Just Kids by Patti Smith

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“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!”

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     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.

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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
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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 "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 MC5. Later in life he married and raised a family with poet and fellow rock musician, Patti Smith. The couple collaborated musically, and raised two children together.
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!

photobooth

Just Kids won:

Also by Patti Smith  9781101910160

 

About Unfinished Poems…

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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

Donna Santisi

LA Punk Scene in the 70’s

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Debbie Harry kicking ass!

Donna Santisi was one of the very few and lucky photographers who were able to capture the new punk rock craze and scene that had spread from New York to Los Angeles. On any given night Donna would be at The Whisky A Go Go, The Starwood, or any number of clubs with camera in hand to capture on film what would soon be  the hardcore punk scene. I don’t think anybody was ready for this explosion, especially The parents of the newly found punk rockers that their children turned out to be. Ask the Angels!

ATA Kristian Hoffman Lance Loud Mumps- Tomata K.K. Screamers
Kristian Hoffman & Lance Loud (Mumps),Tomata de Plenty & K.K. (Screamers)
Tom Verlaine from Television
Tom Verlaine from Television ©Photo by Donna Santisi
Tommy Gear and Tomata du Plenty from The Screamers
Tommy Gear and Tomata de Plenty from The Screamers ©Photo by Donna Santisi
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Iggy Pop ©Photo by Donna Santisi
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John Cale (Velvet Underground)
Sex Pistol Drummer Paul Cok and Genny Body from Bacjstage Pass
Drummer Paul Cook (Sex Pistols) and Genny Body (Backstage Pass) ©Donna Santisi 
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Danielle Faye (Zippers) wirh Vicki Blue (Runaways)
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Joan Jett and Debbie Harry ©Photo by Donna Santisi
Lita Ford from The Runaways
Lita Ford from The Runaways
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Vicki Blue from The Runaways
The Zeros
The Zeros ©Photo by Donna Santisi
Lita Ford (Runaways)
Lita Ford (Runaways)©Photo by Donna Santisi
ATA Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads)
ATA Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads)
Missy, Maggie and Mercy of The Heaters!
Missy, Maggie and Mercy of The Heaters!
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Patti Smith
Joey Ramone (Ramones!)
Joey Ramone (Ramones!
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Leather! Joan Jett and a helping BFF! ©Photo by Donna Santisi
Joan Jett, Tropicana Motel 1979 ©Photo by Donna Santisi
Joan Jett, Tropicana Motel 1979 
Bowie '90 Sound and Vision Tour
Bowie ’90 Sound and Vision Tour
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Debbie and Joan Jett © Photo by Donna Santisi
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Joan Jett with Chrissy Hynde (The Pretenders)
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Siouxie Sioux
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Patti Smith
Alice Bag, lead singer for The Bags
Alice Bag, lead singer for LA Punk band The Bags
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All Pictures in this article by © Donna Santisi

All copyrights on all images © Donna Santisi

CBGB’s 70’s Punk Scene by Godlis

1976-1978

CBGB’s House photographer

David Godlis was eyewitness to the 1970s New York punk scene. Here’s a very small sample of what you can find i his photo souvenir book on the CBGB with an intro by Jim Jarmusch who just did a documentary about The Stooges ”Gimme Danger”.

