Patti Smith Catches Fire: 1978

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I was doing a little reading this morning in anticipation of writing something about Patti Smith’s song “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger” and its place in a long line of complicated cross-racial imaginings that crop up every time we teach Writing New York. (I’m thinking here of a line running from early blackface minstrelsy to Jolson’s performance in The Jazz Singer, to Ginsberg’s “Negro streets at dawn” to Mailer’s “The White Negro.”)

One of the first articles I found, which I hadn’t read before, is a 1978 Rolling Stone cover story by Charles Young, one of the key early chroniclers of the CBGB scene.  Rather than simply quote bits I’m going to take advantage of the fact that someone at some point keyed the whole thing in. I’ll leave it here until or unless someone gets antsy over copyright issues: I think it’s a pretty amazing window onto its cultural moment.

VISIONS OF PATTI (Rolling Stone, 27 July 1978, cover photo by Annie Leibovitz)

      by Charles M. Young

Vision I
********
Mick Jagger Is A Credit To His Race
___________________________________

Fresh from opening for the Rolling Stones at the Fox Theater
in Atlanta, Patti Smith rides in the back seat of a limo to
a headlining gig at the Calderone on Long Island.

Smith, to her black driver: Hey, ya wanna come
backstage and hang out?

Driver: My name is Gary.

Smith: Gary, ya wanna see the show? I mean it must
get borin’ waitin’ in the car.

Driver: Yeah, I’d like to.

Smith: Maybe you can give me some tips, Gary. I want
to play the Apollo. I mean, rock & roll is really
segregated now, and it wasn’t in the early Sixties, when it
was so much cooler. So I’d like to charge two dollars a
ticket and give the people of Harlem a chance to check us
out. Maybe they wouldn’t like us, but maybe they would. Ya
think that’s cool?

Driver: Well, it would be an experience. And it would
probably be a first.

Smith: Don’t you think Mick would love it? Ya know
what? Why don’t the Rolling Stones play the Apollo? We
could play it together. I’ll call him up. We’re friends
now, ya know. He’s a really great guy. I mean, he’s really
a nigger. If anyone qualifies to be a nigger, it’s Mick
Jagger. (Rolls up her pant leg) Look at this weird hair on
my legs. Why do you think we have hair on our bodies?
There must be a reason.

Vision II
*********
The Power Of Positive Thinking
______________________________

To her admirers, Patti Smith has guts. Falling off a stage
in Tampa, Florida, in January of 1977 at her first coliseum-
size date, Smith broke her neck and spent the following year
wearing a neck brace and doing excruciating physical
therapy. Her second album, Radio Ethiopia, released several
months before the accident, was a commercial and critical
flop. Members of her band took odd jobs or went on
unemployment. WNEW-FM, the only progressive rock station in
New York, wouldn’t play her records because she insisted on
using “the people’s slang” (fuck) during an interview on a
Harry Chapin Hungerthon. Patti Smith was washed up.

So it seemed, anyway. She used her time off to write
her third book of visionary poetry, Babel, published by
Putnam’s. Still wearing her neck brace, she performed “La
Resurrection” concert at CBGB’s the following Easter. Her
band (the Patti Smith Group, consisting of guitarist Lenny
Kaye, guitarist Ivan Kral, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and
keyboardist Bruce Brody), oft dumped on for incompetence,
finally had time to rehearse. They recorded Easter, by far
Smith’s most “communicative” (a word she prefers to
“commercial”) album, this past winter. It works for
several reasons: Jimmy Iovine’s tasteful production; the
band’s having done its homework; Bruce Springsteen’s
contribution of a partially completed killer single,
“Because the Night,” for which Smith wrote most of the
words. But most of all, it is Smith’s voice. This woman
can sing rock & roll. Power, passion, sex appeal, unique
style, enough control for professionalism, enough lack of
control for suspense–it’s all there. She is, at the age of
thirty-one, a star.

