Getting Punked By Patti Smith

I wanted to be Lou Reed, but I wanted to kiss Patti Smith’s barefoot feet, crawl up her white dress, untie the red scarf that she had tied off round her upper arm in an echo of the ritual of the spoon and spike, and worship at the Altar, with Marie, whoever she is, in the Temple of the Goddess. The Goddess who spins and turns, spits and jerks on stage, performing her pain, acting out her outrage at the intractability of the mystery of life, exorcizing the spirit of Gloria on the “spoke of a wheel, tip of a spoon”, incantations bringing forth the feminine power, the sheer sensuality, the glistening wet warmth of the sacred womb that brings forth life and births the poetry and the music of the solemn girls who throw themselves into the volcano of creativity.

Patti is Sylvia Plath screaming Daddy, Virginia Wolfe alone in her room, she is Margot Fonteyn dying swan on stage, she is Aphra Behn spying with a Mata Hari seductress into Anais Nin’s house of love: she is Ishtar rolling changing, reincarnated and bleeding, and screaming “everything I’ve done I’ve done for you” into my ear. “You gonna leave me?” Patti begs me intimately, just me, through headphones and screen as I reassure her that never, ever will I leave her, I will throw red dead flowers at the stage she impales herself upon, writhes and bucks and gives herself over to in a perfect punk offering.

The Velvet Underground started it, but Patti Smith ended it. What Lou triggered with All Tomorrow’s Parties, Patti refined into a prayer for the New York punk scene. Patti threw that party Lou could only dream about as he disappeared into the metal machine music dead end. These kids needed a figurehead for their clipper ship that sailed in from China to the shoes of New York, they needed their profane idol, their intrepid explorer. They needed their painted androgynous Ishtar for the pedestal, who wanted something less Lou, less male, less in yer face cock-worshipping male sexuality in all it’s queer glory, less death dwarf and neon methamphetamine butterfly and a little more honestly creative, not ultimately in it’s exploration. Patti was for real, no cute little Blondie pop nugget, Patti was looking for the secrets in Ethiopia, in rivers she pissed in, and the electric power of the stage and the audience, bringing in that Free Money from her adoring acolytes with Lenny and the boys backing her. It wasn’t just the words, the music and the vibe of her early albums was blisteringly hot.

There is nothing more visceral in rock and roll history than Patti singing Gloria, 1979, live in Germany, moving in ‘this here atmosphere’ in an incantation to the dirty, sexy goddesses of rock and roll, claiming her feminine sexual power over the audience, over the boys who throw themselves at the stage and she throws right on back.

Lenny plays the best noise experimental guitar outside of the Velvet Underground’s Cale/Reed magical weaving of noise and Chuck Berry inspired rock and roll, he can be relied on to spark off Patti, ease off when she is on a writhing screaming expression of the song she is caught up in, playing towards her when she needs some support or energy or encouragement, or else taking over for a while to take the heat off her. He is a remarkably sympathetic guitarist and partner in punk. He knows to back off when Patti pulls out that clarinet, and no one in her band is scared of a bit of noise. Radio Ethiopia was critically panned when it was released because it was that much more musically challenging than Horses, harder edging towards metal. Horses drew people in, Radio Ethiopia spat them out.

The music was as androgynous as her physical presence. Patti has the cock strut of punk down to a fine art, she has the delivery, the snarl and sneer, the growl and the scream. Patti isn’t pretty, though she can be beautiful: Patti is pure power. Yes Patti played androgyny well: she might be infamously, male repellingly disheveled and spikey, but she was a particular kind of hot lesbian wrecked, with her Keef mullet and her wasted frame, and her attitude that pushed her intoxicating anger to the fore, with her girl as boy vibe, her vigor, her spit and her pout which came right from the CBGB’s punk boy playbook. To girls who like girls Patti was catnip: to me she has always been irresistible. Except Patti was not a lesbian. I am not accusing her of queer baiting, more accidentally falling into being mistaken for a dyke. Ginsburg when he first met her in New York, thought she was a ‘particularly pretty boy’. She didn’t do much to dismantle the image, and why should she? She is in an industry where appearance is everything, and she had to find her ‘thing’, her visual hook. Racoon eyed lesbian junkie chic was as good an idea as anything. Patti with her strong features and lithe long body was never going to be Deborah Harry with her button nose and impossibly perky breasts, or as Patti wrote in Just Kids, “I guess I achieved a sort of junkie racoon look” – and she did it very well indeed. The look was not about her sexuality, nor her lifestyle, it was all about her rock n roll image.