"The long view across Bowery that fabulous summer of 77" godlis,1977)
“The long view across Bowery that fabulous summer of 77” (Godlis,1977)
2. The club’s owner, Hilly Kristal, stands outside among the crowd waiting to get in (1977).
Hilly Kristal, Bowery. “Hilly overseeing his Bowery kingdom. It was essential that I had a good shot of him. But back then when I showed people this photo they would ask why I had a photo of this bearded guy in a flannel shirt mixed in with my pictures of punks on the Bowery. Now everyone knows. Without Hilly, I wouldn’t have any of these photos.” (Godlis, 1977)
3. Patti Smith, one of the first artists booked to play the club when it opened, arriving (1976).
Patti Smith, one of the first artists booked to play the club when it opened, arriving (Godlis,1976)
4. Sylvia Morales (who would go on to marry Lou Reed) and downtown scenester Mudd Club co-founder Anya Phillips strike a pose (1977).
Sylvia Morales (who would go on to marry Lou Reed) and downtown scenester/ Mudd Club co-founder Anya Phillips strike a pose (Godlis,1977)
Roberta Bayley, Mary Harron, John Holmstrom, CBGB. "All three were essential at the classic Punk Magazine. Roberta Bayley shot the cover of the first Ramones album and also worked the front desk at CBGB’s, Mary Harron did the first U.S. piece on the Sex Pistols for Punk and later directed many films including American Psycho, and John Holmstrom founded Punk magazine and still runs the punk empire online."(Godlis,1977)
Roberta Bayley, Mary Harron, John Holmstrom, CBGB. “All three were essential at the classic Punk Magazine. Roberta Bayley shot the cover of the first Ramones album and also worked the front desk at CBGB’s, Mary Harron did the first U.S. piece on the Sex Pistols for Punk and later directed many films including American Psycho, and John Holmstrom founded Punk magazine and still runs the punk empire online.”(Godlis,1977)
5. Garage punk band The Cramps standing outside the club (1977).
Psychobilly/Garage punk band The Cramps (Goldis,1977)
6. Music journalist Lester Bangs (1977).
Lester Bangs, CBGB. “Music journalist Lester Bangs brought his pen and typewriter to NYC to report on what was going on down on the Bowery. Here shown wearing a Punk Magazine T-shirt. (Godlis,1977)
7. Singer-songwriter Alex Chilton (1977).
Singer-songwriter Alex Chilton, Bowery. “Alex was a big photography fan, photographer William Eggleston being a family friend in Memphis. So we tried shooting this out on the Bowery median strip, getting very lucky when a drop of rain landed on the lens transforming this shot from pretty good to iconic. Used as the cover for his independent 45 ‘Bangkok,’ an outtake of this session is the cover of the recent biography ‘A Man Called Destruction,’ by Holly George-Warren.”(Godlis,1977)
Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch, Bowery. "I knew Jim Jarmusch through a mutual friend studying film with him at NYU, and he was hanging out at CBGB's. Christopher Parker was in Jim’s first film 'Permanent Vacation.' And Klaus Nomi, was just getting ready to shine over at Club 57 in the next year or so.''(Godlis,1978)
Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch, Bowery. “I knew Jim Jarmusch through a mutual friend studying film with him at NYU, and he was hanging out at CBGB’s. Christopher Parker was in Jim’s first film ‘Permanent Vacation.’ And Klaus Nomi, was just getting ready to shine over at Club 57 in the next year or so.”(Godlis,1978)
8. Patti Smith performing with the Patti Smith Group (1977).
Patti Smith performing with the Patti Smith Group (Godlis,1977)
9. Punk innovator Richard Hell performing (1978).
Punk innovator Richard Hell performing (Godlis,1978)
Richard Hell, Bowery, ''Around 3 a.m., I caught Richard exiting CBGB before catching a cab in the Bowery rain'' (Godlis 1977)
Richard Hell, Bowery, ”Around 3 a.m., I caught Richard exiting CBGB before catching a cab in the Bowery rain” (Godlis 1977)
10. The infamous bathroom stalls (1976).
CBGB’s Bathroom “The Metropolitan Museum of Art used this photo to recreate the legendary CBGB bathroom for their ‘Punk Couture’ show last year. That’s one way to get into the Met, I guess.”(Godlis,1976)
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Punk magazine co-founder Legs McNeil enjoying (?) a drink (Godlis, 1978)
12. The Talking Heads performing (1977).
Talking Heads, CBGB. “This was the first time they played CBGB as a foursome, after adding Jerry Harrison (formerly with the Modern Lovers). They used to do a great cover of 1910 Fruitgum Company’s ‘123 Red Light.’ It’s on YouTube.”(Godlis,1977)
13. Blondie performing (1977).
Blondie, CBGB. “Another view from the side of the stage. Debbie Harry with Chris Stein on slide guitar doing a cover of ‘Little Red Rooster’ at the Punk Magazine Benefit show.” (Godlis,1977)
14. Richard Manitoba, lead singer of the Dictators, and a friend stand beneath the awning of the club.
Dictators, Bowery. “I photographed ‘Handsome Dick’ Manitoba and his girlfriend Jody under the awning to thank him for returning my lost wallet. Considering that I used to have to explain to people what the letters CBGB OMFUG* meant every time I’d show this picture, I never could have imagined that CBGB would someday grace iconic T-shirts worldwide.” (Godlis.1976)
15. No wavers (which was a short-lived subculture for people who rejected the new wave musicart movement), waiting outside the club (1978).
No Wave Punks, Bowery. “I think it was Terry Ork who came up with the idea to name the next thing after New Wave, No Wave. All participants in this scene, here hanging right outside the club are Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Philips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field and Liz Seidman. Well actually, Harold Paris was not a participant, but he was a best friend of Thurston Moore who once told me he should have been in this photo instead. He was probably standing right next to me when I took it, and his Volkswagen can be seen parked in the background.” (Godlis, 1978)
16. Dee Dee and Joey of the Ramones arriving at the club (1977).
Dee Dee and Joey Ramone, Bowery. “Dee Dee once told me that he chose this for the cover of his book “Poison Heart – Surviving The Ramones”, because he remembered this as a ‘really good night.’ I like that reason.” (Godlis,1977)
The Ramones, who are arguably one of the artists most closely associated with the CBGB, performing (Godlis,1977)
The Ramones, who are arguably one of the artists most closely associated with the CBGB, performing (Godlis,1977)
Ramones, CBGB. "I love that Joey Ramone is holding up the 'Gabba Gabba Hey' sign himself, before they started bringing Zippy onstage to hold it during 'Pinhead.''(Godlis,1977)
Ramones, CBGB. “I love that Joey Ramone is holding up the ‘Gabba Gabba Hey’ sign himself, before they started bringing Zippy onstage to hold it during ‘Pinhead.”(Godlis,1977)
CBGB Interior at Closing Time. "Walking out of the club at 4 a.m., it all looked so romantic to me." (Godlis,1977)
CBGB Interior at Closing Time. “Walking out of the club at 4 a.m., it all looked so romantic to me.” (Godlis,1977)
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Garbage Truck, Bowery 4 a.m. “And here’s what it looked like out on Bowery after closing when the Garbage Trucks ruled the NYC streets. They still do.” (Godlis,1977)

