Patti Smith by Victor Bockris

Living the Outrageous Lie* (Part 1)

Patti Smith by Victor Bockris, 1998 UK Edition, Published by Fourth Estate

”The literary outpout of the short-lived punk movement has been largly ignored. No one came close to Patti Smith at the time in terms of her recognition as a writer.”-Victor Bockris

By Tobe Damit

I have already read and reviewed Just Kids and M Train before here on LAN so I thought that by now I had a pretty accurate and complete picture of Patti Smith: Poet, punk prophet, feminist icon, rock writer; a punk-rock star mixing her distinct voice and poetry with rock and roll music.  I was so wrong. Unforgettable, ”Just Kids” gives you a pretty complete picture of her childhood and early days, highlighting her relationship with now famous photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the Chelsea Hotel day while ”M Train” picks up years later with a more disheveled, haunting narrative but reading Victor Bockris 1998 UK edition of Patti Smith’s bio published by Fourth Estate,  placing her at the centre of the New York underground that included, amongst many others, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Blondie, Jim Carroll and William Burroughs, Victor Bockris’s biography investigates the private world behind the celebrity and gives you a very intimate, in-depth, exhaustive portrait of the playwright/poet/punk rock singer/composer who gave us (to cite only this one) Horses, an album viewed by critics as one of the greatest and most influential albums in the history of the American punk rock movement, as well as one of the greatest albums of all time. Her 2 most recent novels ”Just Kids” and ”M Train” are also best sellers and both won various very well deserved awards, furthermore her earlier poetry books have also received critical and popular acclaim. Patti is also one the most direct conspicuous link between the Beats and the early New York punk movement since her career was as stunning as a writer than it was as a punk-rock singer-songwriter.

Early poetry reading, St. Mark’s Church, NYC, ca 1971. Click on it!

Bockris goes through Patti’s life starting with her childhood and strict religious upbringing in South Jersey and Patti’s earliest influences (Patti Smith has been influenced by artists as diverse as Arthur Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Antoni Artaud, Jimi Hendrix, William Blake, Henri Michaux and the Rolling Stones), her escape to New York where the Andy Warhol’s Factory was in full swing by 1967, her meeting with Mapplethorpe and the crowd that was hanging out at Max Kansas City, her staying at the Chelsea hotel where she would meet her most precious literary mentors as well as her rock’n’roll heroes. Bockris dynamic narrative alternates with wisely chosen interviews excerpts or quotes, the primary source of information being provided by Patti herself throughout the many interviews she has given during her career. The first interview done by Bockris in 1972, on the occasion of the publication of her first book  ”Seventh Heaven”, ”provides a paradigm for all the Patti Smith interviews that were to come, illustrating how she has always been able to take the most mundane question and weave her answer into a piece of spoken poetry.” Of course, to the readers’ pleasure, this memorable interview is duly generously provided in its entirety in the Sources Notes.  Furthermore that section of the book gives you a very clear overview on the extent and the quality of the research and the references used throughout the whole book. The people quoted, those who conducted interviews with the author as well as the sources themselves (books, magazines, newspapers, underground fanzines, etc.). All extremely pertaining to Patti and the people she knew as well as her cultural surroundings.

If you check out the complete works of our esteemed chronicler of the New York Underground, Patti Smith clearly constitutes a very important link between Beats, hippies and punks as well as between poetry and live musical performance. Making Patti the hinge as well as the source of many things to come on a musical, literary and social level. One could say that the first part of her life was somehow a tribute to those whom she considered to be her heroes. ”I’ve spent half to three-quarters of my life sucking from other people and now I’d like to give some‘ Patti says in that same 1972 first interview with Bockris mentioned earlier.

Here with William Burroughs at his home, Franklin St, NYC, 1975. ©Photo by Kate Simon.

