Patti Smith was the first artist to make me cry. Intertwining foreign film, religion and history into her work, Patti Smith was dynamic, eloquent and fierce. Whether it was her voice -- plaintive, yelping -- her written word, or her wild-eyed stare, she entangled me. She was the sexiest of beings: a dark-haired thin woman with guerrilla-tactic intelligence who spoke in lightning bolts.
By seventh grade, I'd had all of her work: bootlegs of early gigs and reed-thin volumes of K.O.D.A.K., Ha! Ha! Houdini, Witt, and Seventh Heaven. All of them bought at Pine St.'s Middle Earth books -- where she'd done one of her two first readings. She was fast becoming the literary darling of NYC, but she still seemed like my secret for the time being.
Smith hasn't been much in the public eye over the last 16 years, but it figures that an artist who had produced so much, so quickly, would return renewed and reenergized. Unfortunately, it came after a lot of hurt. Her friends Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Sohl, her husband Fred "Sonic" Smith and her brother Todd all passed away over the last few years.
New works are on the way -- new prose, new poetry, possibly even a novel and a record (due out next March) with songs whose topics range from Audrey Hepburn, Somalia, Kurt Cobain to her late husband.
a.d.: Where and when did you live in Philly?
P.S. When I was a little girl I lived there 'til I was about 8 years old. My grandparents lived in Upper Darby but I lived in North Philadelphia on Newhall St. I think that's north. We moved to South Jersey, Westbury, but Philly remained a big part of my life. My mother used to take me to Leary's Book Store and would buy me a bag of books for a dollar, stuff like Uncle Wiggly and The Wizard of Oz, then we'd go to Bookbinders or get steak hoagies at Pat's. Later I tried to hang at jazz clubs like the Showboat, just to see the musicians, but I was way too young, though I once made it into Pep's to see Coltrane for a few minutes before I got threw out.
I modeled for life drawings at the Philadelphia College of Art on Saturdays in exchange for drawing lessons. The Art Museum was very pivotal for me as well. When I was younger I loved Albert Schweitzer to the point where I thought I'd become a missionary. My father didn't think I was cut out to be a missionary. For one, he believed that going into new cultures would rob one of their own culture.
Anyway, one day he took us to the museum where there was a show of works by Monet and of Salvador Dali. I had never seen art up close before. I was totally taken by that expression of oneself. From then on, I wanted to be an artist.
a.d.: What was the first literature to have an impact?
P.S. Little Women. I really loved Jo, the unconventional one who struck out on her own. The writer. In terms of writing styles, though, it would have been Rimbaud.
a.d.: What role did Middle Earth Books play for you?
P.S. If it wasn't my first reading, it was the first out-of-town thing because I was living in New York at the time, which made it very exciting. Like a first job. They published my first book, too, 100 copies of K.O.D.A.K.
I was 22 and Robert Mapplethorpe and I were living together at the time in the Chelsea Hotel and he took the Polaroid for the cover. Didn't make any money (laughs) but just the thrill of seeing one's work, that someone thought it worthy of printing...
a.d.: I know you were disappointed in Patricia Morrisroe's recent biography of Mapplethorpe.
P.S. I was disappointed more with the tone than the content. It was very cold. I knew Robert since he was 20. That time period, well, we were very young but we felt fully conscious of having a certain calling.
Robert had tremendous confidence in his work; to him it was a gift from God. We were starving, we had no money but we were happy. I don't think that joy was conveyed. His drive as an artist was ignored, replaced only by his sexual drive. That too was very real and very important but it wasn't all he was. His strongest drive was to do work; to his death bed it remained the same.
a.d.: There's been a spate of articles and books on NYC '70s from people you'd think would know better. They all seem to miss something. Outside of magic and joy, what's missing?
P.S. The humor of youth. Writers focus on the hustling or the trampling over each other for success. Perhaps some is true, but one can't discount youth and idealism. The lifestyles may have been morally questionable but a lot of people were very idealistic. For example, some of the transvestites I knew who wanted to be movie stars had tremendous innocence.
a.d.: Seeing your face on 7-inch sleeves and magazines is a strange experience for a 22-year-old poet.
P.S. I never expected anything. I didn't set out to have a rock band, it wasn't a motivation. It was very rare for a girl to be involved in things of this nature, and though I didn't think of myself as "a girl," rock 'n' roll was a very male arena. I did things to shake stuff up. I used to imagine that we were like Paul Revere, waking up the good people.
a.d.: Whether it's music or lyrics, critics often label you a punk priestess. But your material's always been steeped in musical history like The Ronettes, Woody Guthrie and Abbey Lincoln.