10 Ramones Clips You Need To Watch!

ramonesJust click on pic for the clips!

When you boo the Ramones, you are booing rock’n’roll”; So said Supersuckers’ frontman Eddie Spaghetti. They could be the truest words ever uttered. Tommy Ramone, who died Friday on July 11th 2014 at the age of 65, was the band’s first official drummer and the cool, streetwise rogue in the shrunken black T-shirt and oversized shades staring out from the cover of that 29-minute-sprint-to-the-finish first album. An original member of the band, Tommy’s tenure in the group would last until 1978. During that time he played on arguably their three greatest records (RamonesLeave Home and Rocket To Russia), co-producing each and underpinning the songs with a high-energy, no-frills style that combined with Johnny Ramone’s buzzsaw guitar to propel their music to thrillingly unhinged heights. And if proof were needed of the NY punk icons’ foundation status in rock’s edifice, one need only survey the video evidence corralled below. Strap yourself in, and prepare to break the sound barrier with the Ramones Mark I at their very, very best.

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Click!

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Book Review — Living in the Chelsea Hotel

I loved reading ”This Ain’t No Holiday Inn/Down and Out of the Chelsea Hotel 1980-1995” and ”Just Kids”. I love everything surrounding this mythic Hotel. Thanks for the nice review!!

Evilcyclist's Blog

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

Living in the Chelsea Hotel by Linda Troeller is a pictorial and written history of the Chelsea Hotel featuring the last few decades. Troeller is a renowned photographer and her art appears in several collections including the Smithsonian. She has an MFA from School of Art, and an MS Newhouse, Syracuse University and a BS from Reed School of Media, West Virginia University. Previously, she was an assistant at the Ansel Adams Workshops. Troeller has taught at SVA, Parsons, NY, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Indiana University, and Stockton University.

The Chelsea Hotel is one of those almost mythical places like CBGBs that many of us heard about growing up in the 1970s. It was the darker, seedy, punk rock part of music and art. NY had that rough, tough image and the…

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Book Review — M-Train

I too have read ”Just Kids” by Patti Smith, which is an homage to her lover, friend, fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe as well as her own personal bio and I’m  looking forward to read this one. TY ”Motorcycle Boy”!! 😉

Evilcyclist's Blog

M TrainM-Train by Patti Smith is a collection of stories by the poet laureate of punk rock. Patricia Lee “Patti” Smith is an American singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist who became a highly influential component of the New York City punk rock movement with her 1975 debut album Horses.

