Nick Tosches – “Patti Smith: A Baby Wolf with Neon Blues” (1976)

March 9, 2009 at 8:16 am (Music, Patti Smith, Reviews & Articles)

This article comes from Penthouse magazine, April 1976…

 

Patricia Lee Smith hit the linen on December 30, 1946, in Chicago, and was raised, the eldest of four children, in Deptford Township, New Jersey.

She had been slapped about by tuberculosis; she was a frail-seeming punkling, skinny and daydreamy. She attended Glassboro State College, briefly, and tried doing piecework at a toy factory. Both made her carsick. In 1967 she came to New York. From there she went to Paris with her sister Linda. She wanted to be an artist, but her drawing became poems. She returned to New Jersey, then to New York, where she slowly but steadily became arch moll of rhythm’d word.

Patti co-authored a book with playwright Sam Shepard, “Mad Dog Blues & Other Plays.” She appeared in a film, Robert Mapplethorpe Gets His Nipple Pierced. Late in 1971, Telegraph Books published her first volume of poems, “Seventh Heaven,” which she dedicated to Mickey Spillane and Anita Pallenberg. She began to publish prose-poem essays about rock ‘n’ roll in such magazines as Rolling Stone and Creem. A second book of poems, “Kodak,” appeared in 1972. By the time Gotham Book Mart published her “Witt” in 1973, Patti had become a legend on the New York poetry circuit. She was feared, revered, and her public readings elicited the sort of gut response that had been alien to poetry for more than a few decades. Word spread, and people who avoided poetry as the stuff of four-eyed pedants found themselves oohing and howling at what came out of Patti’s mouth. Established poets feared for their credence. Many well-known poets refused to go on after Patti at a reading, she was that awesome.

The music, too. It had started with just Lenny Kaye on guitar, intuitively the two reinvented melic poetry. The band grew; piano, another guitar, then later drums. Finally, after all those years, rock ‘n’ roll had a poet.

 

In early spring on 1974, financed by her friend, artist Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti issued two thousand copies of a record, “Piss Factory” coupled with “Hey, Joe,” on the Mer label. The rhythmics were coarse and truculent, the images were alternately raw and aflash with hallucination. In “Hey, Joe” she transmuted a sixties rock classic into an Iliad of subliminal violence that culminated with a fantasy image of Patty Hearst worshipping black revolutionaries in a world ruled by phantom guitars and confused girl-things.

Poetry readings became concerts, audiences grew. Patti spewed forth a mix of sheer rock ‘n’ roll power and delicately wrought poetry. She sang a Marvelettes song, “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” or sometimes Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” and then, somehow, she was in some ineffable dream-closet:

 

yum yum the stars are out. I’ll never forget you how you smelled that night. like cheddar cheese melting under fluorescent light. like a day old rainbow fish. what a dish. gotta lick my lips. gotta dream I daydream. thorozine brain cloud. rain rain comes coming down.

 

The music ebbed to feedback sounds and low piano:

 

I’m gonna peep in bo’s bodice. lay down darling don’t be modest let me slip my hand in. ohhh that’s soft that’s nice that’s not used up. ohh don’t cry. wet whats wet? oh that. heh heh. that’s just the rain lambie pie. now don’t squirm. let me put my rubber on…

 

The record companies came to sniff and hedge. Finally, she signed with Arista, and her debut album, Horses, was released late in 1975. Everyone from Rolling Stone to the New York Times showered it with petals. Still, some said, Patti was too weird to sweep the masses. The ever underestimated masses, however, proved otherwise, and Patti and her album rose to the top of the national charts.

Nick Tosches

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