The Chelsea Hotel was a heady place to be in the late sixties and the early seventies; Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Miller, Arthur Clark, Jim Carroll, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and of course William Burroughs amongst many, many others were hanging out at the Chelsea and all of them had a big influence on Patti. People from the Warhol’s Factory were also still very active and everything was set for the changing of guard to happen on a reading that took place at St Mark’s Church on February 10th 1971, before a very unconventional but eclectic crowd. St Marks was a very classic poetry venue, where Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and all of our poets performed and it was quite an honor to perform there. The event was hosted by Gerard Malanga who, ”despite recently having been dismissed from the Warhol’s Factory for the second time in two years, was still looked upon as and looked like, a bona fide Warhol Superstar.”

Flyer for poetry reading at St Mark Church hosted by Gerard Malanga (Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections Cornell University)

Bockris vividly recalls: ”Patti appeared promptly at 8 p.m. accompanied in the background by the lanky figure of Lenny Kaye. The audience gasped with astonishment. She was a figure of the future standing before them, looking like something like many of them had never seen. The raw, rasping, heavily New Jersey accent with which she addressed the crowd gave Patti’s reading its edge that night. The content of her work leant heavily towards the sexual, mixing up male and female without concern. She also revealed a sharp sense of timing by alternating the works she read on her own with the ones she read with Lenny’s backing, and by keeping the set to a tight twenty-minute (…)She had the confidence to machine-gun her poems at the sophisticated if slightly stunned crowd. Patti ‘took’ St Marks that night. Malanga, whose reading was a superb and passionate rendition of some of his best work, was still the centre of attention at Max’s later on, but Lenny Kaye recognized that the changing of guard started on that very evening. And within a year the rockers would have taken over Max’s and other cultural outposts from the artists and poets…”

Patti, 1976, Vanity Fair. ©Photo Lynn Goldsmith,

Patti Smith then willingly takes on the part of being a rock star without really leaving poetry behind, rather fusing performance, acting, poetry and punk rock. Hence becoming a role-model for the first women in rock… Punk by nature. She was amongst the first ones to play the infamous CBGB OMFUG, headlining for the band Television, Tom Verlaine. Richard Lloyd and Richard Hell later replaced by Fred ”Sonic” Smith formerly from the Detroit garage band rock legends, the MC5 who were heavy influences on the punk movement to soon follow.  More than just another loud blues-rock band, the MC5 were endeared by fans for their anti-establishment lyrics.  The band’s use of itself as a political voice inspired future generations to do the same. Fred ”Sonic” Smith later formed the Sonic’s Rendezvous Band with Scott Morgan, Gary Rasmussen and Scott Ashton, formerly of the Stooges . The band Sonic Youth took its name from Fred Smith’s nickname.

Patti Smith guesting with Fred “Sonic” Smith’s Sonic’s Rendezvous Band at the New Miami in Detroit, Michigan, 1980. ©Photo Sue Rynksi.

At age 31, Fred Smith married and raised a family with Patti and the couple collaborated musically. He was the inspiration for her song “Frederick”, a single from her 1979 album Wave. Unfortunately the only album he produced with Patti Smith, Dream of Life (1988) had a very poor reception. Together the Smiths had a son, Jackson (born 1982) and a daughter, Jesse (born 1987). In these chapters, Bockris reveals a whole different aspect to the persona of Patti who had by then almost become a stay at home mum if it wasn’t for her amazing capacity to absorb from other writers and artists in general as well as always, always make poetry of everyone and everything that surrounds her in one way or another. Bockris has a very objective, non-judgmental point of view on that part of her life and it’s very fortunate because a lot of people and the medias have been quite narrow-minded towards some choices she made back then on the way she wanted to lead her life. I have to admit that for my part I don’t think anyone should have the right to judge anyone else’s choice, whether they are celebrities or not.