Clearly, something put the spirit in her. Scarlet
fever at the age of seven in Philadelphia? Her mother
making her do exercises every day of her childhood for a
wandering left eye? A proclivity for dreaming so much that
her peers in Woodbury Gardens, New Jersey, all thought she
was a weirdo? Having mystical experiences when the Rolling
Stones came on Ed Sullivan? Fucking up in high school? In
teachers’ college? In a factory job? Having an
illegitimate baby at nineteen, giving it up for adoption and
moving to New York with “five dollars and a can of spray
for my stitches”? Meeting, at last, kindred spirits among
the artists and rock writers? Reading her own poetry with
rock critic Lenny Kaye backing her on guitar in 1971?
Signing with Arista and paying her dues on the road since
1975? Seeing the apocalyptic possibilities for serious
poetry over the rhythmic grinding of the three-chord
classics of the early Sixties on her first album, Horses?

Patti Smith has set about creating a movement to free
the world through rock & roll. Her personal charm, when she
wants it to be, is enormous. Her followers are increasing
every day, and they are among the most ardent anywhere. She
is probably the only performer who can generate Bay City
Rollers-foam-at-the-mouth adulation in an audience composed
mostly of young adults who are, demographically speaking,
too cool for that sort of behavior. Not only does WNEW-FM
play her records now, so does the Top Forty AM station,
WABC. She is a poet for the people.

Vision III
**********
The Impotence Of Positive Thinking
__________________________________

Patti Smith’s detractors think Radio Ethiopia, a loosely
defined organization of her supporters, amounts to a Kiss
Army for intellectuals who like to be mystified by poetry
without capital letters. They think she is a fool. Because
she cultivates the look of a possessed poet, she can say
things like “the word art must be redefined” and get away
with it. Her fans, in fact, eat it off a stick. And she is
happy to feed them, so long as they don’t question the menu
too closely.

With her goal of creating a Sixties-style social
movement out of the music, she is reminiscent of a
charismatic sect leader who has convinced her followers that
she alone has the secret of life. The secret is so heavy,
of course, that it can only be revealed through the leaders
interpretation of Das Kapital/visions of the Scripture/mumbo
jumbo about the creative process. And like the best of the
sect leaders, Smith believes her own line and has
constructed an imposing edifice of egomania to protect her
mediocre ideas from doubt. She has on occasion spat on,
screamed at and physically attacked critics who failed to
show proper obeisance for her work. She has difficulty
staying off the stage at other people’s concerts.

Vision IV
*********
Mick Jagger Is A Credit To His Species
______________________________________

Reporter: The other day you said that if anyone was
qualified to be a nigger, it was Mick Jagger. How is Mick
Jagger qualified to be a nigger?

Smith: On our liner notes I redefined the word nigger
as being an artist-mutant that was going beyond gender.

Reporter: I didn’t understand how Mick Jagger has
suffered like anyone who grew up in Harlem.

Smith: Suffering don’t make you a nigger. I mean, I
grew up poor too. Stylistically, I believe he qualifies. I
think Mick Jagger has suffered plenty. He also has a great
heart, and I believe, ya know, even in his most cynical
moments, a great love for his children. He’s got a lot of
soul. I mean, like, I don’t understand the question. Ya
think black people are better than white people or
sumpthin’? I was raised with black people. It’s like, I
can walk down the street and say to a kid, “Hey nigger.”
I don’t have any kind of super-respect or fear of that kind
of stuff. When I say statements like that, they’re not
supposed to be analyzed, ’cause they’re more like off-the-
cuff humorous statements. I do have a sense of humor, ya
know, which is sumpthin’ that most people completely wash
over when they deal with me. I never read anything where
anybody talked about my sense of humor. It’s like, a lot of
the stuff I say is true, but it’s supposed to be funny.

Reporter: I just think that people should be allowed
to label themselves. If black people want to be called
blacks, I call them blacks, just as I would not want to be
called honkie.

Smith: What I would think is, a word can become
archaic because we progress into the future, so words can be
redefined. And I’m not, like, a slob with words, ya know.
I don’t mean that, ya know, uh, I don’t, I don’t, wish to,
like, um, twist and rend words to my whim. But I do feel
words can outlive their usefulness, unless we redefine them.
And I’ve said that a lot, ya know, if you’ve been reading my
book or liner notes.

