Patti Smith: Visceral queen of punk rock

[from The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1978]
by Paul Wilner

Patti Smith is Sitting in the cushy New York office of an editor at G. P. Putnam's Sons, the publishers.

As befits the high priestess of punk rock, the skinny, lank-haired, 31-year old brunette is attired in a black jacket, a T-shirt touting a 1960s "revolutionary" rock band, alligator pants and black boots.

She is surprisingly easy to talk to, this iconoclastic singer-songwriter poet whose onstage image is a savage, spitting shamanism. Once she's checked out her listener from behind her de rigeur black-as-night sunglasses and decided friend or foe, the conversation flows.

But, lest she appear too friendly for those who prefer their rebellion unmitigated, a ringing phone offers her the opportunity to get back to true punk.

She picks up the receiver, tells whomever is trying to reach the regular occupant of the office to wait just a minute, pushes down the "Hold" button, snd resumes the in terview-banishing the caller to limbo indefinitely. Putnam has just published a book of her poetry, "Babel," which she penned during a year of enforced rest and recuperation after she tumbled from a Tampa, Fla., stage during a performance.

'Stayed in bed'

"I didn't want to be laying in bed like a slug," she explains. "I went to Tampa Emergency, but after that,I refused to go to a hospital. I just stayed in bed for a year."

The respite also resulted in a just- released album she titled "Easter." She is hoping for more commercial success for this effort than greeted her two previous albums, "Horses" and "Radio Ethiopia." They were critically acclaimed and built a cult following for her, but did not break any sales records. "Easter," she hopes, will be different.

"I chose 'Easter' as the title becuse I felt Easter is a time of joy. It's a rebirth of something that's going to rise, but it's also after something tragic has happened."

Indeed, the album inncludes some spooky, Gregorian chant-type organ solos that bespeak an almost supernatural mood. And Patti sees a connection betweeh her music and her early religious training-she studied with the Jehovah's Witnesses for many years as a child.

"My father's greatest preoccupa tion has always been communication with God," she says.

Patti Smith spent the first eight years of her life in Philadelphia. It was her religious period.

"When I was a kid, my family was into Bible history," she says. "I went to missionary school in Philadelphia, but I quit because I felt they didn't include art in their roster."

When her family moved across the Delaware to Woodbury Gardens and Pitman she found the transition a difficult one.

'Weird racial attitude'

"There were lots of swamplands and pig farms," she says. "There was also a weird racial attitude that I didn't understand because I wasn't brought up with any prejudices.

"The kids in South Jersey had less money, but they were a little clever- er. We fought for integration our own way-I had a black boyfriend, you know-but I wasn't on some sort of liberal crusade."

It was her close friendships with the black students at Deptford High School that helped shape her musical education.

"Where I went to school, the smart white kids were football heroes, cheerleaders and science students. But I belonged to a jazz club, where we listened to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, early Nina Simone, Thelonius Monk and Roland Kirk."

She remembers the days of driving to Philadelphia to catch an act at Pep's or the Showboat. "That's where all the kids used to go. But you had to be 21 to get into the clubs. I got in once and saw Coltrane for about seven minutes before they threw me out."

Patti Smith didn't just sneak into this city's nlghtspots, she also used to sneak off to South Jersey's Baptist Churches to listen to the music and watch people writhe as they came-up the aisles.

"Yes, I've been saved several times," she laughs. "And I've also ... bailed out of salvation a few times."

Her high school career was basically happy and productive, but her entrance into the world of higher education at Glassboro State College was less than auspicious.

"Going to such a middle class school was a real shock," she recalls. "The- people all sort of looked and dressed alike and I was immediately suspect because I wore trenchcoats and dressed like Greta Garbo or whoever I was into.

"Everybody took it for granted that I was some harlot who had 50 men, or I took drugs."

But the scene at Glassboro got tougher and tougher and it came to a head when she found out she was pregnant.

"Abortion was not available, of course, at that time," she says. "In fact, I had a couple of girlfriends who died, or nearly died, from abor tions in high school.

"Anyway, I had to leave school. It was a big scandal and it was also like, 'See, we told you she was bad....'"

Patti Smith gave up her child for adoption, a decision she doesn't regret.

"My parents spent their whole life feeding and clothing a bunch of kids," she says. "I felt my way of thanking them would be to take all the energy they gave me and put it into something that would endure. Some people might thank their parents by having a grandchild, ya know? I have no desire to have a family, so my grandchildren to them is my work."

'Underground Poet'

That work, she says, started blossoming when she was "around 25". She built a reputation as an underground poet with such tomes as "Seventh Heaven," "Witt" and "The Night." Next, she was an eccentric rock critic who always seemed to be rhapsodizing over the Rolling Stones. Finally, she made the move to poet-singer, fronting her own hard edged band.

She eventually struck up a friendship with another hard-rocking cult figure from New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen.

"I was never into Bruce too much. But after meeting him, hanging out with him and performing together, he's got a lot of physicsl energy that really seems to be one of the key at- tributes of Jersey kids," she says.

"I think Jersey kids have a lot of heart."

Her own artistic influences have always been more visceral than intellectual.

"I never really understood poetry too much," confesses the poet, "but the rhythms always seduced me." She says that Bob Dylan was an early model, but that she "never really knew what 'Desolation Row' was about-I've never been able to late to anything that abstract.

"But the rhythm seduced me," she continues. "I wasn't the kind of person who would look at a Jackson Pollack painting and say, 'What does it mean?' I'd just go, 'Yeah!' What I loved was the rhythm, the action the sounds. All that stuff was like an extension of jazz.

"When your preoccupation since you were 4 vears old has been communicating with God, a long saxophone solo doesn't baffle you."

She may not be baffled, but she says she's paid the price for the knowledge. And she puts the senti- ment in her own wry, anti establishment terms:

"I feel that I've been punished many, many times, whether by God, society or something within myself. But I'll never stop seeking wisdom. If it means I'll spend the rest of my life with Satan-as the Bible also says- he was the best-looking angel . . .".

Copyright © The Philadelphia Inquirer 1978

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