Jackson, Patti, and Jesse at home. St. Clair Shores, Michigan, 1996.©Photo Annie Leibovitz

The death of Patti’s beloved husband on November 4th 1994 obviously was a huge loss.  Patti Smith speaks of how Fred Smith encouraged her writing, crediting his influence on a number of the songs she released after his death, as well as the prose works she created during their time together in Michigan. Her 1996 album Gone Again features several songs inspired by, co-written by, or in tribute to, her late husband. In Bockris bio you will have a very in-depth look on how Patti managed to make a well deserved comeback and is now viewed for what she is. Her life has been made of ups and downs but I always thought that it’s in defeat that you see a real winner for they always manage to come back. Mohammad Ali was one of Patti’s inspirational model and poet. He had found his very own unique way to be a poet in life and to make his life a work of art, being a parental figure his kids could look up too, a loyal husband and grateful son, living his life as he dreamed he should be living it, exactly like Patti. ”By 1996 she had metamorphosed from an entertainer into that position Richard Hell had prophesied in his 1974 essay on ‘celebrity as an art form’ . Such a character is a living piece of American history, a walking icon, like Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Kennedy and, in her small world, Patti Smith.” 

I have learned to love Patti Smith first through her books, than through her music but now Victor Bockris has allowed me to acknowledge her lifestyle and thinking as work of art as well. She has paid many tributes to various writers, musicians, actors, poets and painters that she held high in her esteem. It now seems only appropriate that we now in turn pay tribute to Patti Smith who is all that. In his biography ”Patti Smith” Bockris has done just that as well as giving a voice to all those who were worthy to pay her homage.

Patti perfroming for a New Year’s Eve concert at CBGB’s, 1977-78

Allow me to leave you with one last quote, cherry picked from the bio, describing Patti Smith performing at CBGB’s, written by Charles Shaar Murray for the New Musical Express: ”She can generate more intensity with a single movement of one hand than most rock performers can produce in an entire set. She’s an odd little waif figure in a grubby black suit and black satin shirt, so skinny that her clothes hang baggily all over her, with chopped-off black hair and  a face like Keith Richards’ kid sister would have if she’d gotten as wasted by age seventeen as Keith is now. She stands there machine-gunning out her lines, singing a bit and talking a bit, in total control, riding it and steering it with a twist of  a shoulder here, a flick of the writ there — scaled-down bird-like movements that carry an almost unbelievable degree of power, an instinctive grasp of the principles of mime that teach that the quality and timing of her gesture are infinitely more important than its size. Her closing tour de force, an inspired juxtaposing of ‘Land of 1,000 Dances’ with a rock poem about a kid getting beaten up in a locker room, was undoubtedly the most gripping performance that I’ve seen by a white act since the last time I saw the Who”

©All quotes from Victor Bockris biography ”Patti Smith”, 1998 UK Edition, Published by Fourth Estate

*For those who are curious and wandering wtf is this ”Outrageous Lie” thing, wait for part 2, a Q and A with author Victor Bockris, soon on Loud Alien Noize!

M Train by Patti Smith

”It’s Not So Easy Writing About Nothing”

I was expecting a lot when I picked up Patti Smith’s best seller ”M Train”.  Her previous novel (best seller as well) ”Just Kids” had a very profound effect on the way I perceive whatever life throws my way, especially the bad stuff. After ”Just Kids”, I somehow felt I would never be quite alone again and that all my beloved writers would always be there for me, already having accepted to share their deepest, most sincere intimate feelings at length on pretty much everything that really matters. All those miraculous novels holding a mysterious key could help me solve one of many riddles hidden in our seemingly insignificant lives, unlocking secluded passageways and concealed doors .

Patti Smith during her pilgrimage to French Guiana with Fred. Photo courtesy of Patti Smith

”Just Kids” is a touching story of unconditional love and friendship, two struggling, ascending artists who dearly rely on each other for help and support, whatever happens. Patti and Robert’s linear, chronological narrative differs a lot from Patti’s train of thoughts; that ”green train with an ”M” in a cercle; a faded green like the back of a preying mantis.” Series of small short scenes, delightful slices of life. Always having innocent seemingly facts invariably leading to another philosophical journey into Patti’s heart and soul, delivered to the reader without vanity, in a very intimate matter of speech. Her thoughts seemingly being instantaneously translated into words: ”When I was young I had the notion to think and write simultaneously, but I could  never keep up with myself.” I was ready to sit next to Patti’s table at Cafe ‘Ino, wanting to share the intimacy of her ever flowing thoughts, eager to learn what had become of that girl I had learned to admire and love so much.