To be honest, I have been a Patti Smith fan since 1978. I have all her albums, seen her in concert, and own several of her books including number 86 of 100 of WIIT. I was really surprised at how well received and the broad appeal of Just Kids and I was interested in seeing how well M-Train would fare.

I waited a while to start this book wanting to hold on to the idea of a new Patti Smith book before risking disappointment. I saw one review that talked about coffee and mentioned the word was mentioned forty-seven times. Actually it…

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This Ain’t No Holiday Inn

Down and Out of the Chelsea Hotel

A very unique insight of an era that defined so many movements to come. Even today we are still trying to measure the great impact of all that was done and thought during this savage era who would put in the Glamour anyone who had balls….

1981 BBC documentary on the Chelsea Hotel and its legendary inhabitants. This is good stuff. Includes footage of Quentin Crisp, Nico (backed up on guitar by my old friend Joe Bidewell), Warhol, Burroughs, Viva, Jobriath (2 years before he died of AIDS), Chelsea Hotel manager Stanley Bard and more.

 ”And then he was a she…”-Lou Reed

Chelsea Girls is a 1966 experimental underground film directed by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. The film was Warhol’s first major commercial success after a long line of avant-garde art films (both feature length and short). It was shot at the Hotel Chelsea and other locations in New York City, and follows the lives of several of the young women who live there, and stars many of Warhol’s superstars. It is presented in a split screen, accompanied by alternating soundtracks attached to each scene and an alternation between black-and-white and color photography. The original cut runs at just over three hours long.

The title, Chelsea Girls, is a reference to the location in which the film takes place. It was the inspiration for star Nico’s 1967 debut album, Chelsea Girl. The album featured a ballad-like track titled “Chelsea Girls”, written about the hotel and its inhabitants who appear in the film. The girl in the poster is Clare Shenstone, at the age of 16, an aspiring artist who would later be influenced by Francis Bacon. Notably missing is a sequence Warhol shot with his most popular superstar Edie Sedgwick which, according to Morrissey, Warhol excised from the final film at the insistence of Sedgwick herself, who claimed she was under contract to Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, at the time the film was made. Sedgwick’s footage has been used in another Warhol film “Afternoon.”

Chelsea Girls' Poster

Beat Punks

A Brief History of the Counterculture from William S. Burroughs to Kurt Cobain

Bull Will.

An interview with Victor Bockris on his book Beat Punks

by Phil Weaver

I’m a huge fan of Victor Bockris’ book Beat Punks, a collection of interviews and photographs documenting the relationship between the Beat generation and the punk movement in the 1970s downtown New York scene. The book does a great job of illustrating the cross-pollination of two generations (’50s Beats and ’70s punks) that resulted in one of the most extraordinary cultural flowerings of the 20th century. I recently talked to Bockris about some of the ideas behind the book, and I was pleased to hear he’s about to begin work on a follow up with interlinking prose. He didn’t want to give away too much about the forthcoming book, so I proposed a general interview on the history of the counterculture’s clashes with the establishment in the mid-to-late 20th century. Burroughs was the through-line in a cultural revolution that began in the ’50s with the Beats, blossomed in the psychedelic explosion of the late ’60s, peaked in the ’70s with the Beat-Punk fusion, burned out in the neoconservative revolution of the ’80s and was briefly revived by Kurt Cobain and the alternative wave of the early ’90s. Throughout this era many of the leading figures of the counterculture found themselves the targets of harassment and campaigns of repression, yet they still managed to produce some of their best work. I wanted to trace this multigenerational struggle for the liberation of the human spirit with the great author and raconteur Victor Bockris, biographer of William S. Burroughs, Andy Warhol and Keith Richards, and the man dubbed the “poet laureate of the underground.”

PHIL WEAVER: Describe the counterculture’s confrontation with LBJ.

