Patti Smith ‘A Biography’ – extracts from the Nick Johnstone penned masterpiece

Patti Smith
A Biography
By Nick Johnstone
Published 16th May 2012 via Omnibus Press

An extract from chapter two in which Patti heads for Paris, moves into the Chelsea and has her poetry collection Seventh Heaven published.

Patti Smith is one of pop culture’s true originals. The 1975 release of her debut album Horses signalled the start of a career full of passionate commitment, abrupt gear changes and unlikely collaborations which continues to flourish well into the 21st century.Nick Johnstone, respected music journalist and long time fan, unravels the story of the girl from Chicago who mixed poetry, underground theatre, jazz and rock, and who played a key role in shaping the New York punk scene of the mid-Seventies.

In May 1969 Patti and her sister Linda took off to Paris. Patti’s head was full of Rimbaud and Baudelaire fantasies and Paris provided her with an opportunity to bring her dreams to life. It also offered her the chance to come to terms with all that had happened to her: she had been forced to quit her art teaching course, she had been pregnant, she had given the child up for adoption and she had left her friends and family for New York.
Patti and Linda were aliens in Paris, but as always, their link with civilisation was through the sounds of certain jukeboxes. They met and became involved with a troupe of street singers, mime artists and a fire-eater called Adrillias. Patti and Linda would stand with a hat and collect donations from passers¬by. The troupe’s territory was between the Dome and the Coupole, but they also visited all the haunts that Patti had read about, especially the cemeteries in Pere-Lachaise and Montparnasse.

A huge influence on Patti was the film One Plus One by Jean-Luc Godard, a documentary about The Rolling Stones, that fused footage of the band recording ”˜Sympathy For The Devil’ with slogans that were chosen by Godard. Patti told Rolling Stone in 1976 that: “we were there night and day. We’d come in the morning and watch it over and over and over again, for five days running.”

Legendary film director, Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930-) is famed for challenging the conventions of film. He is hailed as the figurehead of the ”˜French New Wave’ film movement in the early Sixties, along with Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut. A slew of classic and idiosyncratic movies during the Sixties such as A Bout De Souffle, Le Petit Soldat, Une Femme Est Une Femme, Vivre Sa Vie, Le Mepris, Bande A Part, Alphaville, Pierrot Le Fou and Masculin Feminin, led Godard to be labelled a cinematic genius. His turbulent marriage to Anna Karina in 1961 inspired many of his earlier movies and she starred in the majority, thus estab¬lishing an artist-model relationship that ended in divorce by the mid-late Sixties.

Karina had arrived in Paris in 1961 from her native Copen-hagen where she had been a model and an actress in a short film (which had won an award at a festival in Cannes). After meeting her, Godard was smitten with her long dark hair, slim looks, timeless pout and expressive, often melancholic eyes. He failed to persuade her to act in what became A Bout De Souffle (Breathless) because he was then an unknown. Once this film made him a celebrity, Karina and he married and she starred in most of his films between 1960 and 1966. Their tempestuous relationship led to a messy divorce which was addressed in Le Mépris and Pierrot Le Fou. With the exception of the controversial and acclaimed La Religeuse in 1967, Karina acted in a string of B-movies but largely vanished, leaving her cult status frozen in time.

After 1968’s Weekend, Godard rejected popular cinema and concentrated his efforts on grass-roots film-making, mostly for political organisations or causes. Moments of sporadic brilliance peppered his work in the Seventies and Eighties (Hail Mary, First Name Carmen, Detective, Tout Va Bien, Passion) but by and large he transformed himself into a cinematic Bob Dylan, alternately perplexing and dazzling his critics and fans.

One Plus One encouraged Patti’s fixation with The Rolling Stones, and in the middle of the sisters’ Stones fever, Patti read rumours saying that Brian Jones might leave the band. The extent to which she put her idols on pedestals meant that this news was near-catastrophic and, in reaction to it, Patti began to have vivid dreams about Brian Jones.

She once had a minor fan encounter with Brian Jones in 1964 when the Rolling Stones were playing at a high school venue in New Jersey on a bill with Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles. The mood was calm during Patti Labelle, that nobody was dancing, but when The Rolling Stones came onstage, all the girls in the audience began screaming and rushed to the front of the stage. In the crush, Patti, who had a front row seat, was shoved against the front of the stage. At one point, in the manic pushing and shoving, Patti lost her balance and thought she was going to fall under everyone’s feet and get trampled, so she reached up to grab at anything to keep her balance and it turned out she had grabbed Brian Jones’ ankle. He was playing sitar, sitting on the stage and he kept on playing and stared at Patti as she stared back.

