watching her grow old will be quite a spectacle

[from "Touch of the Poet," by Margo Jefferson, Newsweek, December 29, 1975]

Now I am going in for debauch. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself a visionary . . .
Arthur Rimbaud

Patti Smith is being hailed as the Rimbaud of rock. The 28-year-old performer and songwriter in fact considers herself Rimbaud's disciple, and her first album is something the debauched poet would understand. Horses is a crazy quilt of hard-rock rhythms and maniacal song-poems about sexual assault in a high school hallway, about the hallucinations that surround a father's death and a sister's birth, about a beach "where women love other women" and the premature deaths of rock stars Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. Exhaustingly intense and often pretentious, the album has moved Patti Smith from cult status as a tough, flashy figure in a New York circle that included William Burroughs, avant-garde playwright Sam Shepard and various minions of Andy Warhol to national attention as a leading contender for the title of rock's new poet laureate.

The waiflike Smith, who wears jeans and T shirts and a beatnik-delinquent insolence, understands that rock thrives on fantasies and raw emotions, exposed and flaunted. "I desperately wanted a god, but I wasn't ever satisfied, so art replaced it, and rock 'n' roll," she says earnestly. "Kids are so hungry -- I'm trying to put new thinking in people's minds."

Patti Smith grew up mostly in Pitman, N.J. -- in a part of the state filled with "factories, pig farms and swamps." Early on, she developed a passion for rock music and religion. She dates her musical awakening from the time that she first heard Little Richard -- "I felt I'd been shocked by lightning" -- and until the age of 12 she was a member of the Jehovah's witnesses. In high school, she hung out with black students who danced to the music of James Brown and the Marvelettes and listened to John Coltrane and Nina Simone. "We were really into jazz and poetry and developing our cool and our walk. It was the best education I ever had."

Self-Image: She wanted to be an artist. "I quit the Jehovah's witnesses," she says, "because they said the Museum of Modern Art wasn't going to be around after Armageddon." So, after dropping out of teachers' college and doing factory work, she headed for New York in 1967. There she met art students, began writing poetry and devised a self-image made up of an odd assortment of her favorite personalities: the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jeanne Moreau, Jean Genet, the Marvelettes and Oscar Brown Jr. She linked up with Sam Shepard -- "I used to yell poetry at him and he'd bang his drums" -- and began appearing in little clubs, reciting her impassioned verse to artists, poets and musicians. In 1974, she formed a band and began writing songs that took up where her recitations left off. Then this year she signed with Arista Records. Horses and a four-and-a-half-month national tour were the result.

Last week Patti Smith opened that tour at the Bijou Cafe in Philadelphia. Punching the air like a boxer, striking mock-Napoleonic poses, chanting and belting out songs, she was in complete control of the swagger-strut-and-sneer brand of rock. Piaf's little sparrow occasionally peeped through, as did a suggestion of Judy Garland's strutting, sentimental trouper. But Jagger and Dylan are her most obvious influences. "People tend to romanticize the fact that I love all these male performers," says Smith, and the most interesting part of her act is her struggle to master all her influences and balance them with her own personality. Fortunately, she is not wedded to any of them: "I got a lot of plans for when I grow up," she says. They range from becoming like Julie London -- "mink and hi-fi" -- to a jazz singer's urge to "synthesize language with a saxophone." Patti believes "that's how you grow old gracefully -- you go from one thing to another." Watching Patti Smith grow old will be quite a spectacle.

Copyright © Margo Jefferson 1975

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