Patti Smith was aiming at once higher and lower than Paul Simon or Jim Morrison…
Patti Smith at Jim Morrison’s grave, Paris, 1976
I first heard of Patti Smith in 1971, when I was seventeen. The occasion was an unsigned half-column item in the New York Flyer, a short-lived local supplement to Rolling Stone, marking the single performance of Cowboy Mouth, a play she cowrote and costarred in with Sam Shepard, and it was possibly her first appearance in the press. What caught my eye and made me save the clipping—besides the accompanying photo of her in a striped jersey, looking vulnerable—was her boast, “I’m one of the best poets in rock and roll.” At the time, I didn’t just think I was the best poet in rock and roll; I thought I was the only one, for all that my practice consisted solely of playing “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground very loud on the stereo and filling notebook pages with drivel that naturally fell into the song’s meter. (I later discovered that I was just one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of teenagers around the world doing essentially the same thing.)
Very soon I began seeing her byline in the rock papers, the major intellectual conduits of youth at that time. Her contributions were not ordinary. She reviewed a Lotte Lenya anthology for Rolling Stone (“[She] lays the queen’s cards on the table and plays them with kisses and spit and a ribbon round her throat”). She wrote a half-page letter to the editors of Crawdaddy contrasting that magazine’s praise for assorted mediocrities with the true neglected stars out in the world:
Best of everything there was
and everything there is to come
is often undocumented.
Lost in the cosmos of time.
On the subway I saw the most beautiful girl.
In an unknown pool hall I saw the greatest shot in history.
A nameless blonde boy in a mohair sweater.
A drawing in a Paris alleyway. Second only to Dubuffet.
Creem devoted four pages to a portfolio of her poems (“Christ died for somebodies sins/but not mine/melting in a pot of thieves/wild card up the sleeve/thick heart of stone/my sins my own…”—if this sounds familiar, you expect the next line to be “they belong to me,” but it’s not there yet).
Then in November 1973, a small ad in The Village Voice announced that she would be performing at Le Jardin, a gay disco in the roof garden of the Hotel Diplomat on West 43rd Street, in honor of “the first true poet and seer,” Arthur Rimbaud. Accompanied on guitar by Lenny Kaye, a rock critic familiar from his job behind the cash register at Village Oldies on Bleecker Street, she read and talk-sang: Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low,” Hank Ballard’s “Annie Had a Baby,” a version of Édith Piaf’s “Mon vieux Lucien,” and twenty-two more poems, four of them about Rimbaud. She was skinny, quick-witted, disarmingly unprofessional, alternating between stand-up patter, bardic intonations, and the hypnotic emotional sway of a chanteuse, and she was sexy in an androgynous way I hadn’t encountered before. The elements cohered convincingly; she seemed both entirely new and somehow long-anticipated. For me at nineteen, the show was an epiphany.