By Dave Thompson
The Patti Smith Group spent May 1975 rehearsing in readiness for their first stint in the studio; meanwhile, WRSU-FM was playing “Piss Factory,” and Smith was turning up in the most unexpected places.
“A visionary poet/singer whose performances are so consistently stunning they immediately become legendary,” Penthouse swore. “Seeing her now is like seeing the Rolling Stones in 1965, or being there when Stevie Wonder made ‘Fingertips.’”
In London, journalist Charles Shaar Murray was describing one of the band’s doubleheaders with Television as “one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had for a long, long time … ” And by the time the band returned to live work, for a WBAI-FM radio concert, they were already being billed as Arista recording artists, although Smith had no intention of standing on ceremony with her label or her hosts.
“I’ve been told to watch my language,” she announced, and within three minutes had dropped her first “f**k … to prove the station can’t censor the people’s slang. All we care about is food for the people.”
In readiness for the start of recording, Jay Dee Daugherty of The Mumps was brought in as drummer. He made his debut with the band at Paul Colby’s club, the Other End, in late June. But if anything sealed the Patti Smith Group’s rock ’n’ roll credentials, whatever that meant outside of the world of mass-circulation rock magazines, it was Smith’s meeting with Bob Dylan, again at the Other End, on June 26.
He walked into the dressing room at the end of the Patti Smith Group’s set, looking a lot healthier than legend usually alleges, and a lot better humored, as well. When the photographers wheeled to take his picture, Smith gleefully pushed him to one side. “F**k you. Take my picture, boys.” Dylan laughed and stepped away.
“Any poets around here?” he asked.
“Poetry sucks,” Smith replied.
Dylan was piecing together what would become the Rolling Thunder Revue, checking out the morass of musicians who were now descending on the Village in hope of catching the almighty Zim’s eye. Rolling Thunder was an absurdly grandiose project, upwards of two dozen musicians with whom Dylan intended touring small clubs and theaters in the American Northeast, a four-hour show which allowed everyone to take their own solo turn before they all came together to back Dylan’s own show. He invited Smith along, but she turned him down. There was too much happening with her own group, she replied, for her to start worrying about what was going on with his.
Mick Ronson, the English guitarist who had already fallen under Dylan’s spell, was there the night Dylan met Smith. “Dylan was looking for names, but not anybody; they had to be people he could sense some kind of link with, and Smith was getting a lot of press calling her the new Dylan or the female Dylan, and Bob was intrigued by that. Later on as well, after she turned him down, I think he still wished there’d been some way he could have brought her along, but the other problem was she wanted to bring her own band on the road and that wouldn’t have worked because the whole point of Rolling Thunder was everybody using the same group of musicians.”
Interestingly, Emmylou Harris turned down a similar offer for the same reason.
“He came to see me and there was the same kind of sensation that I used to have in high school,” Smith laughed afterwards. “Like when you meet a guy in the hallway. It was just like that — teenage. We were like two pit bulls circling. I was a snotnose. I had a very high concentration of adrenaline.
“It was neat that I got to see Dylan, got to spend any time with him before I did my record. I never discussed nothing. We never discussed nothing. We never talked. I mean we talked . . . You know how I felt? I’d been talking to him in my brain for 12 years, and now I don’t have nothing to say to him. I feel like we should have telepathy by now. Me and my sister don’t talk.”
Afterwards, she feared that Dylan would never speak to her again, but a few days later, walking down Fourth Street, she bumped into him as he headed towards the Bottom Line. He paused and reached into his pocket to produce one of the photographs taken of the pair of them and splashed across the cover of the latest Village Voice.
“Who are these two people?” he asked, smiling broadly. “You know who these people are?”
Arista booked the Patti Smith Group to go into the studio in September. For a time, there had been talk of them heading down to Miami to record with Tom Dowd, as he rode the success of his recent work with Eric Clapton and the Bee Gees. But Smith, perhaps mercifully, had her own ideas — John Cale, the Velvet Underground legend who had already stamped his mark on some of the most important recordings of the last few years. His membership in the Velvet Underground a decade earlier layered his imprimatur across that band’s first two albums. He produced the debut LP by The Stooges and two albums by Nico. He handled what would have been The Modern Lovers’ vinyl debut had the oil crisis not forced their then-record label to dump them midway through the sessions.
None of which had anything to do with Smith’s decision to bring him onboard for what would become Horses, the Patti Smith Group’s debut album.
“My picking John was about as arbitrary as picking Rimbaud. I saw the cover of ‘Illuminations’ with Rimbaud’s face, y’know; he looked so cool, just like Bob Dylan. So Rimbaud became my favorite poet. I looked at the cover of [Cale’s 1974 album] Fear, and I said, ‘Now there’s a set of cheekbones.’ The thing is I picked John . . . in my mind I picked him because his records sounded good. But I hired the wrong guy. All I was really looking for was a technical person. Instead, I got a total maniac artist. I went to pick out an expensive watercolor painting and instead I got a mirror.”
A few weeks before the first studio date, Cale had the Patti Smith Group book a show in Woodstock, so he could see them perform away from their usual audience. It was an awkward request — he might have been curious to discover how the band functioned in front of a room full of strangers, but Smith and the band had no interest at all. Besides, Smith was adamant that she hated the countryside.
But that was only the first of their problems, as a small audience stared in disbelief while Cale missed most of the first set when he passed out at the side of the stage. He came to in time for the second set, but spent a lot of that throwing up. “That meant the second set was better than the first,” Cale excused himself afterwards, but he clearly wasn’t overly concerned about endearing himself to the band — or, at least, to the band’s sense of self-perception.
Discussing her plans for the album in the days before they started work, Smith described it as being “like having a baby without f**king. It’s going to be a very sexual record. I want … a record that [is] about sex and violence, all the things that encompass rock ’n’ roll. My whole feeling about rock ’n’ roll … I mean, we’re living in a violent age.”
Cale sat silently while she spoke, considered her words for a moment, and then turned round and told her, “Patti — you’re full of s**t.”