P.S. (Mary Tyler Moore-like) That's just writers. We were never really a punk band. We were predecessors of that; trying to create a space for people to express anti-corporate feelings. Rail against the big arena acts and the glitter bands. Bring it back to the streets, the garage. The people who came after were THAT genre. We were the grandparents, the first one to signed out of CBGB's.
a.d.: You mentioned shaking things up. In reacquainting yourself publicly with the music and literary biz, is there stuff you find disheartening or heartening?
P.S. I actually worked harder in the '80s than I ever had. I developed a daily work ethic in terms of my craft, my writing. I finished about five books that will soon be slowly published. I spent time as a wife and mother, bearing and raising two children.
In coming back to a public work load, I think the diversity of the work field is encouraging. Far wider than when I started. More different people, venues, more young people expressing themselves poetically, experimenting -- the children of Sonic Youth, minorities like gays, blacks and women within rock 'n' roll.
The disheartening part is these same younger people are worrying about the business end, the marketing. Maybe it's self-protecting, but I don't trust it. It's not healthy. All this self-congratulation makes me uncomfortable; the press, the awards. People giving awards to each other bothers me.
a.d.: Was it harder to slow down working in public or now to jump start it again?
P.S. Harder to slow really. I balanced myself in the early '80s, slow in coming but very rewarding. I had never been much of a drug taker but I did smoke a lot of marijuana. I gave that up and was drug free, which required a lot of concentration. I had to learn to work again, find my own time, usually before 6 a.m. when my babies woke up. Eventually, I found that my facilities had really sharpened. I find that the things I did in this period are far more extreme than things I did in the '70s.
I'm questioning my own motivations as well. Why am I standing in front of people again? What can I offer them? Is it something they need, I need?
a.d.: And the answers?
P.S. There is the practical: I'm a single parent. I have to provide a living for my family. I am alone without my companion after 18 years. The companionship of people and camaraderie of playing has been helpful. The compassion of an audience. I'm still examining what I can give back. Journalists too have been very encouraging, whether they're concerning themselves with the music or the human aspects of losing one's loved ones. I don't think I have any one answer.
If in a year from now I've basically just garnered more fortune and fame -- the least rewarding aspects of the creative process -- it might be time to withdraw again.
a.d.: Does seeing loving fans bring you back to your own brand of fandom?
P.S. Yes, especially since that brings me to Bob Dylan. There you have a situation where I'm playing with one of my major influences, as a performer, writer. From a very early time, talking about Philadelphia, one of my big things was taking the bus to Sam Goody's waiting for Blonde on Blonde to come out.
Playing with him now brings a beautiful humor to the picture. It makes me think if I could just tap that girl, the dejected one on the bus, and tell her she'd be working with Dylan one day ... It's just wonderful.
a.d.: Sticking with heroes, I read that, live, you'd changed the opening line to "Gloria" to perhaps express an evolution or reconciliation with Christ.
P.S. I changed that in Florence, Italy, to "Jesus died for somebody's sins, WHY not mine?" It's been a long time coming. I was very involved with Christianity in my youth and had grown skeptical of church dogma. But even when I did first sing that song, I was talking about going out in the world and being responsible for my own wrong doings.
As I got older, I did more New Testament studying, especially through Passolini. His words were enlightening, portraying Christ as a revolutionary. I reassessed [Jesus Christ] and realized that he gave us the simplest and greatest ideas: to love one another, making God accessible to all men, and giving people a sense of community, that they would never be alone. It's not reconciliation as much as it is a tip of the hat.
a.d.: Are your children, Jackson and Jessie, aware of your early work?
P.S. The work is not appropriate for them and quite truthfully, they're not that interested. My son's more interested in Metallica and Green Day and my little girl is interested in her stuffed animals. I'm mommy to them.
a.d.: As a parent, which of your folks do you take after?
P.S. Probably my mother but a little of both. My father was very spiritual and intellectual but he was disinterested. Not in a bad way, but he worked hard and had his own intellectual pursuits. My mother was the disciplinarian but also the one who protected us and created our world. We weren't financially well off, so she did magic by stretching reality. If we were ever down or it was a gloomy night, my other, down to her last dollar, would send me to the store to buy 20 candy bars and we'd sit on the sofabed and tune into Shock Theateron TV and watch Frankenstein and my mother would tell stories.
My folks are wonderful. I love that my family has always been a part of my work.
a.d.: Outside of commitment and love, what did Fred Smith teach you?
P.S. He instilled in me confidence and clarity, a calmness within you that made you believe you could do anything. He handed me a clarinet one day, gave me a mouthpiece, told me how to breath and gave me an open atmosphere. Same with the guitar. Before he died, he gave me the confidence to write my own melodies and to play well. He didn't limit you so my field of knowledge really opened up.
With this Patti quietly excuses herself to take care of her child and I feel as if I too have been mothered somehow by my hero. Goodnight
Copyright © a. d. amorisi 1995