Patti Smith with writer William S Burroughs in his NY bunker at 222 Bowery Street.

Patti is a woman with a fascinating story, putting things in a brand new perspective, showing us how different our life could be seen if we dared to focus and realise how each and every moment is rich of its very own history, how every little object has a story to tell if you can be kind enough to let it speak and have the courtesy to listen. Thanks again Patti for giving me solace in the present, allowing me to remember that each minute passing by is an opportunity to let the world know that everything is changing before our very eyes. No one else can make you embrace the life you were given, never forgetting to pay tribute of those who tried so very hard that they got swallowed in that moment,  forgetting that there is always tomorrow… Akutagawa, Dazai and Sylvia Plath, to name only a few of those mentioned in the book. ”M Train” is also an ultimate tribute to all of those that Patti held in very high esteem, modestly sharing her enthusiasm for the work of masters like Bulgakov, Jean Genest, Burroughs, Murakami, Kurosawami, Tolstoi, the Beats and many, many others throughout the book.

Patti’s favorite, The “Wedding Photo,” with husband Fred Sonic Smith, backstage, 8 February 1978. Fred died at the age of 45 in 1994.

Most of all ”M Train” speaks of times spent with her loved ones, we can feel Fred ”Sonic” Smith’s (guitarist from Detroit band MC5)spirit all through the book, all across the globe where Patti’s tales takes us, she left a little part of her everywhere with everyone because Patti is a generous soul and if she is very sensitive, she is also very strong and no matter what, the memory of those she has loved or still loves is always at reach, hidden in the bottom of the pockets of an old black coat, she can almost feel it with the tip of her fingers and it makes her happy. And it makes her sad…: ”We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small. feet swift. Everything changes. Boys grown. father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go, don’t grow.”

Jackson, Patti, and Jesse at home, photo by Annie Leibovitz

 

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Just Kids by Patti Smith

patti-and-robert

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” ― Lester Bangs

I have just finished reading ”Just Kids” for the second time and I can’t help feeling a bit of anguish as I’m about to express my perception of Patti’s first book of prose mainly, I suppose, due to the fact that it’s a best seller. Not that I disagree, Au contraire! All the praise about ”Just Kids’‘ is very well deserved, but so much has been said already that I forbade myself to read any of it so that everything I would say would  be 100% mine. Therefore I will simply pretend I’m the only bloody diamond geezer who was clever enough to read it, heartily hoping to bring something new to the table in the process. I chose this quote by Lester Bangs as an opener because these words seemed to be the very foundation of one of the most sincere and coolest relationship ever, one that’s been told through the pages of ”Just Kids”, a true story that would in itself become an inspiration for so many more to come. It’s a call to be who I really am no matter what, because by doing so, I might be able to bring something unique and new in this bankrupt world.

”There Will Always Be Us!”

first-edition-2

     In ”Just Kids”,  legendary, highly authentic American inspired singer-songwriter, poet, and visual artist Patti Smith, who  became an influential component of the New York City punk rock movement, offers a very unique, never-before-seen glimpse of her honest, enduring, sister-brother, Yin/Yang, boyfriend/girlfriend magical everlasting relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the Chelsea Hotel in the late 60s and 70s.