VICTOR BOCKRIS: Key point: the counterculture changed dramatically in 1965. Before then it had been populated by a relatively small, international collection of avant-garde artists in every form, left-wing political activists, civil rights activists, academics and members of the clergy. With the appearance of the electric Dylan and semi-radical songs by the Beatles and the Stones (“Satisfaction”), an enormous new group became countercultural enthusiasts overnight: college students listening to Simon and Garfunkel, and high school long hairs known as folkies now folk rockers. Consequently, demonstrators grew in numbers of younger enthusiastic girls and boys. Johnson had been popular in 1964, even into ’65, but he was forced into supporting the Vietnam war to a ridiculous extent. The brutal, burning napalm dropped on the civilian population, and the well-oiled anti-war machine did a good job of dramatizing the suffering of women and children. Johnson was a far superior President than Kennedy, but his classically Stetson-hatted good old boy image was easy to turn into a bogeyman.

Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy
Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy

By 1966 the demonstrators rarely gave him any peace. Their “Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” chant wafted into the White House from Lafayette Park across the street. Every time he left or came back they were always there. In his mind, they became the voice of the youth. He had been a rebellious youth himself, and it began to drive him nuts. This was greatly exacerbated by his fear that the country really wanted another Kennedy in the White House and the seething hatred of Robert Kennedy. The irony was that the arrogant Kennedy brothers were incapable of getting any bills passed, because they did not know how the Congress really operated, where Johnson was a master politician – probably the best we’ve ever had as President. Johnson tried to explain how the Senate worked, but Kennedy just didn’t want to hear anything from that “old galoot.” That kind of name calling might be funny in high school – not when you’re running the country (and too busy fucking badly to pay attention). Think of how successful the Kennedy administration could have been if they’d used Johnson like a cruise missile. This is a naive thing to say, but if memory serves this is one of the corners of history where the truth was of no importance – image took over. This initially benefited the counterculture. When Johnson refused to run for President in 1968, he later wrote that the hawks of war on his right and the anti-war demonstrators on his left gave him no room to further contribute to the well-being of the nation. It is shocking (does that word still exist?) to see only recently the outpouring of reverence for John Kennedy, despite everything written about him since his death, while Johnson fades in the nation’s memory. This embracing of huge lies is what allows us Americans to go on supporting just the kind of atrocities by our nation we fought so hard to erase in World War II. Bombs, genocide and unbelievable lies shower down upon us daily. It seems that we live in an increasingly immoral nation. Where is the peace movement? Where are the heroes who stood up against all the power of the United States to reveal the elements of control? People like William Burroughs and Andy Warhol. People like Muhammad Ali, who turned his back on many millions and almost destroyed his life by standing up against the war machine when everybody told him he was crazy?

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Andy Warhol and Muhammad Ali. Photo by Victor Bockris 1978

That’s only to mention the world famous. But this is what happens, I believe, when the education system writes the counterculture out of existence. Does anyone remember that it was the first time in history that an international population of a non-military people, with no political or religious base, played an unquestionable role in changing the way we live by bringing down one American President and creating an atmosphere in which the next was driven from office? Also, please note the appropriation of many of the counterculture’s key practices, which have been manipulated into today’s mainstream. Any humanist interested in the well-being of our nation’s history could see the counterculture as one of the greatest, most imaginative, most nurturing contributions we have ever made to the world. The media always finds violence – often created by the media itself – to undercut the best things about this country. New York Punk was not a violent movement, it was very loving, but once one Yobo, (in persona of poor dumb manipulated Sid Vicious) believed he had murdered his murdered girlfriend, punk was all about violence.

Sid Vicious going to court,1978 Adam Scull(CreditImage©GlobePhotos/ZUMAPRESS.com)
Sid Vicious going to court,1978 Adam Scull (CreditImage©GlobePhotos/ZUMAPRESS.com)

Change is always dangerous for its agents, but anyone who watched the carefully managed police and FBI undercover riots in Chicago must find it hilarious to see the peace movement turned into Sodom and Gomorrah, when the shoe was really on the other foot. We still live with the extraordinary conflict of the Catholic Church threatening endless pain to those advocating the joys of love from behind a logo of a guy nailed to a piece of wood. My favorite example of robbing the beautiful truth from the population was, and still is maybe, the image of Jack Kerouac, who wrote the most loving, tender and exemplary celebrations of the beauty of America, being hounded to death by the establishment. America is a beautiful place, but it’s hard to see sometimes because of the waters of slaughter.

