Patti Smith: From poet to punk heroine part 1

 By  Dave Thompson
(Steven Sebring/courtesy of Sony Music)
(Steven Sebring/courtesy of Sony Music)
Dissonant beauty, brutally intelligent, incisively blunt — Patti Smith is the poetess who arrived when America needed her most; the artist who almost single-handedly transformed the cultural wasteland of the mid-1970s into all that was good about the 1980s and beyond; and who is still pushing forward the boundaries and conventions that society erects around itself.

 Across four LPs through the last half of the 1970s, and five more over the last decade, Smith has established herself among the most beloved and admired performers of her (or any other) generation, not only for her music and poetry but also by her very existence.

It is so easy to forget that before Smith, women rockers either didn’t exist or were regarded as simply a sex-toy substitute for their male counterparts. There were few role models, fewer icons and no inspirations beyond a handful of cultish fringe females who may or may not have been taken any more seriously than their better-known peers. And then came Smith, tearing up the stereotypes of beauty, femininity and grace not simply by abandoning them (although she did) but also by reinventing them in her own image and sending them out into the world, redefined, redesigned and ready for war.

Political activism, always a slow-burning fuse beneath her art, has moved to the forefront of her career in recent years. Further albums have continued spilling her music and poetry onto the shelves since her 1970s heyday.

But still she is best remembered for the vision she presented at the outset of her recording career, a fiercely personal portrait of a woman who was fomenting revolution long before she took up arms against the reality of her age; a free spirit birthed in the traditions of the original Beats and those who came after them — Kerouac and Burroughs, but Dylan and Jim Morrison, too, a series of cultural reference points that was not afraid to look beyond the printed word for its anger and inspiration, but took it, too, from the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, the theater of Andy Warhol and the art of Jackson Pollock.

Even the rhetoric of the Symbionese Liberation Army, thrust into the national headlines following their highly publicized kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst, became a part of Smith’s own persona, both musically (Hearst’s alleged conversion to the SLA cause formed the bedrock of Smith’s debut single, a reworking of the ’60s hit “Hey Joe”) and personally. Her guitar, she insisted, was a machine gun, and among the most iconic images of the entire late 1970s are those in which Smith stands primed for action. They are as powerful as any of those that the SLA pumped out — and which hung on just as many bedroom walls.

A poet becomes a punk

Smith was working as a clerk at Scribner’s bookstore as she pieced together the original Patti Smith Group and was better regarded as a poet than any other kind of performer, even with guitarist Lenny Kaye and, occasionally, pianist Richard Sohl sitting in with her.

Neither had the “Hey Joe” single done more than lightly dent that reputation. By January 1975, however, she was adamant that poetry alone could not hold her. “I’d rather be remembered as a great rock ’n’ roll star,” she would tell journalists, and she meant it.

“Richard, Lenny and I were building what we were doing, which was essentially revolving around language,” Smith remembered. “But we wanted to develop more musically, and we decided to have another guitar player. What we were looking for was someone who would not only provide rhythm and help us develop music, but also a friend.”

Sohl shuddered as he recalled the auditions that the band held, beginning a few days after Christmas 1974. “About 50 guitar players came down,” he said, and more than a handful of them impressed him.

Smith, too, was surprised at the quality of the applicants. There was, however, always one drawback. “We saw a lot who were very good. But in 1974, people weren’t used to having a female presented in that format, a rock ’n’ roll format.”

Too many guitar players would spend their audition talking to either Kaye or Sohl, ignoring Smith or, at best, treating her as merely some kind of adornment to the main business. Even when they learned that she not only sang, she also wrote the lyrics, she remained an outsider in their eyes, and Sohl remembered one player who, having more than thrilled everybody during the audition, then blew it all by taking the guys to one side and suggesting they lose the chick. “She can’t sing and she looks like shit” were his exact words.

The audition itself was not an easy prospect. “Our thing then was to play ‘Gloria’ for 40 minutes, and see who dropped out first,” Sohl continued. “All of those guys didn’t understand what we were doing.”

“And then Ivan Kral came in,” Smith celebrated, “started playing, and just never stopped. It was really great, but what we liked most about him was he didn’t change our sound. We didn’t have to change what we were doing. We still sounded like ourselves, only bigger. When Ivan came into the group, we became a rock ’n’ roll band. He was our little rock ’n’ roll star.

“He’s really the group’s guardian angel,” Smith continued. “He’s so aware and definitive. He wants to do great, and one of the ways he’ll help me is by playing as good as possible, but he’ll always sacrifice his own playing in order to make me look better. If he hears me as he’s playing a solo, or just playing period, and he hears that I’m straining my voice, he’ll run and get me a drink. Or he’ll look to get me if I slip. On ‘My Generation’ he has important guitar to play but he’ll always check to see if my microphone is right.”

A brief mention in the Soho Weekly News on Jan. 30, 1975 announced Kral’s arrival into the band in the kindest terms: “The very talented Ivan Kral, formerly of Lugar, has joined Patti Smith’s band on guitar and bass.” The following week, the group was in Philadelphia, opening for ex-Animal Eric Burdon, fresh from a lengthy self-imposed retirement, at the Main Point; three days later, on Feb. 6, they were in the Sixth Avenue RCA studio recording some demos for RCA A&R man Stephen Holden.

Those earliest shows were nervewracking, particularly for Smith. “I wasn’t much of a singer,” she admitted. “But I had bravado, and I could improvise. I would almost burst into tears ’cause of all the stuff that was happening. I’d look out at that long line of neon beer signs over the bar, and the dog running around shitting while I’m in the middle of a beautiful ballad, and all these drunks are throwing back shots. It was the greatest atmosphere to perform in; it was conspiratorial. It was real physical and that’s what rock’n’roll’s all about — sexual tension and being drunk and disorderly.”

Kral found working with Smith to be a real eye-opener. “Even though we still weren’t getting much more than $5 each a night, every show we played, it seemed, was swamped with curious journalists; every time we opened a magazine, there was another mention of Patti.”

They even earned the admittedly dubious honor of a hilarious parody by Wayne County; no sooner had the Patti Smith Group introduced a new piece, “Land,” into the live set than County was donning Smith’s trademark semi-suit stage wear and riffing not only on Smith’s love of Jim Morrison, but also the equine imagery that feeds through the song: “Horses! Horses!” County would rage. “Wildebeest, wildebeest!” Then he would slip into a set of poetics that might not quite have been up to Smith’s usual standard, but left no listener in doubt about their inspiration.

“Land,” Smith explained, started life as a poem about “a carnival of fools in a city where you can’t see the stars, but I gave it a New York ballad rendition — you know, let’s keep on laughing, let’s keep on dancing. Then, as I got more confident, it was Scheherazade: ‘Welcome to the Palace of a Thousand Sensations. It hopes you will lose it here, baby.’ Then it got real sadistic, I don’t know how that happened, and [it] got mixed up with a dream I had when I was 16 about a hallway plastered with six-foot posters of nuns and me running along burning holes in their groins with a cigarette. Then it was Arabia, Mexico, UFOs, razors, jackknives, horses and in some notes I wrote last Dec. 16 — the 701st birthday of the great Persian mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi — Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.”

County, on the other hand, cut to the chase. “Jim Morrison is in the bathtub … the water is soapy, the water is soapy … and Jim, he stepped on a bar of Ivory Soap, and it’s hard when you step on a bar of Ivory soap … and he slipped and he fell and he hit his head on the soap dish … and the water went through his nostrils, and up to his eyes, and passed down his chest and into his lungs … he was dying, and he started to die, and then Jim Morrison lay there, and before he died, he sang … I’m forever blowing bubbles.”

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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