An open letter to Patti Smith
Published: June 13, 2012
Oh, God, I fell for you.
It was your rock journalism that first drew me. You were writing reviews — and later poetry — for Creem and Hullabaloo about Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. I wrote for Fusion and Crawdaddy about the Velvet Underground, Love, and Gram Parsons.
And then, on the passing of Joplin, you announced your last piece in Hullabaloo. "We are going to have to reinvent our heroes," you said, "because they're dying."
In 1971, I received a flyer from my longtime friend and poet Gerard Malanga announcing a poetry reading. "This was her first public appearance ever," Gerard later recounted. "Patti arrived with Lenny Kaye on guitar backup. Together we worked the room that night into frenzy."
You soon acquired a literary audience and two books of poetry. Seventh Heaven and Witt were my favorites. Your then boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe had taken the cover photos. And then you broke through the other side.
On June 5, 1974, you (along with Kaye and Richard Sohl) recorded a 45 single ("Hey Joe/Piss Factory") at Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios. The recording is now considered the first punk record.
The intro on "Hey Joe" riffs on the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst.
"Patty, you're standing there in front of the Symbionese Liberation Army flag with your legs spread, I was wondering will you get it every night from a black revolutionary man and his women…"
It was an absolute mind-fuck. Ditto the B-side, "Piss Factory":
"I'm gonna go on that train and go to New York City, I'm gonna be somebody, I'm gonna be a big star and I will never return, no, never return, to burn at this Piss Factory. Oh, watch me now."
Completely smitten, I finally met you in the flesh in 1978. I was living in Austin writing for the alt weekly Austin Sun and moonlighting as a DJ on an FM radio show. The punk era was upon us. Raul's, Austin's version of CBGB's, was the hotbed of new punk bands like the Huns, the Skunks, and the Next. You came to promote your third LP, Easter. I was invited to your hotel. I was also a big fan of Lenny Kaye and his Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968, a 1972 compilation. I asked him if the Who or the Stones had influenced the band. "Actually it was Paul Revere and the Raiders," he said. "We were after their 'Kicks' sound."
You and I spent hours talking. You spoke of giving up a child for adoption at the age of 20. When I asked you why, you said you "wouldn't have been able to lead an artist's life."
That led to a discussion about your Jehovah's Witnesses upbringing until we drove to Raul's, where you performed on guitar with the Skunks.
The Austin concert was pure rock 'n' roll heaven. As I later wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Smith made her entrance reciting her 'Babelogue' incantations and took off like a whirling dervish into 'Rock N Roll Nigger.' Austin hadn't seen anything like it: a woman field marshal taking command of an American rock 'n' roll band.'"
> Email Gregg Barrios