Jack Kerouac. Photo by Allen Ginsberg. 1964.
Jack Kerouac. Photo by Allen Ginsberg. 1964.

WEAVER: Can you talk a bit about William Burroughs’ clashes with the establishment in the 1970s?

BOCKRIS: Bill was very active in the early 1970s; he was still living in London. He published The JobThe Wild BoysThe Last Words of Dutch SchultzExterminator and Port of Saints. Of these books The Job is the most political. In terms of clashes with the establishment, everything he wrote and said in interviews continued his attempt to reveal their attempt to control the population. But to be specific, you have to look at the reaction to him in different countries. In England he was protected by his relationship with Lord Goodman, a powerful behind the scenes financial lawyer for many powerful government figures.

Lord Goodman
Lord Goodman

He did not have such connections in New York, but after trying to move back there in 1965, and again in 1972, he had been threatened by the police who were trying to set him up for a bust. By the time he did return, the fall of Nixon had turned him into a prophet, and he was embraced as a king returned from exile. So I think he avoided any particularly overt confrontation during the 1970s, due to his desire to find a new life and continue writing.

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Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg march in Chicago 1968

His clash with authority came in more subtle ways than marching in the streets as he had in Chicago in 1968. His “Time of the Assassins” columns in the rock mag Crawdaddy! would have been read by teenagers and college students, and his appearance at the many readings he gave across the country would have been very influential.

Burroughs’ “Time of the Assassins” column in Crawdaddy! magazine mid 70's.
Burroughs’ “Time of the Assassins” column in Crawdaddy! magazine mid 70’s.

He was also interviewed by the still existing underground press. The name Burroughs was a clash with the establishment. When I knew him in the late seventies he was virulently critical of U.S. foreign policy, but I recall him definitely not wanting to draw attention to himself in public.

WEAVER: Describe the relationship between William Burroughs and the punks. 

BOCKRIS: Burroughs’ relationship with the punks was, as I see it, a vital connection which drew attention to the vitality of his writing. This happened on two levels. First Patti Smith and Richard Hell were both Burroughs fans before he moved back here. She was the first to note his presence.

Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs. Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs. Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe.

The Nova Convention was the big turning point in terms of his recognition, the first time he brought together several new subcultures based in the punk ethos. Then over 1977-1982 I introduced him to Lou Reed, Blondie and The Clash among others; they were thrilled to meet him. He appreciated their interest and enjoyed their company. They were his children.

William S. Burroughs and Joe Strummer from The Clash. Photo by Victor Bockris.1980.
William S. Burroughs and Joe Strummer from The Clash. Photo by Victor Bockris.1980.

However, there was a strange disconnect. Every beautiful punk girl I knew had a copy of Junkie on their table, but they were all taking heroin. It was like they had not understood the book, which was an indictment of being a junkie. It had nothing to do with Bill that a 24/7 heroin supermarket protected by the police suddenly emerged blocks from CBGB’s, but there were bags called Dr Nova. Heroin decimated the New York punks. When he made all those spoken word records, a number of punks contributed. Burroughs’ profile grew considerably during the 1970s. The support of punk, and his inclusion in the punk press, had a lot to do with it.

Timothy Leary, William S. Burroughs, Les Levine, Brion Gysin and Robert Anton Wilson at the Nova Convention. Photo by Marcia Resnick. 1978.
Timothy Leary, William S. Burroughs, Les Levine, Brion Gysin and Robert Anton Wilson at the Nova Convention. Photo by Marcia Resnick. 1978.

WEAVER: In what ways was the punk rock ethos inspired by the Beats?

BOCKRIS: The New York punks came out of the same ethos as the Beats. I can only speak for the New York punks. That is to say, there were three generations of American artists operating under the umbrella of a shared reaction to WWII (for civil rights against genocide and the bomb): the Beats (1950s); the artists of the ’60s personified by Warhol (including the Rolling Stones, Goddard and Truffaut, Antonioni etc); and the Punks of the 1970s, with the whole thing coalescing in the late seventies.