Patti was not just queer girl baiting, she was girly junkie baiting to boot. There are hardly any heroin heroines to look up to for surviving or writing. The boys have squadrons of junk heroes, Old Bull Lee commanding the rank and file. Patti even talks about ‘scoring’ – her words not mine – a copy of Junky. Oh? But not wanting to be seen as a junkie, not actually doing the junk or living the life for herself! I pulled out my copy of Just Kids to see if I could work out what was going on. I found my first clue in a scene where Mapplethorpe was chiding Patti the non smoker for stealing his precious cigarettes. She replies to his upset tones with this defense:

“I know I’m a fake smoker,” I would say, “but I’m not hurting anybody and besides I gotta enhance my image.”

Patti was never going to make punk queen if she let it be known she was a straight chick who never did anything stronger than hashish, and then only for writing purposes. She claims to have not been a social stoner, and to have never touched speed, smack or anything else.

The fact that Patti was not a junkie was more troublesome than accepting her androgyny was just a pose. Accepting that Patti is an excellent actress who can put on the look, put on the attitude, write the words and talk the talk, but that she doesn’t and never has walked the druggie walk. Being Jim Carroll’s girlfriend she had plenty of opportunities to observe the New York junkie writer in his natural habitat, in all his glory. The Basketball Diaries was heralded by Jack Kerouac with the huge praise of as at 13 years of age, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89% of the novelists working today.. The Basketball Diaries cost Carroll a hard toll, in his health, addiction, lost friends, prison and rapes in jail and out where he worked as a rent boy to fund his habit. If Patti Smith never did any junk, then Jim Carroll paid her bill for songs like Poppies, Ain’t it Strange and Dancing Barefoot, where she sings:

I’m dancing barefoot
Heading for a spin
Some strange music draws me in
Makes me come on like some heroine

I kept the ‘e’ added to heroin. I want to hold Patti by the hands, look in her eyes and ask her, as much as it suits her now, at this point in time to play pretend that she meant a female hero, not to treat me and her other junkie acolytes like idiots: we all now ‘come on’ is drug terminology, and her intoxicated spin is making her feel high, that the ‘strange music’ hits like smack to the mainline. Patti, Patti, Patti, come ON now…lets not be so coy about it all. No kid is going to do drugs because you sing about it. In fact I did drugs because Lou Reed sang about it, and Pink Floyd sounded like I wanted to feel.

It appears that Patti is pretty straight apart from her image and her look and her drug infused sound and words. Her autobiography is actually quite dull and gives up none of the juice expected from the Punk Queen of New York, and is only redeemed by it’s poetic beauty and unflinchingly honest exercise in documenting her enabling of Mapplethorpe at her own expense – emotional, physical and professionally, whilst skirting around her relationship with junkie writer and rock star wunderkind, Jim Carroll, giving up a little scuzz about pubic crab races, but prettily blurring the day to day grind of life with a junkie, when she was not doing any junk. Heck junk fiends don’t want to live with themselves straight, the idea of a civilian trying to live alongside Carroll with only a little hash to take the edges off the horror and the pain and the grind of Times Square rent boy reality, makes me squirm. Patti is one hard ass tough cookie, any mortal being would need to give into the siren call just to be willing to wake up and do another day. Patti, I salute you, sister, for not becoming another one of Jim’s people who died.

All that said, with all the immense love I have for her music, it hardly seems fair to, in Dylan’s words ‘let other people get your kicks for you’. These are hard won experiences for the likes of Lou Reed and Jim Carroll. Running in their circles, turning in their beds, watching their euphoria, sickness and the ‘songs written across their eyelids’ while not risking her own neck is a little distasteful at best, at worst, it’s junkie baiting and parasitical feeding off other’s hard won and lost habits.