Vision V
********
Modesty Remains One Of Her Greatest Virtues
___________________________________________

Reporter: Do you feel strange with a single in the Top
Twenty?

Smith: I feel fantastic. I don’t know. Charts are
charts. The whole point of doing work is to communicate, ya
know, to communicate ecstasy or joy. The album’s a hit too.
And the album includes on it fuck, piss, shit, seed, nigger —
it’s got everything but shitlicker on it. Ya know, it’s
much more daring, much more perverse, and, ah, much more
corrupt than Radio Ethiopia. We’re communicating to a lot
of people. I believe that the people can trust us, ya know.
I don’t believe, I know that…I mean, we’re not flawless.
We’re a very flawed band.

Vision VI
*********
…But It’s Only Nine On A Scale Of Ten…
__________________________________________

Reporter: I mean, how do you consider the band flawed?

Smith: Well, I mean, flawed as much as the Rolling
Stones are flawed, ya know?

Vision VII
**********
…And Her Guitar Playing Is An Eight
_____________________________________

Smith: I couldn’t get into chord changes, or the notes, any
more than I could with grammar.

Vision VIII
***********
Corruption Must Be Redefined
____________________________

Smith: I think it’s great that I have a hit single.
Because what it means is that it’s possible to have
integrity and be successful again. I mean, I believe that
in their hearts, all the great Sixties guys had great
integrity and they all did great work. They all had a sort
of political consciousness and some spiritual consciousness.
And they were successful. The way I look at it, I haven’t
changed none. I haven’t changed since I was seven years
old. And I’ve gotten more corrupt in certain ways.

Reporter: How have you become more corrupt?

Smith: Huh?

Reporter: How have you become more corrupt?

Smith: Well, morally.

Reporter: How do you define that? It’s such a strange
word to use, when you claim to have no guilt in your
writings.

Smith: Well, it’s not guilt. It’s like, when I was a
little girl, I had a certain ideal that I’d meet someone,
and that would be the person, and it would be the first
person, and I’d never be with anyone else.

Reporter: And now you’re doing something else that’s
immoral?

Smith: I didn’t say that it was immoral.

Reporter: Yeah, you did. You said you were more
corrupt from a moral standpoint.

Smith: From my original idea of what life was about
when I was seven. When I was seven years old, I also
thought, ya know….

Reporter: There’s a large part of your mind that’s
still seven years old. I mean, you just said you hadn’t
changed since you were seven.

Smith: Not too much. Except I’ve learned to…there
are certain things that I believed or like hoped for that
turned out different. I’ve learned to accept it or
reintegrate it. I mean, when I was a little girl — I heard
Little Richard when I was about seven years old. And I
said, yeah, I, it was like, I was part of a truly new
generation, where everything had to be redefined: God, sex,
everything. It wasn’t yet, but we were different.

Vision IX
*********
Birth Control Without Harmful Chemicals
______________________________________

Reporter: You were quoted in [Rolling Stone’s] “Random Notes” as
saying you
jerk off to your own photograph. How did you mean that?

Smith: I meant it just as I said it.

Reporter: I’ve never heard anyone say anything quite
like that. I’m trying to figure out if you’re actually that
sexually attracted to yourself.

Smith: No, it was just one of those moments, ya know?
It was the photo for the cover of Easter. I thought if I
could do it as an experiment, then fifteen-year-old boys
could do it, and that would make me very happy. Ya know,
people say to me, “Aren’t you afraid of becoming a sex
object?” Especially a lot of writers are obsessed with
making you feel guilty or upset because you might become a
sex object. Well, I find that very exciting. I think sex
is one of the five highest sensations one can experience. A
very high orgasm is a way of communication with our Creator.

Reporter: You jerk off to the Bible too?

Smith: Definitely.