Andy Warhol at the Factory.NYC mid 60's. Photo by Stephen Shore
Andy Warhol at the Factory.NYC mid 60’s. Photo by Stephen Shore

I mean, Elvis was punk; Lennon was punk; Richards, Dylan, Reed were all punks. Punk is Beat speeded up, like the Stones are Chuck Berry speeded up. Blondie, Patti Smith, Television, later Richard Hell, Iggy Pop and on and on were all influenced by Rimbaud and Celine and the surrealists and comic books – just like the Beats.

Arthur Rimbaud at the time of his first communion.
Arthur Rimbaud at the time of his first communion.

They were all influenced by Warhol. The difference between Lennon and Richards, and NY punk was the Warhol influence. My book Beat Punks should have been called Beat Warhol Punks, it just doesn’t read so well.

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Debbie Harry during a Polaroid shoot with Andy Warhol. Photo by Christopher Makos, 1980.

WEAVER: Describe some of the tactics the establishment used to repress the counterculture in the 1970s.

BOCKRIS: Nixon’s administration targeted the counterculture from both ends. They put the IRS on famous counterculture artists like Warhol, Mailer, etc. They hounded Terry Southern, a great writer (author of CandyDr. Strangelove and Red Dirt Marijuana), nearly to death.

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Terry Southern

Warhol was audited every year until his death. The IRS were vicious. Meanwhile the FBI infiltrated the yippies and hippies and caused riots at demonstrations by manufacturing violence. They also sowed rumors like Allen Ginsberg was an FBI snitch. The overall effect was to bring the counterculture to its knees by 1973. Groups like the Stones, Lennon and Dylan rose above the corruption and carried the flag. Burroughs’ return to New York in 1974 took on a larger importance just because he returned to take his rightful place as the King of the Counterculture on the fall of that great yahoo demon, “Tricky Dick” Nixon.

William S. Burroughs. Photo by Victor Bockris.
William S. Burroughs chez Blondie 1981. Photo by Victor Bockris.

In fact, 1974 was a great year for the counterculture: Ginsberg won a National Book Award for The Fall of America (poems); Ali regained the World Heavyweight Crown he lost in 1967 after refusing to be drafted; Warhol won an MLA Award and moved to a new upscale Factory. In 1975 he published The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. If you pause to ask, who else could have used such a title and been taken seriously by the New York Times, you can gauge a sense of how far the counterculture had come. Don’t forget this was a worldwide movement, so these American artists were being given credence as the leaders of the new way of life that would find its terrible climax in 1983.

William Burroughs and Andy Warhol have chicken fried steak at the Chelsea Hotel as Victor Bockris narrates. Segment from BBC Arena documentary, Chelsea Hotel.

WEAVER: Describe WSB’s involvement with magick. Did he use it against the establishment?

BOCKRIS: Bill’s involvement with magic dates back to the time he spent in Paris with Brion Gysin. Read The Beat Hotel by my favorite writer Barry Miles, or pick up his brand new bio Call Me Burroughs. It’s great. In “The Electronic Revolution” (essay in The Job) Burroughs explains the ways he used the tape recorder to change reality. I remember one night he read from the Necronomicon in an attempt to call up Humwawa, but several people there were on verge of flipping out so he canceled it. They really thought Humwawa was gonna sweep them away! Bill believed in magic. He certainly practiced magic everyday. To him writing was a magic act.

Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs and The Dream Machine
Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs and The Dream Machine

WEAVER: What effect did the Reagan-era 1980s have on the counterculture?

BOCKRIS: The counterculture in New York was delivered a knockout blow by the combination of the heroin epidemic and AIDS in 1983-1985, which I consider to be the end of the counterculture as we had lived it.

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Victor Bockris at the Chelsea Hotel, 2005. Photo by Phil Weaver

Of course, Reagan was the great yahoo, but I think the counterculture was too exhausted to confront him, as they had President Johnson. There’s much more to that. Reagan oversaw the great theft of the rich that changed the way America operates. He was a murdering corpse, a kind of Edgar Allan Poe version of Howdy Doody. I remember Burroughs telling me in 1991 that we were looking at a very grim decade. He was always much more aware than most of us of what was really happening.

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Kurt Cobain’s high school drawing of Ronald Reagan

WEAVER: In what ways did Kurt Cobain revitalize the “Beat Punk” ethos?