I have to admit that my initial reaction was to call bullshit on her denials. Look at her on stage, listen to her practiced outside of society talk: there was simply no way my Patti was a phoney, an actress, a tourist, a fake. It simply wasn’t possible she could write and perform Poppies, Ain’t it Strange, Horses with all it’s “I’m a slave, I’m free” drug rap without actually doing the (New York glassine enveloped China) ‘white stuff’ with the boys. If Marianne Faithful could give Keef a run for his junkie money, insisting her way into the bathrooms of the boys to shoot the shit with the best and worse of ’em surely Patti was down there too!

It is interesting to watch early Patti performances of Ain’t It Strange, where she stretches out her arm offering it for the needle as she sings “Girl in white dress. Boy shoot white stuff”, which then in later years morphs into her miming the male orgasm as she intones the word shoot, smoothing the dress of the girl in the white dress and redeeming into straight drugless sober society the lesbian Girl in a ragged white with her arm tied off in a red scarf in perfect functional junkie chic. Junk girlfriend of Carroll and Mapplethorpe, with her junkie raccoon eyes turns into a naughty girl at a highschool party making her boyfriend cum, then neatly smoothing out her dress action after the boy of her dream shoots semen from his ‘coffin’. To mimic TS Elliot, in short I was disappointed.

This one action rejects both the drug culture she fed off and the lesbians whose style she mimicked. I wish I could put the photo of Patti in the White Dress that Mapplethorpe purchased for her and she wore in the iconic Easter photo sessions just here – – – > but I don’t want to fall foul of copyright. Patti is the girl in the white dress.

In the words of a frustrated Toni Ingrassia, who was directing Patti in Identity, a one act play, where he cast her as a meth shooting lesbian, only to find she was cardboard in the sex scenes and she point blank refused to shoot even water into her arm with a U100, even a fresh clean one, instead she had to be coached how to mime how to make it look right and slide in between hot wax on her skin and her actual flesh! In Just kids, Patti recounts how an exasperated Toni finally snapped:

“You don’t shoot up and you’re not a lesbian. What do you actually do?”

I am about to ask the same thing. Patti played the lesbian thing well, she played the junkie punk princess even better, she had me fooled. She complains:

“Everyone took it for granted that I did drugs because of the way I looked.

But Patti, you did nothing to disabuse people of this view of you. Not on stage, not in your actions, nor your words, and absolutely not in your creative output or your lyrics.

By the time Just Kids gets to the point where she insists she only did a little hashish for work and not socially and was hiding her weed use from Robert, I was sitting there pulling on my joint, puffing the smoke out the window and weeping at getting punked by Patti. She got me! I mean it, Patti really got me. She has been there for me, year in year out discussing the smack pleasure euphorically filling her anal cavity with warm butter in Poppies, while I nod my head and applaud her bravery. I stood on corners waiting with Patti yelping “Baby wanna score” into my ears from my walkman cassette player…and hoping that the more that Patti wanted was safely in her veins that night and my more would be in mine. I looked at photos of Patti, wasted, make-up less, panda eyes and found my way to rock my own junkie chic and hold my head up, feel a little better about myself with my flat chest and my choppy hair. Patti was my Burroughs, my Jim Carroll, my Coleridge Opium Eater. Patti had the map and the understanding and the courage to carry on. Patti was a success on stage, Patti was creative. Patti was a lesbian and a junkie….except Patti wasn’t. Patti was and is a very talented writer, actress and performer, who clearly wanted to be seen as a junk heroine when it suited her, and was happy to ditch it when she had made a success out of an experience and a lifestyle that wasn’t hers to mine.

It’s Ok. I forgive her even when she is performing Poppies itching as if she has the junk itches, playing the smacked out glazed ingenue. She did the job without paying the price, and however much that smarts, I admire her greatly and even think that perhaps she might crack a smile at the thought of the other freaks in the shooting gallery me and Billy haunted, driven insane by my Patti obsession, forcibly confiscating my copy of Radio Ethiopia and hiding it, because I had played it every day for two weeks straight, the needle going from Ask The Angels to Pissing in a River, carefully turned halfway, then from Pumping my Heart to Radio Ethiopia, thirty, forty times a day. Nothing else sounded right. Patti is a genius, she wrote the perfect soundtrack to the experience while looking in from the outside, and keeping her own veins intact. Let’s face it, though, someone’s gotta bleed and someone has got to look into the abyss: experience doesn’t write itself.

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