The street troupe relocated to a farm just outside Paris and Patti and Linda went with them. While staying here, a pot of boiling water was accidentally spilled on Patti, who became feverish, in the same way as she had throughout her childhood illnesses. “I was in a lotta pain, had second degree burns or something, all over me, so they gave me belladonna and morphine,” she told Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh in 1976. This chemical treatment triggered another vivid dream, which strangely predicted the death of Brian Jones. She awoke from the dream vomiting, and told her sister that they must return to Paris. On their return they saw a headline in a newspaper that that they could understand: “Brian Jones Mort”.

The premonition profoundly affected Patti, who then started dreaming about her father’s heart. This frightened the sisters so much that they vowed to return to Pitman. When they got home they found that their father had suffered a heart attack and was resting in bed. These two incidents shook Patti and she only returned to New York City ”“ in a fragile emotional condition – once her father had recovered. She immediately sought out Mapplethorpe, who was also in a weak condition due to varying minor health ailments. The couple immediately re-established their friendship and moved into the Chelsea Hotel, with the intention of both becoming famous artists.

The Chelsea Hotel was the perfect habitat for two aspiring artists. Located at 222 West 23rd Street, it had been built in 1884, and was originally a chic apartment block. Among its famous early residents were the writers Mark Twain, Sher-wood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe. In 1940 the building was bought by the Bard family and the Chelsea became a mix¬ture of hotel and apartment block. Post-war guests and resi¬dents included Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Arthur Miller, William S. Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Willem De Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Bette Davis, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Rauschenberg. Stanley Bard took charge of the Chelsea in 1964 after his father’s death and a new era began which saw Andy Warhol’s entourage arrive en masse. Warhol shot one of his art movies, Chelsea Girls, in the hotel and so-called Warhol ”˜superstars’ such as Edie Sedgwick, Viva and Candy Darling moved in. Bard’s friendship with rock promoter Bill Graham led to the Chelsea becoming a haven for musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, The Band, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. The cult of celebrity that grew around the hotel would have strongly attracted Patti, as it gave her the opportunity to play at being famous, while studying those who actually were.

Patti’s transition from wanting to be a tragic mistress to aspiring to be an artist soon became evident. She committed herself to writing poems and doing pencil drawings in a notebook that she kept with her at all times. Her friendship with Mapplethorpe had been a catalyst for her, and the more enthusiastic he was about her work, the more she progressed. Her poems from this era were rock’n’roll-influenced and topics unsurprisingly covered such icons as Brian Jones, whose death still saddened her. She would compose poems in the same rhythm as songs by The Rolling Stones, a pastime that became invaluable when she combined poetry with her music.

If Mapplethorpe had been the one who championed her drawings and obsession with art, then it was her meeting with Bob Neuwirth that encouraged her to call herself a writer. Neuwirth was a key figure in the Bob Dylan crowd and Patti knew him only too well from the Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. He was also a musician and occasional film-maker and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Jim Morrison. The legend has it that Patti was walking through the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel and a voice called out, asking her where she learned to walk. She turned around to find Neuwirth staring at her. Once she explained that she had picked up Dylan’s walk from Don’t Look Back, Neuwirth started up a conversation. He asked what she had in the notebook she was carrying. She said it was full of poems and he asked to read one. He was immediately struck by her style and began from that moment to champion her writing. Patti has often stated that Mapplethorpe introduced her to the idea of being an artist and Neuwirth helped her to become one.

Neuwirth, who was heavily connected to the Chelsea scene, set about introducing Patti to residents such as writer William S. Burroughs and singer Janis Joplin. His influence freed her from being seen as just another groupie, and suddenly she found herself intro¬duced as an aspiring poet. Patti recalled her state of awe in a 1976 interview with Hit Parader: “In the space of days I think I had met every rock’n’roll star in New York through Bobby. He tried to open all these doors for me and get my stuff published and he was the one who really pushed me into writing poetry and kept inspiring me to keep the music in the poetry; he said we needed a poet.”

