Patti and Me
By Larry Jaffee
I first heard of Patti Smith in a mimeographed, hand-drawn fanzine that I must have picked up in some record store. Soon thereafter I heard her on the radio. Punk rock was like some brand-new creation, an antidote to the disco that was taking over popular culture.
Helping to make the last few months of high school in the spring of 1976 a little more tolerable, I connected with Ann, a like-minded would-be bohemian trapped in suburbia. Her dad taught jazz piano, which seemed way cool for Suffolk County’s north shore. She found also her way to Patti Smith, and I remember us going to see her at club My Father’s Place and then somehow talking our way into the dressing room, as Patti held court with a bunch of disciples.
Patti grabbed my vinyl copy of Radio Ethiopia, her second album, and started copying the graffiti on the wall from the photographed printed on the inside sleeve. I realized a few years, much to my chagrin, that LP was absconded by a second-hand dealer who made a house-call and helped herself to a box of “do not sell” records, along with the few thousand other albums I knowingly and stupidly sold. (I’m now in the process of rebuilding much of that collection.)
Ann recently reminded me via email that we had already seen together Patti perform at Avery Fisher Hall, a concert I had completely forgotten.
“As I recall that evening, you and I told her that we had been to the Avery Fisher concert and she said something like, ‘Not our best night.’ Then there was some discussion about the girl in the front row who had to be removed because she was shooting up. (Larry: I sort of remember Patti pleading with the police to leave her alone.) I have to admit I don’t think I said very much if anything, star struck and all that. You asked her, where she did most of her writing and she said, ‘the john’ to paraphrase Jagger. You asked Lenny Kaye (Patti’s longtime guitarist) about the liner notes on the Horses album, and he looked at me and said, ‘you must have been about 12 then.’ Duly put in my place, I just watched you work.”
In my first freshman semester of college, I somehow was able to convince the arts editor of the Hofstra Chronicle to allow me to review both Radio Ethiopia and a live Smith show from My Father’s Place. In any case, the writing is pretty amateurish, and going on about how “sexy” I thought her music was, I come off as a smitten fan, which I remain.
Fast forward to December 30, 1977 and Patti is playing the CBGBs Theater in the East Village, which at one time played host to Yiddish vaudeville acts, as well as rock acts like the Yardbirds, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead in the late 1960s when it was known as the Anderson Theater.
Midway through the show, a clean-shaven, short-haired young guy wearing a black leather jacket, strapped on an electric guitar. He looked like any other punk at the time. The band played a slowly developing song. Patti sung the first verse. The punk bellowed the chorus, “BECAUSE THE NIGHT.” The entire audience realized – by his gruff trademark voice – that it was Bruce Springsteen, who had been unable to play his own concerts due to litigation with his manager. “Because the Night,” Smith’s biggest hit and co-written with Springsteen, didn’t appear on record into the following April.
Back to the concert, dozens of firemen a song or two into the set, lined each side of the theater. After the Springsteen cameo, the fire chief took to the stage and announced that the theater was overcrowded and the show would have to end. Much confusion ensued, and Patti pleaded with the chief to let them “play one more song.” He reluctantly. She snickered, it was going to be “Radio Ethiopia,” the 20-minute feedback cacophony on the aforementioned album of the same name, which Smith autographed for me backstage the year before. A few minutes into the noise, the chief pulled the plug and the show ended. Jeez, everybody’s a music critic.
Ironically, a new friend for whom I did some freelance PR work told me a decade ago that he was the manager of the CBGBs Theater, and the entire night he played a cat and mouse game with the NYFD, which tried to serve him a summons, ultimately unsuccessfully. Cleaned up footage of that eventful Patti Smith concert is going to be featured a new film in pre-production called For One Week Only. Apparently the while thing was filmed, and I now have visual proof of the Springsteen story I’ve been telling for decades.
Later that spring, I was invited to Arista Records for a press conference. Patti acted particularly goofy, and I remember her taking off her jeans, and was standing in her tights. Nobody really knew why. She soon retired for a life in Detroit (see main M Train review).
Fast forward to 1984, and I ran into Lenny Kaye at an event for ‘til Tuesday. Of course, I asked what was going with Patti, and he said, “We only talk about babies these days,” as his squirming daughter was hanging off his shoulder.
While in graduate school in 1985 at Penn State for a popular culture course, I wrote a paper comparing Patti with Sade, as two women who call the shots in their musical careers, despite their notable style differences.
In 1987 I was living in Washington, DC, and managed to ask Jim Carroll, also a poet-turned rocker, after his reading whether he talked to Patti any more. They were supposedly lovers at one time. He became really pissed and stormed off before saying, “I don’t talk to her any more!”
My next Patti moment came when I argued with my then girlfriend/future ex-wife that the photograph on Smith’s 1988 comeback album Dream of Life looked nothing like her. To me, she looked more like Lily Tomlin. Stupid conversation, I now realize.
In 1993, I cross paths with Lenny again. As the special guest for a televised fundraiser featuring the recent “BobFest” Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden, Kaye was asked what else did he watch on public television. “My wife and I don’t miss an episode of EastEnders.” A few months earlier I had just launched a fanzine about the show, a BBC serial about a fictional working class neighborhood in the East End of London. The “Walford Gazette’ (www.wgazette.com) is still going strong. I found Lenny’s phone number in a music directory, and left a message where I could send him a copy. He called me back in an hour, and he and his wife ended up became contributors to the paper, collaborating on a piece called “How EastEnders Saved Our Marriage.” They came to a party I hosted at my apartment for one of the show’s castmembers, and upon leaving Lenny murmured, “You know we have a Patti Smith fan club get together.” He was only kidding.
Around that time, Patti returned to New York and resumed her recording and performing career. I told Lenny how much enjoyed her free concert in Central Park a few months earlier, and I was glad to see her back.
In 2003 I enlisted Lenny to write a regular column for a magazine I was editing about the CD business. Two years later, at a Tower Records CD signing he introduced me to Patti as “the guy who published the EastEnders newspaper.” I chimed in, hopefully, “Do you watch the show?”
“No,” she laughed. Too bad I didn’t know until her M Train she was a fan of British TV mysteries.
Patti and I have never done a proper interview, and maybe one day that will change. In the meanwhile, I cherish these memories of the dozen or so concerts, including the closing show at the CBGBs club in 2006.
By the way, that 3-panel photograph midway through the article was originally published in The New York Times covering the last night of CBGBs. I’m front and center of the first photo on the right, with the same glazed look as everyone else. Could this really be the end?
also, just wanted to also point out I took the photo of Bruce Springsteen guesting with the Patti Smith Group at the CBGBs theater and own the copyright, used here with my permission (but nowhere else).