The relation itself is the guiding light and the whole purpose of this book and if, at times, certain passages might seem trivial, well, they never were. This unconditional love they shared –  creative, sensitive, stimulating and artistically prolific – becomes a sincere and deeply moving story of youth, friendship and ultimately success. The best thing being that anyone can relate to it in a very intimate, personal way.  ”Just Kids” fully grasp the heartfelt passion and holds this very same unique, sensitive and lyrical quality that is written between each lines of her formidable body of work, from her influential 1975 album Horses to her visual art and poetry.

patricia-lee-smith
Photo©by Frank Stefanko scanned by Patricia Lee Smith 

No one else could have better described all the ins and outs of the unique, constantly evolving story she shared with Robert Mapplethorpe, and this means way more than just itemizing their body of work, for the whole represents way more than the sum of it and their relationship in itself was on its own an expression of art. It just couldn’t be contained in its entirety in little works nor in big works for all to see.  Parts have been laid in music, paintings, poems and photographs but even all these, as inspired and beautiful as they are, fail in giving us a complete picture. Even if it celebrates a friendship that left a permanent impact on almost every artistic aspect and style in America, it still had to be told in a book. It was essential and sacred. Patti had to share their journey under the blue star, a symbol of their undying love for each other, one last time.

Patti writes in a Last Note to the Reader:

”We were as Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the black forest of the world. There were temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of and there was splendor we only partially imagined. No one could speak for these two young  people nor tell with any truth of their days and their nights together. Only Robert and I could tell it. Our Story, as he called it. And, having gone, he left the task to me to tell it to you. ” – Patti Smith, Just Kids, May 22, 2010

What makes this book so special is how Patti manages to express a magic that started almost immediately. Patti arrived in NYC with almost nothing but her wish to accomplish something no one has done before. Robert was already in NYC and struggling on an urban survival mode, but nevertheless they both had a deep sense that life had something very special in store for them and that it was written in the stars. They never thought it would be so hard, that they would have to struggle so much just to survive but nevertheless it didn’t take very long for them to be able to recognize the signs. We can feel that they saw in each other something true and very real, something which they felt they would later be able to rely on as persons and as artists. Of course there were moments of doubts but maybe it was these crucial moments that would prove them to be essential to one another. It never was a give and take type of relationship. The base for it might just be honesty, true faith in each other’s talent, the hope that there was a place for them as they were and that with a lot of work, perseverance and a little bit of luck, they would both find their niche as people and artists. Lots of spoken, unspoken pacts were made, very few ever broken.

Patti Smith by ©Andy Warhol , Ca. 1972

Despite a certain ”twinlike” aspect, their part in each other’s life could also definitely be seen as complementary. One could say that Robert was the eternal dreamer, on some aspects, even alien to practical knowledge and certain everyday life faculties and that Patti possessed a more down to Earth perspective on life but this is only a half truth since, when needed, on several occasions, they could trade roles and when the other one would be in dire need of a trait that would normally be the other one’s unsaid character/task assignment, they would put their egos aside and would manage to trade places if it would help the other to get through a rough patch.

”The premise was simply that one of us always had to be vigilant, the designated protector. If Robert took a drug, I needed to be present and conscious. If I was down, he needed to stay up. If one was sick, the other healthy. It was important that we were never self-indulgent on the same day.

In the beginning I faltered, and he was always there with an embrace or words of encouragement, coercing me to get out of myself and into my work. Yet he always knew that I would not fail  if he needed me to be the strong one”

The Chelsea Hotel

Patti Smith on the balcony of the Chelsea Hotel , 1971
Patti Smith on the balcony of the Chelsea Hotel , 1971

“I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively”

Back in those days, New York City was a very dangerous place. Some areas were filled with what is commonly regarded as the lowest forms of the human species likes thieves, pimps, rapists, thieves, hookers, murderers and so forth. Being young artists who strive to survive, of course they were bound to have to live in such areas. At one of their lowest points they were plainly told that they had to get out, that they wouldn’t make it if they stayed. Fortunately, there was a place that offered hope if you were an artist, a little island of optimism, gathering past, present and future generations of artists of all kinds where you didn’t even need to have money right away. Stanley Bard would keep your portfolio, or take a work of art until you could get it back and you were now part of a community that was very special, during the 60s and the 70s especially. The Chelsea played a huge part in the history of the new generation of artists of the 60s and the 70s.

