We are sitting in the Tropical, the darkest bar in New York. Outside on Eighth Avenue it's late afternoon. In here it's midnight on the outskirts of Mayaguez. There is a day-glo Madonna next to the cash register. Above her head is a sign: Absolutely No Credit This Means You. Patti orders tequila and I order gin. Since we are speaking English and are not drunk, we are the object of many crypto-Hispanic stares. The barmaid pulls at the hem of her brassiere through her t-shirt, then pours herself a shot.
"No importa nada mas que toma licor," she says, and the bar stirs with rheumy laughter.
Patti lifts a quarter from our change and goes to the jukebox. A moment later, Tom Jones is singing "The Young New Mexican Puppeteer." Several customers begin to sing along in phonetic approximation.
"I heard you got divorced," Patti says.
"Yeah," I say.
"The Virgin Mary's face is chartreuse," she says, gesturing with a toss of her chin toward the icon that guards the till. "They should have the Holy Ghost on the other side of the register, where that cerebral palsy can is."
"Color-coordinated, of course," I say.
"Yeah. Black and red. Black for sin. Red for defloration. The colors of salvation. They were my high school colors, too. I used to dream about getting fucked by the Holy Ghost when I was a kid. Black and red. Christ, what a shitty football team we had."
"You could always fuck Jerry Lee. I guess that's about as close to the Holy Ghost as a girl can get these days," I counsel.
"It ain't the same," Patti says. "We need a new cosmology. New gods. New sacraments. Another drink. I wanna go to Alexandria, to the grave of Ibn al-Farid." We settle for Corby's Bar, on Sixth Avenue.
I first saw Patti Smith perform in 1972, at a poetry reading in St.Mark's Church on the Bowery. A few months earlier, Telegraph Books of Philadelphia had published her first, slender volume of poems, Seventh Heaven. But Patti wasn't like the other creatures of slender volumes who were there that night. It was not the fact that she had never read Pindar that set her apart, but rather a more visible fact: she had brought an electric-guitarist with her, and he was standing there, plugged- in. Her and Lenny Kaye, two skinnies from New Jersey, out to recast poetry with the nighttime slut-gait of rock 'n' roll. The other poets, mostly being wimps whom rhythm never knew, didn't like this at all. You might say they feared it, for none of them, once they had seen Lenny's amp sitting there like a dark Homeric vowel, wished to follow Patti's performance, and she was asked to close the show. So we sat there, Richard Meltzer and I and two girls who didn't seem to enjoy our company, sniffing lighter- fluid (the audience sat in pews, so there was privacy enough for one to douse one's hanky with the juices of the blue-and-yellow can) and waiting. Waiting while poet after poet bared his soul, which invariably turned out to be dead mackerel. Then, as we sat knee-deep in the detritus of bared souls, Patti and Lenny came on, and Lenny struck the first notes of the Midnighters "Sexy Ways," and Patti opened her mouth and loosed the ratted-hair rhythms of her poem "Sally."
you been messing around sally
and you ain't been messing with me
and juice all down your dress
you been ripping it up with someone
I think you better confess.
When she started to do "Rape," many of the gathered poets packed up their souls and departed.
I'm gonna peep in bo's bodice, lay
down darling don't be modest let me
slip my hand in, ohhh that's soft that's
nice that's not used up. ohhh don't cry
wet what's wet? oh that. heh heh. thats
just the rain lambie pie. now don't
squirm. let me put my rubber on. I'm a
wolf in a lamb skin trojan. ohh yeah
that's hard that's good. now don't
tighten up, open up be-bop. lift that
little butt up. ummm open wider
As I said, this was 1972. CBGB's, which would soon exist a few blocks farther down the Bowery, did not yet exist. (The new owner, Hilly, had bought the place the year before, but didn't yet know what he was doing with it. Before he ruined it, Ed Sanders had wanted to buy it and leave it in its original state. Hilly's first alteration was to paste a sign in the window declaring that the joint no longer wished the patronage of bums.) The Bowery was still for bums and poets, not for people who knew the words to "Stupid Girl."