When Patti returned to New York after her father’s heart attack, she had returned to her job at Scribner’s bookstore and her earnings were used to support both her and Map-plethorpe. By the beginning of 1970, she and Mapplethorpe were renting a small studio space at 206 W. 23rd Street for his work. By spring they had moved out of the Chelsea Hotel and into the studio. When Patti wasn’t working, she was furiously writing poetry while Mapplethorpe laboured with his art on the other side of the room. The more Patti wrote, the more she developed an understanding of who she was and how she felt. The process helped her to work out some of her identity problems and she gradually began to come to terms with her femininity. Even though her appearance was chiefly based upon male rockers such as Keith Richards and Bob Dylan, she started to seek out a female role model and found the perfect example in French actress Jeanne Moreau.

Jeanne Moreau (b. 1928) is a French actress who graduated from obscure screen and stage roles in the Fifties to become a movie star in Louis Malle’s Ascenseur A L ”˜Echafaud and Les Amants in 1958. Patti was especially fond of her role in Truf-faut’s love triangle cult classic, Jules Et Jim, in 1961. She told Circus magazine that her second album Radio Ethiopia was: “more like Jeanne Moreau”, who she saw as the pinnacle of French femininity: “I’ve been studying a lot of Jeanne Moreau. She is like so cool. She is sooooo heavy. She’s the complete woman.”

Alongside her continuing employment at Scribner’s book¬store, Patti started spending her lunch breaks at another bookstore, Gotham Book Mart (whose owner Andreas Brown would later publish her poetry). She attended readings there and further fuelled what was now becoming obvious to her ¬she wanted to be a poet, a sentiment that grew out of her Rimbaud fixation as well as Neuwirth’s encouragement. The process of becoming a writer was boosted by her chance meeting with another Chelsea Hotel resident, a young poet called Jim Carroll, who would later shoot to fame with his book The Basketball Diaries. He wrote incessantly and so did Patti, leading to a close bond between the two. For a short period during the second half of 1970, Carroll moved into the studio/loft with her and Mapplethorpe. The apartment became the centre of creative overload and one of Map¬plethorpe’s many creative explosions was to convince Sandy Daley, a film-maker and Chelsea Hotel resident, to make a short underground film based on an idea he had. The 33-minute result was entitled Robert Mapplethorpe Having His Nipple Pierced which, unsurprisingly, showed Mapplethorpe having his nipple pierced. Patti appeared in the black-and¬ white film wielding a hammer.

For most of 1970, Mapplethorpe and Patti had been regulars at Max’s Kansas City, a trendy club-bar-restaurant on Park Avenue South at Union Square. Sandy Daley had introduced them to the hotspot, where the house band was The Velvet Underground, a fact that attracted Patti no end. In between constant trips to Max’s and her job at Scribner’s, she gave the occasional poetry reading at the Chelsea. She also found a new friend, a fellow New-Jersey rock disciple called Lenny Kaye who worked behind the counter at a record store called Village Oldies on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village and wrote articles and reviews for music magazines. Patti struck up a conversation with him about an article he had written about doo-wop and Kaye’s expert music knowledge and passionate enthusiasm for rock’n’roll immediately endeared him to Patti. There¬after, she would spend most Saturday nights at the store where they would talk endlessly, listen to records, dance and drink the occasional beer. As soon as it became clear that Kaye could play some basic electric guitar, Patti began fantasising about their making their own music. After Mapplethorpe and Neuwirth, Kaye proved to be the third major catalyst and influence on Patti’s life and art.

Around this time, Patti met another Chelsea Hotel figure: playwright Sam Shepard, who encouraged her blossoming writing when he asked her to help co-write a play that became Mad Dog Blues. Shepard’s rugged qualities and control of language impressed Patti and he became her fourth major real-life influence. Again, she had stumbled upon a person who could encourage and guide her towards her goal. She was still insecure about her talent and unsure exactly how to channel it. Shepard’s interest, and especially the collabora-tion, taught her invaluable lessons about writing.

Once Shepard’s influence had made its mark, Patti wanted to celebrate this point in her life by getting her leg tattooed. She had a tattoo of a lightning bolt done by an Italian beatnik woman called Vali, an incident she recounted to Interview magazine’s Penny Green in 1973: “When she tattooed me, it was painful. It looks like a lightning bolt … it was a great turning point in my life because it had come full circle. It had begun as an image and then it had manifested itself in flesh and blood.” The tattoo was something Patti needed to do to make the progression of her life seem real, but also to remind her of this magical era.

Her biggest break came when Mapplethorpe asked Gerard Malanga, a poet, photographer and close associate of Andy Warhol’s, if he could pull some strings for an aspiring poet he knew who deserved a forum for her work. Malanga’s reputation enabled him to arrange for Patti to open for him at St Mark’s Church on February 12, 1971.