”Gregory made lists of books for me to read, told me the best dictionary to own, encouraged me and challenged me. Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs were all my teachers, each one passing through the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, my new University. ”

”The Moon Turned Blood Red”

robert mapplethorpe and patti smith in their chelsea hotel apartment, circa 1970, photo©Albert Scopin.
Robert and Patti Smith Chelsea Hotel, circa 1970, photo©Albert Scopin.

Yet they came to a point where one or both of them needed more space, more freedom. Some things are meant to be faced and dealt with on your own even if they knew the other one will still be there for me if need it be but never taking one another for granted and always being grateful of each other’s effort to play the right part when needed, never taking advantage of one another. In one word: Respect was of course the cement that sealed the ”deal”. Robert soon had to face his inner demons and question his sexuality again and again. Of course this was heart wrenching for both of them.

”He had been with a fellow and not for money. I was able to give him some measure of acceptance. My armor sill had its vulnerable points, and Robert, my knight, had pierced a few, though without desiring to do so.”

Their relationship morphed and this had major effects on their everyday lives. It is during theses major changes and adaptations that could have tore them apart that we see that love makes all the difference in the world and that instead of trying to exert control on each other’s lives, they simply went ahead with the flow and they grew stronger. I would say that we witness how something some would see as a humiliation becomes merely a chance to humble ourselves and let life take its natural course. Never stop to love and support those who are true soul mates. A bond stronger than marriage.

I will not spoil all the fun and tell you everything that happens. I already told you the big lines and a few little ones but Here is one last thing that I realised reading ”Just Kids”.

I so happened to notice that in general there can be two different kinds of artists. Some very callous, careless, aloof and undisciplined that are successful because of their God-given talent  and so much passion that they seem to evolve in a different space and time, going all the way with everything they’ve got, with all their worries and genius. They truly appear as some unstoppable forces of nature, pushed by some alien powers. Then there are others with which they share the same gift, also having a remarkable imagination, but very rooted in their reality, very lucid and conscious of the space they occupy in space and time as well as having a clear view on what is their place in society and what their relationships made of, how strong can they be.

Now certain artists are lucky enough to have just about the right proportion of each of these components within themselves, to be well supported by a team of people they trust and that have faith in their work. I think ”Just Kids” is about the encounter of 2 people who miraculously manage to complete each other perfectly as people and as artists.

Patti Smith and Sam Shepard in their play, Cowboy Mouth, in New York in 1971
Patti Smith and Sam Shepard in their play, Cowboy Mouth, in New York in 1971
smith-dylan
Dylan, Smith and Sam Shepard attended a party at Allen Ginsberg’s Greenwich Village house, where ©Ken Regan took several photos of Dylan and Smith in conversation on the stairs.

So?

”Where does it all lead?What will become of us? These were our young questions and young answers were revealed.

It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”

Fred
Fred “Sonic” Smith (September 14, 1949 – November 4, 1994) , was an American guitarist, best known as a member of the influential and political, Detroit rock band, the famous MC5. He married with poet and fellow rock musician, Patti Smith. The couple collaborated musically, and raised their two children together. 

Together the Smiths had a son, Jackson (born 1982) and a daughter, Jesse (born 1987). Jackson, a guitarist, was married to Meg White (formerly of indie band The White Stripes). Jesse is a pianist. Both have performed on stage with their mother along with other members of the Patti Smith Group.

Patti Smith never forgot Robert Mapplethorpe and wrote ”Just Kids” in 2012. She had made a promise to Robertthat she’d write a book about them and she did, Patti wrote this memoire of their friendship in her own unique personal, direct, sensitive and wholhearted style and we should be all damn happy she kept her promise!

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Just Kids won:

Also by Patti Smith

9781101910160
Click and read my review!

About Unfinished Poems…

gregory-corso
Gregory Corso, 1953 

Gregory loved Keats and Shelley and would stagger into the lobby with his trousers hanging low, eloquently spewing their verses. When I mourned my inability to finish any of my poems, he quoted Paul Valery to me: ”Poets don’t finish their poems, they abandon them”…  Patti Smith, Just Kids

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe by Norman Seeff, 1969
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe by Norman Seeff, 1969