Vision X
********
The Fall Into Grace
___________________

Flashback to the first meeting with Patti Smith at the Radio
Ethiopia headquarters on the East Side of New York. She is
a bit late from the dentist and in some pain because she
refused any Novocain on the grounds that it is un-American
because they didn’t have it during the Civil War. Her jaw
was also fractured in the accident last year, and two of her
teeth have fallen out. She is having them replaced with
gold, and will have a cross engraved on one of the front
teeth.

Smith is distressed to find the reporter is equipped
only with a notebook and not a tape recorder. She will not
talk until her assistant furnishes a cassette machine
because she speaks fast and sometimes breaks into
“spontaneous poetry,” which is important to get down
verbatim.

Dressed in a baggy conglomeration of clothes best
described as pre-Annie Hall mess, she is a striking figure.
Like Johnny Rotten, she is not healthy looking, but gives
the impression of great energy because of her enchanting
eyes. Her coiffure is pure flyaway and, rarely brushed, has
hairballs like a dog’s. There’s no furniture in the office,
so the interview is conducted on the floor under a huge
poster of herself announcing a performance at the Pavillon
de Paris. Heavily laden with South Jersey, her speech is
nevertheless euphonious. The conversation periodically is
punctuated by loud snaps from her neck when she moves her
head in a particular way.

Smith: When I perform, I always opt for communication
with God, and in pursuit of communicating with God, you can
enter some very dangerous territory. I also have come to
realize that total communication with God is physical death.
The part of the song that I fell in was on “Ain’t It
Strange”: “Go, go on, go like a dervish/Come on, God,
make me move.” I was opting for communication with my
Creator, and it led me down the most nondisciplined path
I’ve ever taken. Disintegrating and going into a black
tube, that’s what I felt like. I was losing consciousness,
and then I was in a tunnel of light, a classic Jungian
dreamspace. I felt like I was being pulled and it was not
at all unpleasurable.

But it was a leap out of this state of being, which I
happen to be very fond of, so I made a conscious decision
not to pursue that kind of communication while in
performance. There’s a lot of kids who believe in what
we’re doing or look to us for guidance or just for a good
time. I want people to feel they can trust me and I won’t
let them down, so I now take care of myself physically.

I think that in terms of who I am now, probably it was
the best thing that ever happened to me. I was in a period
of constant motion and it forced me to stop. I was just
moving, ya know, just going. I had no direction.

My period of immobility gave me the time to reassess
myself. I’ve reaccepted certain responsibilities. We
really care about kids, we care about rock & roll, we care
about the future and we work as hard as we can. We aren’t
always great, but our motivations are clear, and they’ve
never altered.

Solidarity is not a myth, not some pathetic dream. We
had a false start in a way, what people called punk rock was
like Kohoutek, that comet that didn’t happen. But a lot of
good came out of it….We were an inspiration to kids all
over the world. I know that ’cause I toured Europe more
than America. Those kids that bought Horses or “Piss
Factory” or heard about CBGB’s became the Clash, became the
Sex Pistols, became a million other bands–some that will
make it and some that won’t. But the important thing is
that they became. Wake up kids and inspire them to action.
Our victory is their victory, and I give it back to them.

Vision XI
*********
God Must Be Redefined
_____________________

With a master’s degree in American Studies from Rutgers,
Lenny Kaye is the theoretician of the Patti Smith Group. A
compiler of Nuggets, a wonderful two-disc album of prepunk
psychedelia from the mid-Sixties, Kaye knows his rock & roll
history. Like Smith, he feels he talks fast and wants a
tape recorder on during the interview.

Lenny Kaye, backstage at the Calderone: We try to
have, like, levels and depths, so that someone who wants to
plunge into us can plunge to whatever level they want and
find something to take out with them and, hopefully, it will
lead them to the next level, which is “Radio Ethiopia.”

Reporter: Uh, how do you define “Radio Ethiopia”? I
mean, if somebody was looking for it, what would you tell
them to look for?

Kaye: The mental telepathy that we attempt to
construct onstage, and the musical result of that.

Reporter: Patti said one of her artistic goals was
communication with God. Do you share that goal?

