the field marshal of rock and roll

[from "Meet the Press," by Allan Jones, Melody Maker, October 30, 1976]

I had last seen Patti Smith at the party organized by Arista Records to celebrate her final concert at London's Roundhouse in May. She had paraded the length of the bar where the bash was held, looking seriously deranged and reasonably fearsome. I remained at a safe distance. My reaction to her performance that evening had been one of some hostility. As I told Lenny Kaye, her guitarist. Lenny was not at all enamoured of my opinion, and we became involved in what might euphemistically be described as a frank exchange of views on the various merits of the Patti Smith Band. The encounter climaxed with Lenny swinging a punch and getting himself doused in wine. I had the impression I was not one of his all-time favourite people.

It was a depressing conclusion to a depressing evening, and from that moment I promised myself to avoid at all cost in the future any association with individuals in the Smith camp.

You can therefore imagine the reluctance with which I accepted the invitation to Patti's press conference at the Intercontinental Hotel last Friday, preceding the first of her London concerts at Hammersmith Odeon.

Patti arrived late, mumbling vague apologies as she led her band to the conference table. She appeared to be no less manic than she had seemed at the Roundhouse: a bizarre and disturbing figure with her aviator helmet perched like Snoopy's on her ragged head, and her shades, like goggles, emphasising insectlike features.

Her European tour seemed to have exhausted her. She looked tired and drawn, and as the conference developed she became more eccentric in her replies to questions, toppling frequently into incomprehensible raps and complete blurs of words and images. Her wit throughout, however, was aggressive and crude.

It was noticed that her right hand had been injured, and it transpired that she had been contracted to play a concert in Paris the previous evening. .

"The same place the Stones played," she squeaked, "the slaughter house for horses. But then I figured, like, that if we were gonna do this thing, like, where the bigger places we get, which is ultimately the more abstract, the more, like, sports it gets . . . uh, we always try to keep intimate contact by doing a club . . . so we did this club that Arthur Brown started . . . so we waited all night to go on, like, till one in the morning . . . when we finally went on the electricity was all f***** up.

"There was a riot outside so they had to lock us in . . . and then, like, the electricity, everything shorted out and everything blew, and, like, we couldn't get out of the club because they'd locked us in because there was, like, too much stuff going on outside, so we figured, like, we'd have a party . . . "

She paused vacantly and suddenly jumped in again, continuing her jumbled monologue. "The thing is that a lot of people expect for the performer to do everything.

"And I thought, well, look, we can't do nuthin' here . . . There's no electricity, I'm losing my voice. I figured soundwise that the only accessible thing was the drums.

"So I did a drum solo. I did a GREAT drum solo, which I'm sure the English press would approve of because of its technical expertise. I did a great drum solo, but I got a little hot on the cymbals. But it's all right. It won't hurt my guitar playing tonight."

Her sarcastic remark about the English press (it was to emerge that Patti and Lenny positively loathe the English rock press), caused a ripple of nervous laughter, but it was obvious that we could expect little good humour or coherence from her in her present belligerent mood.

Unprovoked, she then began, quite emotionally, to explain the absence of her pianist Richard Sohl, who had not accompanied the band to Europe.

"Like, I don't know if you guys are aware of this but rock and roll is like very hard work. Like being on the road is like really f****** hard work. It's like worse than being in the army.

"You have to be an athlete. You have to be an army guy. And it's, like, really rigorous. And you know, like, the pain and the physical exhaustion of touring was too much for him, because he's a very sensitive guy."

This last comment was received with some hilarity by some members of the assembly. Patti became irritated. "I think you should tell that to those assholes that, like, write for the Melody Maker and the NME who get so hung up with technicians and rock and roll. Richard Sohl was the best technician we had, and he physically could not handle the rigorous touring.

"Getting up at six in the morning, getting his hands and everything slashed, having people rip his clothes off. So sometimes being a brilliant technician don't help you when you've got to deal with like 30 different cities in 31 days . . . NEXT QUESTION."

She is asked about her decision to employ as the producer of her new album, Radio Ethiopia, Jack Douglas (who has worked previously with Alice Cooper and Aerosmith), in preference to John Cale.

She delivered a mightily confused reply to the question, explaining that she had mixed her first album herself, and implied that Cale was not to be credited for the overall sound of the record. "I wanted," she continued, "to do a record that wasn't just like a cerebral experience -- it was more of a physical record."