The poetry circuit was anchored around this venue and it was the perfect place for Patti to make her mark. She immediately enlisted Lenny Kaye’s help, and he accompanied her on the night on electric guitar. Patti and Lenny opened their set with a cover of ”˜Mack The Knife’ by Brecht, before racing into a string of poems, one of which, ”˜Oath’, would be re-worked to provide the lyric to ”˜Gloria/ In Excelsis Deo’. They also performed an early version of ”˜Fire Of Unknown Origin’ which would surface on the Arista remastered edition of Easter as a bonus track in 1996. By the end of the performance, a buzz about an androgynous street-tough New-Jersey poet who looked like Keith Richards and had these tough poems and a Rimbaud fixation had already begun. Patti dedicated the evening to French novelist, playwright and occasional film-maker Jean Genet, whose life and art would always have a profound influence on her.

Jean Genet (1910-1986) was born in December 1910 in Paris. His single mother abandoned Genet to the state system in July 1911, where he was delivered to foster parents in Alligny-en-Morvan. The state’s arrangement at this time meant that a foster family was paid a monthly fee in return for raising a child until he was 13 years old. Genet excelled at his Catholic school until 1924, when in accordance with the contract he was posted to Paris to train as a typographer. From here he ran away, and his lifelong problems began. He was captured and placed into the foster care of a blind composer, and was soon under psychiatric observation, having spent a large sum of the composer’s money at a carnival.

He spent 1926 in a pattern that recalled Rimbaud: he ran away, he was captured. He was eventually sent to be a worker on a farm but ran away immediately. On Genet’s capture he was condemned to an agricultural penal colony for youths in Mettray, and the imprisonment initiated his belief that he was a terminal outsider, an affront to society. He had been abandoned as a child, introduced to a middle-class family and then abandoned again, and finally placed in a prison. He had also developed a taste for theft while in foster care. The only way a convict could leave Mettray was by enlisting in the army and in doing so, Genet transferred from one all-male authority-driven system to another. He served in the army from 1929 to 1936, then deserted and went on the run, travelling across Europe under various assumed names. In September 1937 he was arrested for theft in Paris and, once he was identified as a deserter, imprisoned in a military prison. The sentence and his army duties ceased when he was discharged for mental imbalance and amorality. He then entered a desperate cycle of theft, capture and imprison¬ment that lasted for five years. The moment Genet was released from a sentence, he would immediately return to stealing. He increasingly viewed his spells in prison as his only true life, as he felt he was freed of the banality of human existence and able to focus his thoughts.

It was during the early fortiess that he began to write poems and prose fragments in jail. Between 1942 and 1947 he wrote his five acclaimed novels: Our Lady Of The Flowers, The Miracle Of The Rose, Funeral Rites, Querelle and A Thiefs Journal all of which were based on Mettray; his role as poet, thief (primarily of silk and books), homosexual and outsider; and his endless prison sentences. His myth was cultivated by his biography, these novels and his subsequent friendships with the cream of the Paris intellectual set: Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir.

His criminal past had caught up with him by the late forties when he was almost sentenced to life imprisonment for earlier crimes, but a personal appearance in court by Cocteau gained him an eventual pardon. Once freed, Genet spent the next decade in a deep depression, writing only a handful of plays and essays: his mythic outcast’s role was so real for him, that the cessation of prison spells almost crippled him.

Genet’s writing never recovered and, despite the attention heaped on plays he wrote such as The Balcony and The Screens, he became a French icon primarily for his political activism which centred around supporting extremist political groups such as the Black Panthers, the PLO and the Baader-Meinhof group. His support of such extremists gained him excessive media attention and, mimicking Rimbaud, he spent the years after 1947 dismissing his novels and renouncing literature, a move that Patti would pay close attention to. His final years were spent restlessly travelling like Rimbaud and fighting throat cancer until his death in 1986. He is buried in Morocco.

Patti was fascinated by Genet’s life and the fact that most of his novels were partially written in jail. Genet’s poetic ancestors were Baudelaire and Rimbaud. He loved the adventurous tales of Rimbaud’s life and felt that he too was not a member of society. Patti was open to the roman¬tic – tragic poet myth and Genet was another prime example of a writer whom she elevated to rock star status.