Kaye: Well, you know, it depends on how you define the
term. I mean, that’s her concept. What is God, you know?
Sometimes for Patti God is a man. God is the noonday. God
is life. Someone who blesses with the divine spark of
creativity. Of course, if you are going to start defining
something down, you are going to limit your own sense of how
you view it. Which is probably why there are contradictions.
But we tend to have pretty loose definitions.

Reporter: Words can mean what you want them to mean?

Kaye: Yeah, but no, not that words can mean what you
want them to mean, but that definitions are broad enough
within themselves to encompass just about anything. If LSD
taught people anything, it was that boundaries that are set
up in the world are only set up within the context of man’s
mind. You can make anything mean anything. Because you
look at it totally subjectively.

Vision XII
**********
The Ecstasy And The Agony
_________________________

Declaring Smith’s musicianship “great intuitive rock & roll
guitar,” and her obvious on-the-job training “drama,”
Kaye heads upstairs for the performance. The crowd is
adulatory, staying on its feet throughout the entire show.
Mostly, this is because of the excitement, but it’s also
because the ushers do not clear the aisles and you can’t see
if you sit down. Screams of ecstasy directed at Smith are
occasionally interrupted by screams of “Siddown!”

The Patti Smith Group opens with “Land,” which shows
off Smith at her best. The chanted intro about a kid
getting “anally assaulted by an alien force” in front of
his high-school locker is mesmerizing; the version of “Land
of a Thousand Dances” exhilarating. “Redondo Beach” and
“Kimberly,” original songs from the first album, are less
joyfully received by the audience. Smith dances around with
great exuberance, giving no indication of stiffness from her
injury. To her true believers, this exuberance is
contagious. To one skeptical but willing to make the leap
of faith if called, Smith’s exuberance is soured by stage
patter building herself into a hero: she compares her band
favorably to the Rolling Stones and boasts of forcing a
Central Park summer-concert booking.

The band, described by drummer Jay Dee Daugherty as
“the most exclusive Patti Smith fan club in the world,” is
okay but still closer to a garage band than to the Rolling
Stones at their best. Daugherty is the instrumental
foundation with his Charlie Watts thump-crash style. Ivan
Kral, a Czechoslovakian who fled that country in 1968, is a
fine guitarist with a solid sense of riff. He alternates on
bass with Lenny Kaye, who is only adequate on guitar. The
newest member of the band, keyboardist Bruce Brody, does
what he’s supposed to, but occasionally seems lost.

The newer material — “Because the Night,” “Till
Victory” and “Rock n Roll Nigger” (despite silly words) —
sounds great. Smith’s hottest moment, oddly, comes on “Be
My Baby,” the old Ronettes song, on which she almost rivals
Ronnie Spector herself. Even a doubter must admit it is
astonishingly good.

Everyone’s worst moment is “Radio Ethiopia,” an
interminable Sixties freak-out in which Smith performs a
guitar solo consisting of her playing one note very fast and
acting like Jimi Hendrix. That the band members consider
this grotesque self-indulgence their highest moment
indicates how little they have in common with the punk
bands, whom they see as their offspring. The punks present
their instrumental incompetence in the spirit of farce and
satire. The Patti Smith Group presents it as a holy
sacrament.

Vision XIII
***********
The Triumph Of The Black-Sheep Squadron
_______________________________________

Smith: People say to me, “Do you think you sold out?” To
me, they should be saying, “Oh wow, you’re on AM radio.”
Kids come up to me on the street and say, “Patti, we’re on
ABC.” Because they fought with me, they know that the past
four years it’s been a tough struggle. They can see I was
the black sheep. I’ll probably always be a black sheep,
maybe a richer one instead of a poorer one, but they see
someone who felt alienated, who didn’t belong anywhere. I
stuck it out. And I’m determined to make us kids, us
fuckups, us ones who could never get a degree in college,
whatever, have a family, or do regular stuff, social stuff,
prove that there’s a place for us. So I think it’s great
that I have a hit single. To me, the place for us would be
right out on the front line.

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