start Patti's music-making, and the way they started was almost too good to be true. "Lenny was the cashier at Village Oldies on Bleecker, I was the cashier at Scribner's Bookstore. We spoke secret cashier talk, and were both from New Jersey. But we connected, really connected by our feet, when we put "The Bristol Stomp" on one day. There were no customers, like, and I walked in this record store and I was talkin' about there's no place to dance in New York. He says, 'Whaddya mean? There's a dance floor right here, my dear.' And we danced.
"Meanwhile," continues Patti, "I'd read this great piece on a cappella music. By Lenny Kaye. But I didn't know this cashier's name, I didn't realize the cashier was the same guy that writ this story. I called him and said, 'You don't know me, but . . .' And he said, 'Oh, I've seen you around.' I was pretty infamous at the time; there wasn't anybody hotter-looking than me in New York in 1971, you ask anybody. It was the Keith Richards look. Naw, by the Horses album cover I was into my Frank Sinatra period.
"Anyway, Sam Shepherd the playwright decided it was time for me to go out into the world-got me a reading. I wanted to make a real assault, so I called up the boy who writ the piece, 'cause he told me he played guitar, and he came over, and it was the same guy as the record store. We started laughin', cause we were way ahead of the game. We'd danced together, broken through a lot of veils, we were in a certain rhythm."
Patti quickly became the darling of the rock intelligentsia and the first album, Horses, exhibited the full-throated vocal excitement she'd shown onstage. But the next album, Radio Ethiopia, took a critical drubbing and sold disappointingly; its major statement was the title cut, an eleven-minute, three-guitar freakout that even cleared most of the intelligentsia out of the room. Both Patti (who plays guitar on the song) and Lenny are still ferociously proud of it. "It's still our finest achievement,' says Lenny, "But that wasn't an album of songs. It was an album of fields. " Because Easter is mostly made up of songs the band never played live, while previous albums were songs that had been worked up from live jams, the album is, Patti says, "More communicative. I don't like the words accessible and commercial."
The reason Easter is studio-spawned traces back to a night in Tampa, Florida, when Patti whirled right off the high stage during "Ain't It Strange" and fractured a neck vertebra. The next photo her public saw was Smith bundled-looking Egyptian-into a wheelchair guided by her roommate, Allen Lanier of the Blue Oyster Cult. "It was almost worth it," she says, "I was in total control of 14,000 people and somebody let go of the yo-yo. Whatever pressure or desire, whatever faulty technology or psychic imbalance caused that fall, it was still one of the greatest nights in the history of this band. I truly look forward to going back to Tampa. "
When the band does "Ain't It Strange" now, says Patti, she is the masculine rhythm, Lenny the feminine. "It used to be I would come; now Lenny comes. "
Patti won't call the months she was laid up afterwards a 'recovery.' "Call it a rediscovery," she says, "Our absence made space for a whole new assault by these new bands, like the Pistols and everybody, that was heard around the world. And I needed a rest, I was like a field that's been depleted by growing cotton. My brain needed a little topsoil, and I laid in bed and babbled to Andi Ostrowe (the woman who is Patti's road manager and all-around confidant) and created a whole new tapestry. "
One important element of that new tapestry is "Because The Night": "Yeah, that song has really captured people's hearts. Bruce is a guy with a lot of energy, a guy who comes out fighting and I really like to improvise with him. We came together like a handshake. "
"But," Patti adds, "I feel like our single is '25th Floor' or 'Rock n' Roll Nigger'-people know that song." (The Easter cut of the latter was recorded live at CBGB's with Patti in a neck brace and William Burroughs in the audience). "People say that can't support me in this or that-'I'm just one person,' they say. Well, I'm just one little girl but I never compromised. We never sacrificed any of our ideals. When we started we believed we had respon- sibilities that nobody else was taking on-to take this work that erupted in the 50's and take it somewhere. When I sing, on 'Ask the Angels', 'And I know it's hard sometimes/You have to crawl and crawl across the floor,' I know what those lyrics mean. Cause I've done it."
Copyright © Circus 1978