her feet planted on the ground

[from "The Queen of Acid Punk Rock," by Bruce Berman, Acid Rock, November 1977]

No doubt about it, Patti Smith is strangevery strange! Your typical rock superstar she's not, but with two chart-busting albums out, and with people like Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger touting her as the most exciting act this side of early Elvis, the attractively scraggly singer-songwriter has more than made her presence felt on the music scene.

Patti's a rail-thin, chalky-skinned rock virtuoso whose unique appeal lies mostly in her ability to combine sophistication with out-and-out raunch. Described by critics as everything from "a space monkey" to one of the most gifted performers of the 1970s, Patti's aggressive style moves form heavily intellectual to heavy metal with the grace of a master magician's hand. Brutal but beautiful, she's something of the frail "monster" we all yearn to embrace.

"I was originally a poet," explains Patti as we sip tea in her Greenwich Village apartment. "The reason why I came to rock was 'cause I saw the art was in a bad position. I felt that for a long time I had depended on rock 'n' roll for my life's blood, and it was about time that I started payin' it back. I owe much more than I could ever hope to give.

"When I was really down and needed somethin' spiritual, I looked for different ways. I looked to God, to the Church; for a while I was even a Jehovah's Witness. But my belief in rock 'n' roll gave me a kind of strength other religions couldn't even come close to. For a long time it was my spiritual universe."

A worshipper of personalities as diverse as singers Bob Dylan and Brian Jones on one hand, to poets Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Rimbaud on the other, Patti confesses that variety show hosts like Perry Como, Joey Bishop and The Tonight Show's Johnny Carson really turn her on. "My dad is the greatest, and I guess they remind me of him. They all have a sort of laid-back quality that I admire. I'm always workin' on improvin' my cool.

"Next to my dad, my two biggest live heroes are the French actress Jeanne Moreau and Johnny Carson. If I could achieve their kind of mellowness I wouldn't need no singin', no money no nothin'! Nothing phases those guys. The way Moreau smokes a cigarette on the edge of a bed, or the way Johnny wriggles out of a failed gag, this is real genius. But I guess that's for when I grow up."

Born and raised in Pitman, a small southern New Jersey town near Philadelphia that Patti describes as being "a tougher place to live in that where (Bruce) Springsteen hung out," Ms. Smith was not your typical child. To quiet her younger sisters, Kimberly and Linda, and her brother, Todd (now her group's road manager), Patti concocted wildly imaginative tales. Growing up she was infatuated with black music and black style. One of her fondest adolescent memories was harmonizing to early soul records in the back of a school bus, or dancing to them in someone's (unfinished) basement.

"I was just one of the million or so kids who could do Ronettes stuff almost as good as the Ronettes."

Patti discovered the Rolling Stones almost by accident. It happened one Sunday night when her dad, a factory worker and former tap dancer who enjoys reading about UFOs, spotted this less than elegantly attired quintet of musicians on The Ed Sullivan Show (of all places!). Bob Dylan entered her life when, after a fight with her mom, Mrs. Smith brought home two of the then new male singer's records "because," she told Patti, "he dresses just like you."

In those days Patti's influences were diverse. The Stones and, of course, Dylan. The Doors' Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix were her most obvious guiding lights, but rhythm 'n' blues music and poets like William Burroughs and Charles Baudelaire also figured prominently in the budding performer's education. It was also at about this time that Patti developed her famous cool walk patterned on Dylan's in the movie DOn't Look Now (which Patti saw all of ten times).

"I've always looked up to men. All of my heroes, all of the great artists and thinkers, have seemed to be men. 'Why am I trapped in this lousy women's body' I'd always be asking myself. 'I'm not even a 95 pound weakling!' But then I started learnin' that women can go beyond their physical limitations, way beyond. Ultimately, it's the strength of the spirit that's more important than the strength of the flesh.

"In some ways girls tend to be real fragile. Just about all of the chicks I've been close to—my mom, Janis Joplin, and a few others—have always stood up pretty badly under pressure. I guess you might say they were easily intimidated. But I try never to let my emotions get the best of me. In our society men seem naturally to have their guard up a little more. I don't think it's that guys are actually emotionally stronger, it's just that they usually have a stronger shield.

"You see, there has to be a better exchange from both sides. Guys have to learn to be a little more sensitive, to open themselves up a little more. And chicks have to sort of borrow some of that 'Kryptonite' guard that guys sometimes seem to have a monopoly on. Men and women could learn so much from each other if they'd only open their eyes."

After living on and off for more than six years with the same man, Blue Oyster Cult keyboard player, Allan Lanier, Patti has certainly come a long way with quite an education. Patti confesses that she's the kind of gal who "jes' falls apart if my ol' man cheats on me," and for two busy performers on the road, the situation can get pretty rough. Still, amidst all of the madness that seems to continually surround rock stars, Patti (usually) manages to keep her feet planted on the ground. It's relating to people, and particularly to the fans she adores, that pleases her most.

"In terms of rock they're basically two things that matter: first there's personal accomplishment. That comes when you feel inside like you've done the highest thing possible. And then there's getting your personal satisfaction through others. That comes when you feel you might not have done the best job possible, but when you can still get off on the knowledge that the kids out there really loved what you did to them. I guess it has to do with the joy of giving."

Patti now realizes that when she first started touring a couple of years ago, before recording her two fine albums, Horses and Radio Ethiopia, she was still basically a fan. Although the brown-eyed [sic] professional admits that when she goes to concerts now, she still gets goose bumps and loves to rush the stage during the act's encore, she's found a new maturity.

"I'll do anything to help others make it. Who wants to be king in a country nothin's happenin' in? I get literally thousands of letters from kids all over the world who want to know about writin' and stuff—my mom helps me with answerin' my mail—and, you know, sometimes I feel like Jesse James waitin' to be gunned down. But when I think about it, I really welcome the competition 'cause I'm sort of a gunslinger myself. Besides, there's nothin' like a good fight to keep the ol' ball game interestin'.

"Rock 'n' roll star? Big deal! Sell a million records? So what! I'd like to go far beyond all that. I'd like to be a voice that speaks to kids freely and without fear. Bobbie Dylan did a lot of that back in the 1960s, but it's even harder now. You really have to be courageous, but I know in the end it must be worth it."

Copyright © Bruce Berman 1977

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