Soon there was another book. Witt. The band began to grow: piano, another guitar, then later drums. In the spring of 1974, Patti's friend, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, financed her first record, a version of "Hey Joe" coupled with "Piss Factory," a wrathful song about her days at the Dennis Mitchell Toys factory in south Jersey. Patti named her record label Mer, which is both an Indogermanic root meaning "to die" and an Old English word for the sea.
Less than a year later, Patti signed with Arista, and her first album, Horses, was released late in 1975 and received massive attention from the eyes and ears of the media. Radio Ethiopia came the following year, and it did not receive massive attention. There was no Patti Smith album in 1977, and toward the end of the year there were rumors that Arista had dropped her. But in the spring of 1978 there came Easter, one of the most successful albums of the year, and the single "Because The Night," Patti's first hit.
In Corby's Bar there is, for a reason known only to God and Corby (neither of which are here to explain), a faded map of the solar system taped to the mirror behind the bar. A man of indeterminable age, whose physical appearance lends much credence to the medieval theory that all life is born in a dismal swamp, sticks his face in mine and shouts, "Hey, wise guy, where's Pluto? I'll tell ya where it is, wise guy. It's in the upper left-hand corner." Then he turns and informs the rest of the bar in a loud voice, "Fuckin' guy don't even know where Pluto is." The clientele, which seems to have been there so long that its faces are the color of the floor's once-white linoleum tiles, waves him away and groans the groan of Job.
"This place is even worse than I remember," Patti says.
"At least they know where Pluto is," I say.
"And now we do too," Patti says.
"Some people say you have a messiah complex," I say.
"Aw, fuck them. Goddamn psychiatric doubletalk. Why can't they just say they hate my guts or something? People who need reasons to hate somebody are fulla shit. Buncha creeps. Who said that, anyway? -- Hey, look, that guy was wrong. It ain't in the left-hand corner, it's in the right-hand corner! This whole goddamn joint is nuts."
A few hours later, we are in the Bells of Hell, a couple of blocks from Corby's, on Thirteenth Street. I go take a leak. When I come back to the bar, I find Patti in dialogue with Al Fields, the Bells piano-player whose legend extends in rays for many blocks, if not as far as the cold planet, Pluto.
"Hey, nigger," Al, who is himself the only patron of color in the establishment, calls to the bartender, "this girl don't believe I was raised by nuns! You tell her, am I right or am I wrong. I'm Al Fields, girl, and I don't lie. Shit! Is a pork chop greasy?!"
Patti goes to the jukebox. "Hey, they got my record. No 'New Mexican Puppeteer,' though." She plays two Rolling Stones records.
"Hey, you ain't related to her, are you?" Al Fields asks me in his typhoon whisper. "What is it, she got somethin' against nuns? Shit, I'm Al Fields, the Village Legend. You know what I'm talkin' about. Am I right, am I wrong? No, really, she's a very nice girl. She come to hear me play?" He excuses himself and heads toward the men's room. "I gotta go pay my water bill."
"What was it like opening for the Stones in Atlanta?" I ask Patti, recalling the poets who had feared to follow her onstage, a few years ago.
"It was great. When I used to open for all these acts, most of 'em usually made me carsick. I used to think how great it'd be to open for the Stones. One of my dreams. Now all I wanna do is open for Rimbaud."
"He doesn't play the States too much, though, does he?" I say.
"There hasn't been the right promotion," she says.
"What do you figure will happen now that you're Top Twenty? Are you gonna clean up your act for the bigger crowds?"
"Nah. Bein' top-of-the-pops just makes crowds more docile. Look at Jim Morrison. He just kept gettin' weirder and weirder. King's new clothes, y'know?"
"When are you gonna start makin' movies?"
"I don't know. There ain't much I'd really be interested in. A Muslim Star Wars, maybe. The Paul Verlaine Story. I'd like to do one about an international plot to assassinate MOR singers. Get all those Debby Boone-types and wimpy country singers to play themselves. Bang, bang, eat lead, dog of mediocrity."
"What's the next record gonna be like?"
"Very Plutonic. Liner notes by the Holy Ghost. They'll love
it at Corby's."
Copyright © Nick Tosches 1978