PATTI SMITH – 1975 Interview

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the releases of Patti Smith’s Horses album, which she is performing in its entirety while on a world tour, and a week or two ago it was announced that she and her band will be one of the headlining acts at Glastonbury in June. I wish her well. The first time I saw her, at New York’s Bottom Line Club in 1974, I was intrigued – and then a little surprised when she and her band closed their set with a ramshackle stab at ‘My Generation’. For a few moments I wasn’t sure whether this was a tribute to The Who or a pisstake, but I decided that since she looked like Keith Richards and her heart was so obviously in the right place it had to be the former.
          I knew Patti’s guitar player Lenny Kaye quite well. He was a rock writer, and a very good one, and also a mine of information about New York rock, garage bands and everything that was great about rock’n’roll. He once gave me a Gene Vincent 78 – ‘Blue Jean Bop’ on a silver and blue Capitol label – for my birthday, a seriously fine present, that I kept on a shelf in my flat for three years but it got lost somehow when I left NY for London in 1978. So did quite a bit of other rock’n’roll memorabilia as it happens.
          Through Lenny I got to know Patti, saw her play a few more times and interviewed her for Melody Maker in November 1975 just as she was emerging as a serious contender. Then it all went pear-shaped. The Soho Weekly News, a sort of poor man’s Village Voice, published some topless pictures of Patti with cheesecake captions that were guaranteed to infuriate her. For a week or so this was the talk of the NY rock biz and I felt obliged to mention the uproar in the ‘News From New York’ column that I wrote each week. Patti saw it, took umbrage and gave me an earful the next time we met, at a post-gig party for Black Sabbath at the Plaza Hotel if I remember rightly. In vain did I plead that I wasn’t supporting what the SWN had done but felt I had a duty to cover all music biz stories from NY and, like it or not, this was a story. Patti felt I should have ignored it – and she never spoke to me again.
          Here’s my story about Patti and interview with her, written in 1975 and timed to coincide with the release of Horses. The interview took place in an empty apartment on the Westside where Patti and her band were rehearsing.

