I was little loose in the attic. When I was a kid I tied do-rags around my head tight. I was scared my soul would fly out at night. Scared my vital breath would make the big slip. some ventriloquist. So I steered from drugs and threw myself in full frenzied dance. —Patti Smith 1973
She’d been dancing awhile when I first saw her. She walked into that Upper West Side party like a Jersey urchin who’d just inherited Manhattan. All in black—turtleneck and tight black slacks. She seemed more frail than she really was, but not fragile, though you could have counted her ribs, and her jet black hair straggled like waterlogged yarn. Her skin so pale it was nearly translucent, cheeks drawn so tight and thin I was tempted to pull her aside and offer her a decent meal. If only her teeth had been half rotted, she would have passed for Keith Richard’s waif sister.
Taking your eyes off her wasn’t impossible. But it was pretty goddamned unlikely.
She glided across the room easy as any rock & roll queen in her beat-up Mary Janes, full of sex and innocence; every eye was pulled her way, every blabbing mouth set off in unison. All the women hated her then—the solidarity of sisterhood was not so firm in 1971—but the men were awed.
Even before the party, I had known who she was. Steve Paul, the blue velvet Winter brothers impresario, had stopped by my home in Detroit a few months earlier with a tape of a poetry reading. I didn’t care much about poems, but Lenny Kaye, a fellow critic, was her backup guitar. Mostly I was intrigued by the idea of a girl Steve said was a ringer for Keith.
have you seen
it got wings
it can fly
I don’t remember what else she read, but she took me right over. In her voice were not simply references but the very rhythms of rock & roll. I wanted to know more, maybe publish a few of her poems in the magazine I was editing. Steve thought bigger–he was gonna make her a rock & roll star.
Sixteen and time to pay off. I get this job in a Piss Factory inspectin’ pipe. 40 hours, $36 a week, but it’s a paycheck Jack. It’s so hot in here, hot like Sahara, I couldn’t think for the heat. But these bitches are too lame to understand, too goddamn grateful to get this job to realize they’re gettin’ screwed up the ass. —”Piss Factory” 1974
Patti Smith grew up in Pitman, a town in South Jersey, near Philly and Camden, whose principal industry is a Columbia Records pressing plant. Her father. a former tap dancer, worked in a factory; her mother, who gave up singing to raise a family, was a waitress.
As the oldest of four children, Patti took much responsibility for her two sisters, Kimberly and Linda, and a brother, Todd, about whom she doesn’t talk much now. (“He’s a butcher or something like that in Philadelphia now, I’m pretty sure.” says her manager, Jane Friedman.) To keep the kids interested, Patti made up stories and acted out plays. When she was seven, she had a siege of scarlet fever, during which she lay hallucinating in front of the “amoebic. jewel-shaped indigo flame” of a coal stove. Her imagination improved.
“When I was young, what we read was the Bible and UFO magazines. Just like I say I’m equal parts Balenciaga and Brando, well, my dad was equal parts God and Hagar the Spaceman in Mega City. My mother taught me fantasy; my mother’s like a real hip Scheherazade. Between the two of ’em, I developed a sensibility.”
The high school Patti went to was “sort of experimental. We had geniuses and epileptics all mixed in.” This may be less metaphorical than it seems: Pitman is in the Pines, a swamp area that lies between the Jersey Shore to the east and the industrial flatlands to the west. It is regarded as a backwater by the rest of the state. Its residents, called Pineys, are known for such rustic practices as inbreeding, guaranteed to produce such genetic sports as epilepsy. Patti told a friend that the incidence of epilepsy was so high that all the kids carried popsicle sticks in their pockets to use as tongue depressors in case of a classmate’s sudden grand or petit mal seizure. Patti’s family weren’t Pineys—they were originally from Chicago and Philadelphia. But coupled with her fevered coal stove visions and the UFO magazines, not to mention the Bible, it must have been a hell of a place to live.
“I grew up in a tougher part of Jersey than Bruce Springsteen,” Patti says. “I wasn’t horrified by Altamont, it seemed natural to me. Every high-school dance I went to, somebody was stabbed.” Her first boyfriend was a black Jamaican twin, but her parents didn’t mind. “My father was busy trying to get God to make the next move on the chessboard. What’s he care about a 16-year-old boy?”
At the time, Patti was completely infatuated with black music, black style. Her fondest adolescent memory seems to have been harmonizing to early soul records in the back of a high-school bus. or dancing to them in someone’s basement. “I was just one of a million girls who could do Ronettes records almost as good as the Ronettes.”
Her rock & roll breakout began on a Sunday evening: “My father always watched Ed Sullivan, and he screamed at me, ‘Look at these guys!’ I was totally into black stuff, I didn’t wanna see this Rolling Stones crap. But my father acted so nuts, it was like, he was so cool, for him to react so violently attracted me.” As she wrote in 1973, “they put the touch on me. I was blushing jelly, this was no mamas boy music. it was alchemical. I couldn’t fathom the recipe but I was ready. blind love for my father was the first thing I sacrificed to Mick Jagger.”