She seemed to contemplate this observation for a moment and then, perplexingly, weighed in with a harangue about poetry. "If everybody's hung up about poetry there's a long . . . there's a big f****** poem in the record. Tell then if they're hung up because there's no poem in the record that when they buy the record it's got the longest poem in the history of man. It took me four months."

Now this left everyone somewhat nonplussed. What on earth was the woman ranting about? I presumed she might be referring to the title track of Radio Ethiopia, since it is the longest track she has committed to record.

This led me to enquire, since so much time and energy had been devoted to the composition, and one of the essentials of appreciating poetry when recited is that you are able to decipher the words, why the poem could not be heard.

"The poem," she babbled, "I don't say it . . . everything you don't hear on the record because of the bass and drums . . . I've written the poem. In other words, it's like when you listen to 'Madam Butterfly.'

"If you don't speak Italian, instead of getting hung up because it's not in English, you just read the lyric sheet. As far as I'm concerned, I've never been hung up over lyrics. I never knew what Dylan was talking about. I never listened to his lyrics. I didn't give a s*** what the Stones were saying. It was just, like, if I felt it."

This, again, left almost everyone stranded, and in the confusion the original question about Jack Douglas was forgotten. No one cared, however, because Patti was about to become incensed once more. This paper asked whether there was any substance in the rumour that she had been forced to cancel several of her British dates because of poor ticket sales.

"I never read that," she snapped, adding that she wouldn't cancel for that reason. Neither would she tolerate Arista subsidising the concerts by purchasing tickets themselves.

"Does this resentment you have for the press give you energy or drain you of energy?" asked the gentlemen to my left.

"I don't resent the press, man," Patti responded wearily.

"We invented the press," commented Lenny Kaye.

"You were the press," added this paper.

"Damn right," concluded Lenny Kaye.

"I like the press," continued Patti. "The press is groovy, you know. I just think the press people get very pretentious and very, like, frustrated, and get a high and mighty attitude.

"When I wrote -- and I still do -- whenever I write an article, I just write from the heart, you know, I just write like how I feel. I don't get on to some intellectual riff and, like, kaleidoscope it, you know, which to me a lot of press kids do."

"What's the last rock show you saw?" I wondered.

"Robin Trower. That wasn't rock and roll. That was boredom. I guess the last great rock and roll show . . . well, I saw Blue Oyster Cult. That was the last rock and roll show."

Personally, I figured she must have seen something rather more memorable than the Blue Oyster Cult. Could the Blue Oyster Cult possibly be described as a rock and roll band? I thought not. "I asked about rock and roll not the Blue Oyster Cult," I said, encouraged by the copious amount of brandy I had already consumed.

"Well, I think they're a good rock and roll band," she hollered, advancing towards me. "Besides, my boyfriend's in Blue Oyster Cult, so don't start saying bad s*** about them or I'll throw my food at you.

"I like the Blue Oyster Cult. I don't like the way Eric Bloom dresses. He's a lousy dresser. And they ain't physically -- except for my boyfriend -- they ain't the best looking band in the world. But they got the most stamina and the most heart, and they've lived like dogs. I been with them for six years and they've lived like dogs for six years."

The new record she informed us, was a group record. "Horses," she explained, focused much of the attention on her "because, like, I was working very solo," as she so eloquently put it.

"The record," she persisted, "is a group record. Each guy likes different cuts. Each guy had to be fulfilled. There's four men in my band, and I believe in fulfilling the needs and the desires of the guys in my band.

"And, like, the record isn't just a reflection of me. Like, it's all of us. As far as I'm concerned, the biggest triumph on the record was the fact . . . like, on the first record everybody said that if I did poetry we'd never make it, and I said, 'f*** you, I'll do poetry.' I did poetry. Second record, I want to play guitar. 'You can't do that. You can't play guitar.'

"Well, I'm pretty sensitive and I have a strong sense of rhythm, and it doesn't matter if I got no chords or notes. I have feel for my instrument. I LOVE my instrument. I clean it and take care of it. I have the heaviest strings on my guitar than anybody in the band.

"I have my own amp setup. And I'm really INTO what I'm doing. I'm really into my amp and I'm really INTO my guitar. And I got to play it for 12 minutes and ten seconds on my record."