Last month they caught Patti Hearst — and so ended the biggest man (or woman) hunt in the history of the US. All this is history now, of course, but it’ll probably be the subject of at least two best-selling novels in the near future, not to mention a major screen movie.
          But perhaps the first outside view of the Patti Hearst case came from New York’s sparrow-like poetess Patti Smith, then a struggling personality in the underground rock scene of the city. With considerable difficulty she raised $1,000 and headed for Electric Ladyland Studios in Greenwich Village and recorded a version of the traditional Hendrix classic, ‘Hey Joe’.
          The inspiration for this move was provided by the words of newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst who, on seeing the picture of his daughter holding a rifle, exclaimed to the anxious ears of America: “What are you doing with that gun in your hand?”
          Patti Smith’s version of ‘Hey Joe’ was a bitch of a record. Opening with a poetic dialogue about the Hearst situation, it gradually flowed into the regular song. It was chock-full of atmosphere and, for topicality, it really couldn’t be beaten. Had it received more exposure, I’m sure that Patti Smith would have been an overnight sensation. It didn’t though, and it never will. About 1,000 copies of Patti’s ‘Hey Joe’ were pressed and made available by mail order through her management company and selected record shops down in the Village. According to Patti’s manager, Jane Friedman, the project lost around $3,000, even though the singles were sold at $2.50, a mark-up of over 50 per cent on the regular singles’ price.
          Today it’s a collector’s item, and no more are available.
          Also today, Patti Smith stands on the brink of success after a long, hard struggle. This summer she signed with Arista Records, and her debut album is out in the states this month.
          Thanks to Clive Davis, the boss of Arista, she is only the second of many artists in this (New York) fringe rock fraternity to be recognised by a record company. The first, of course, was the New York Dolls, whose recording career slumped after two albums.
          But Ms. Smith does not belong in the same category as the Dolls, or any rock band, for that matter. Some may call her a singer, but she is really an improvising lyricist whose performances rush with crazy momentum as each song, or poem, unrolls. She recites with a musical backdrop, frequently breaking into song as the energy spirals, criss-crossing between the two and, more often than not, making up the words as she stumbles headlong forward.
          Her band has been increasing in size over the years. Four years back it was just Patti and her guitarist Lenny Kaye, an occasional rock journalist and walking encyclopaedia on the last two decades of pop in America. Kaye, who three years ago, incidentally, compiled the Nuggets album of relatively obscure US singles for the Elektra label, might be described as a free-form guitarist, as he plays random notes at will according to the prompting of Patti’s dialogue. They understand one another and, as such, it’s doubtful whether any orthodox guitar player would fit.
          Pianist Richard Sohl is a similar performer. Like Kaye, nothing he plays can be predicted beforehand. Recently two other musicians have been added: a second guitarist, Ivan Kral, who, like Patti, bears a striking resemblance to Keith Richards, and drummer Jay Dougherty. There is no bass player — Patti feels a drummer is ample rhythm.
          John Cale was brought in to produce her first Arista album, Horses, which is released this month. It was on this topic that we began what turned out to be a very lengthy conversation last week. “It’s a live album,” she informs me, squatting on the floor. “There’s hardly any overdubbing at all. We just went in and did the songs straight away.
          “In the studio we went through hell. I asked John to do it for me, I begged him to, and we had nothing but friction, but it was a love-hate relationship and it worked. At first I wanted an engineer producer, somebody like Tom Dowd, but Atlantic wouldn’t let him go, so I figured I’d get a top artist producer who would act as a mirror.
          “The whole thing in the studio was us proving to John that we could do it the way we wanted, so we fought a lot but it was fighting on a very intimate level.”
          The result is an album that’s actually far more melodic than the half dozen or so occasions I’ve watched Patti perform in various places in New York. The inclusion of a drummer – Dougherty was brought in immediately before the sessions began – tightens up Patti’s style no end. Before, it was often shapeless and lacked discipline of any kind. Now you can even dance to Patti Smith, or at least some of the tracks.
          Even words were improvised in the studio, she says. “I’m not into writing songs. I find that real boring. All our things started out initially as improvisation, but doing them over and over again got them into a formula. I can’t play anything at all, so Lenny and I work out tunes as they go along. I have words and know how I think they should go, so we just pull it out and pull it out further until we get somewhere.”
          She and Kaye first got together in 1971. This followed a period of Patti’s life when she lived at the Chelsea Hotel, writing poetry and spending time with rock musicians in what she describes as a “tequila split life”. Before that she was at art school, which followed work in a factory in New Jersey, where she was brought up. It was Dylan cohort Bobby Neuwirth who introduced her to the changing musical inhabitants of the Chelsea Hotel. (Neuwirth is currently playing on Dylan’s tour of New England with Joan Baez.)
          “Neuwirth recognised my poetry and immediately introduced me to everybody he knew in rock and roll and kept pumping me to work at it. I studied Rimbaud, too, but being surrounded by these rock and roll rhythms the two moved simultaneously.”
          It wasn’t until 1972 that Patti started making regular appearances in New York.
In 1973 Lenny Kaye appeared following a reading Patti gave on the anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death, and from then on things accelerated. Pianist Richard Sohl joined the ranks and gigs followed at anywhere manager Jane Friedman could book them.
          Which just about brings us up to where we began: the ‘Hey Joe’ single recorded at Electric Ladyland. It was a deliberate choice of studio, for Patti strongly allies herself with Hendrix, another artist who took his art beyond contemporary strictures.
          “We had three hours of studio time, but I just did it like we were on stage. Eventually we had ten minutes left and no ‘B’ side, so I recited this poem and the musicians just joined in and we had it done.”
          According to Friedman, that ‘Hey Joe’ chapter lost about $3,000 as so many copies were given away to friends instead of being sold. Part of their deal with Arista was a clause that no more could be made, so it’ll remain a collector’s item for ever.
          Clive Davis’s interest in Patti stems from his days with Columbia, when Patti wrote the lyrics to two songs recorded by Blue Oyster Cult, a CBS act. The deal with Arista is for five albums over the next three years, and meanwhile she has branched out from New York, playing concerts in California for the first time. In the coming months she will embark on her first proper tour, mainly visiting colleges across the country.
          “We’re a group now,” she says. “We’re together and that’s it. I’m in rock and roll now and I’m proud to be in it.”

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