The Genet-dedicated St Mark’s reading was a success and Patti continued onwards and upwards. Her next project was a short play entitled Cowboy Mouth, which she co-wrote with Sam Shepard. Its subject matter was loosely based on their relation¬ship – it was about a couple who were destined for nothing but a short, intense relationship. They wrote it by pushing a typewriter back and forth across the floor, playing a game of creative ping-pong. The play proved to be the zenith of their short romantic affair and, when it opened at the off -off Broadway American Palace Theatre, they were in effect play-ing themselves, a situation which was too much for Shepard who quit after the first night, returned to his wife and vanished to London. Patti found out on the play’s second night that he had abandoned the play, her and even New York. Her reac¬tion to the rejection was to return to the safe haven of Map¬plethorpe’s friendship. She was still working at Scribner’s but her rock’n’roll aspirations led her to start writing articles and reviews for music magazines and newspapers, no doubt fol¬lowing in Lenny Kaye’s footsteps. The first of these music reviews appeared in Creem magazine, which had recently taken a gamble and published some of Patti’s poems, including ”˜Oath’. She also appeared in another underground play called Island, which had played for some time near the Bowery dis¬trict. Patti appeared briefly as a speed-freak character.

The St Mark’s performance had aroused the interest of a former club owner called Steve Paul, then the manager of Albino brothers Johnny and Edgar Winter, two acclaimed blues musicians. He approached Patti with a success plan that included abandon¬ing her beloved poetry and taking up singing. He also insisted that she’d never achieve fame and success with poetry, but only with rock’n’roll. The more he reiterated this fact, the more Patti refused to become what she thought he wanted, which was a bland leather-clad female rock clichéd stereotype. Steve Paul may appear to have an insignificant role in the Patti story, but it was his opinion which once and for all convinced Patti that she was a poet and that if she ever did make a record, it would be on her own terms.

Now that her goals were deter¬mined Patti set about fulfilling them. She collated her poetry with the intention of getting it published, while fuelling her rock fantasies by striking up a friendship with Janis Joplin through the Chelsea scene. She also entered into a romantic relation¬ship with Allen Lanier, then playing with an early version of Blue Oyster Cult, who exposed her to the workings of the rock’n’roll industry. He was to become her fifth teacher and influence.

Sandy Daley’s short movie Robert Mapplethorpe Having His Nipple Pierced was premiered on November 24 at the Museum Of Modern Art. The literal distance between Patti’s voice-over and Mapplethorpe’s image reflected real-life tension, because Allen Lanier had moved into the loft with Mapplethorpe and Patti. The loft was simply too small for three. Patti was still writing for magazines on a freelance basis though she lost a very short-lived job as staff writer for Rock when she sabotaged an inter¬view with Eric Clapton by insisting on asking him what his favourite six colours were over and over again. Her subsequent freelance efforts appeared in Rolling Stone, Rock and Creem, and she often sat up half the night working on her poetry.

By the end of 1971, Patti was more focused and, via the encouragement of other artists and close friends like Map-plethorpe and Lenny Kaye, was able to channel all of her nervous energy into writing poetry. Her tomboy image was now softened as she switched from all-male role models to the Gallic grace of Jeanne Moreau. In short, Patti had found not only a city where she felt finally accepted, but also a group of like-minded individuals. Above all, she had found some acceptance from herself. The year drew to a close with a significant event that confirmed Patti’s growth as an artist: Telegraph Books in Philadelphia published her debut collec-tion of poems, entitled Seventh Heaven. Gerard Malanga was behind this second big success in Patti’s poetry career, just as he had been behind her first high-profile reading. Malanga had been approached by Telegraph Books with a view to putting out a volume of his own poetry. He instead recom-mended Patti, and Telegraph followed his advice.

Seventh Heaven compiled just under two dozen of Patti’ s best poems to date, including a poem dedicated to Marianne Faithfull, another of her heroines. The poems were a clear indication of Patti’s personality at this point, mixing gender issues with rock’n’roll. Underlying the 21 poem collection was a quest for identity and self. In 1973 Patti told Penny Green from Interview magazine that: “All of these (Seven Heaven) poems are about women, seduced, raped… me in a male role.” The poems played with conventional gender roles, allowing her to adopt a male persona and use a typewriter to explore the boundaries of the self. Her initial years in New York City had been dedicated to self-exploration and learning. Mapplethorpe, Neuwirth, Carroll, Kaye and Shepard were all vital catalysts in Patti’s artistic journey. With a foundation of self-definition built, she was now free to discover her true identity.

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