Which is true.

But I wondered whether her enthusiasm for her instrument was effectively communicated to the listener. "It just sounds totally inept," I added.

"It sounds what?" she replied.

"Inept," I repeated.

"Inept?" Doesn't 'inept' mean moronic?" she enquired.

"Yes," I answered, believing it polite never to disagree with a lady. "Heeeeyyy," Patti whined. She threw a plate of sandwiches at me. They missed and hit the fellow behind me.

"Whaddaya mean INEPT," snarled Patti. "I think the record's great. Whaddaya want from me? Ya want me to review the record. Tell me the name of your paper. I'll review the record. I think that 'Radio Ethiopia' -- the cut itself -- is a very sensitive and a very heartful and courageous voyage.

"What I think it is is us improvising alone in a dark studio with a hurricane coming, with the moon s*** on us for 12 minutes and ten seconds . ."

And so it continued, with Patti becoming by turn lucid, then quite hysterical. She told us that she was interested in augmenting the band. She wanted, for instance, Pierre Clementi (the star of Belle de Jour and Pasolini's Pigsty), to play saxophone. She wanted the former Weather Report bassist Alphonso Johnson to join her. She also told us about her family. They are very close. They are also, apparently, telepathic, even though they were quite poor. Her brother Todd, it transpired, is a genius.

"He's great," she said. "He was in the navy for a long time. He's like Leonardo da Vinci. Only in his own stuff. My whole family is like fulla da Vincis. He can do anything great. He's a great butcher.

"He's also a great pool player. And he's a tap dancer. He loves this band. We're his favorite rock and roll band since the Kinks."

She related the sad tale of being stung by four wasps. I presumed this had an unfortunate effect upon her voice.

"Yeah," she sneered. "That's why I'm not a great singer and why I have bad pitch and why I sound like I have marbles in my mouth and s*** up my ass. You guys think that I didn't have any training, but actually I was trained to do opera. I had a high tenor voice when I was very young.

"And, in fact, I did Verdi's 'Il Trovotoree' . . uh, what's the one with the gypsy boy and the prince?" she asked me. "You must know -- you're so cultural. Hey, is this STEVE LAKE here?"

She was asked for an opinion of the English punk bands, and although she admitted that she had seen none she was sure that they were all great and full of energy and commitment.

"Look," she said with some vehemence, "all I care about is that people who perform have commitment and energy, not that they take some intellectual pose. If somebody has real heart and they believe in what they're doing, it communicates to you.

"I'm not specifically into rock and roll. I'm into anything that has, like, pure heart. That's why I like Puccini, you know. That's how I like Stravinski and them guys. That's why I like Brancusi. It's, like, all the same to me. Nijinski, Mick Jagger . . ."

Inevitably, it seemed, the subject of the English rock press arose again. Patti recalled her concerts at the Roundhouse, the first of which, she said, represented one of the happiest memories of her life (an observation I found most touching).

The audience on that occasion apparently enthralled her. English kids, she opined, have a certain innocence and she found it heartbreaking that they were served by such an "intellectual, snobbish press."

"Like, I don't know how those snot noses got their positions of power, because I looked at those kids and there was no relationship to the kind of press that I read over here. I don't mean good or bad press. I'm talking about press people being pretentious and snotty."

Lenny was similarly irate at certain sections of the press, as he made clear to this paper, which had asked him whether critics had become more destructive only recently.

"I don't say, you know, that this critic is good or that critic is bad. I met a lotta assholes here. I met people from YOUR paper, man, who were RUDE, had no sense of how to interact with people."

The conference began to disintegrate. Patti, for reasons best known to herself, began to tell us about performing and just what she invests in a concert: "Everything I have inside me, whether it's cosmic or telepathic or my knowledge about ancient Egyptology, or, like, anything I know about having a baby. Everything that ever happened to me. About being raped, about being beat up, about everything wonderful or horrible. All experience. The temple of my experience is my body, and that's what I use on stage."

She also declared war.

"You can call me field marshal if it makes you feel better," she screeched.

"Call me field marshal. I'm the field marshal of rock and roll! I'm f****** declaring war! A war where everybody's fighting the same f****** war, man! My guitar is my machine gun!"

Snoopy versus the press barons.

Copyright © Allan Jones 1976

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