BOCKRIS: Kurt Cobain’s image revitalized the Beat Punk Ethos:

1. Because his real being suffered as a result of the straight world, and his music and words like “Rape Me” were consequently a universal howl of rage, which captured the attention of teenagers around the world.

Kurt Cobain in 1991. Photo by Charles Peterson.
Kurt Cobain in 1991. Photo by Charles Peterson.

2.  His awareness of Burroughs and desire to collaborate with him were similar to Patti Smith’s homage to Burroughs in 1974. Cobain became the agent of Beat Punk continuity who connected his generation to the Beats. Mind you, there were many other musicians, filmmakers, writers doing the same. By 1995 the U.S. literary establishment recognized the Beats far more widely and positively than ever before. There was a great revival of Kerouac in 1995. All his books are now in print and sell. College reading lists are not complete without at the least Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac. I think it’s pretty much established by now that the Beats began the whole cultural revolution of the late ’50s to early ’80s. Burroughs had his vision of a love generation in 1958.

Kurt Cobain and William S. Burroughs at WSB’s home in Lawrence, Kansas
Kurt Cobain and William S. Burroughs at WSB’s home in Lawrence, Kansas

Each decade seems to have a pivotal celebrity death which becomes a turning point and an international gathering place. I remember John Belushi’s death in 1982 was heard in New York, and around the world, as the shot that announced the beginning of the end of the counterculture.

1975, Manhattan, New York, New York, USA --- Comedian John Belushi, in a bumble bee costume, skates at the Rockefeller Center Ice Rink for a skit on Saturday Night Live. --- Image by © Owen Franken/CORBIS
1975, Manhattan, New York, New York, USA — Comedian John Belushi, in a bumble bee costume, skates at the Rockefeller Center Ice Rink for a skit on Saturday Night Live. — Image by © Owen Franken/CORBIS

I remember Kurt Cobain’s death a decade later was eerily similar, the difference was that there was no deep audience for it, there was no counterculture to pick it up. So the question is what happens then? When the young civil rights worker Medgar Evers got murdered in the 1960s, his death catalyzed the people to rise up. When Brian Jones was found dead in his badass swimming pool at midnight (a great fantasy) in 1969, it made the Rolling Stones the most pain-stained suffering band, at a time in America (early seventies) when the more pain you were in, the cooler you were.

Brian Jones
Brian Jones

I called Burroughs when Cobain died, and it turned out we were both in the middle of reading a short, recently published mass paperback bio of Kurt, which I still have. Bill chuckled in a Burroughsian manner and said he thought it was pretty good. Bill used to get really upset when certain special people he would meet in relation to his work died. He would recognize them.

Victor Bockris and William S. Burroughs at WSB’s home in Lawrence, Kansas. Photo by James Grauerholz.
Victor Bockris and William S. Burroughs at WSB’s home in Lawrence, Kansas. Photo by James Grauerholz.

Of course Kurt Cobain was a Beat Punk. I knew many people who had stopped following the latest music in 1991-1992, but they all had Nirvana’s first LP. And we all got it; you didn’t have to say anything about it it was totally accepted as part of us.

Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain

So Kurt Cobain broke through the surface with his music and his band, but he also spoke loudly with his songs. I’ll never forget hearing him sing “Rape Me” over and over again in the subway, in the streets, on the radio, in the deli, in the cab, “Rape Meeeeee, Raaape mee!” I thought it was so brave.

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He backed those songs up with his body and his behavior. Cobain was one of those stars (like James Dean) who can almost play their way into your intuition.

James Dean
James Dean

Everything he did was a confrontation with the establishment.

Most rockstars do that from the comfort of protection. You felt Cobain was never protected. He was so drawn, he got to look like he was bleeding on the cross. That’s how far he got. Seems like Jesus Cobain crossed a line… oh Lord, where is this taking me?

cobain
Kurt Cobain

Interject: Could the above description of Cobain be applied too William Burroughs? No. They each had their own trips. Cobain’s life was the most vivid line of connection to the beat punk movement at the time, but people did not make as much as they could out of it. Sid Vicious got a film and endless fucked up books celebrating his stupidity. There is also a beat punk connection between Sid and Kurt. They both received the same out pouring of pain from all those little girls chasing them in their black mini-skirts.

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