Patti Smith saved my life. Not metaphorically, not in abstract, not figuratively, but directly and indisputably in the way that only a lonely, too-smart teenager imprisoned in the hostile environment of a small, isolated and hopelessly Lynyrd Skynyrd desert town can swear that her life has been saved by a distant ray of hope emanating from a culture hero out there who is actually speaking the unspeakable. Smith was that figure, the one who was living the life, putting it down on paper and sending enthusiastic reports back into the void, where fellow misfits waited, breathlessly, to hear more.
When I was a teenager--this was before Smith picked up a guitar--I knew and avidly followed Smith's writing in the seminal and irreverent rock publications Creem and Crawdaddy. Her very existence confirmed what I suspected: There were lives being lived for art and music and poetry's sake alone. Like her fellow rock writers Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer, Smith was part of the show. A captivating character, she was obsessed with music, personalities and poetry. She wrote with vehemence, as if all the demons of hell were grabbing at her heels, as if the salvation of her immortal soul--and ours--depended on it. Smith was one of the few girls allowed into the rock 'n' roll writers' Boys Club, along with the nearly forgotten rock-girl writer-pioneer Jaan Uhelski and the late Lillian Roxon.
Around 1975, at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, I picked up two slim (each less than 50 pages) volumes of poetry by Smith: "Witt" and "Seventh Heaven." These books have traveled with me all over the world and through all of my own incarnations since--from early punk rocker to unhappy housewife to college professor. Twenty-three years later, I'd grab them first if my house were to catch fire. Photos on the cover of each book portray a compelling and sexually ambiguous creature, a young Smith, the fierce girl-boy outlaw of poetry and rock 'n' roll. The work was, if not ahead of its time, right at the most cutting edge.
Smith spun passionate, rhythmic tales of longing, betrayal, love, loss and antiheroism, which were sprinkled liberally with her unabashed fandom, her veneration and salutation of artistic and cultural genius. Sometimes the work makes up with enthusiasm what it lacks in craft. Smith's trademark wordplay runs throughout that early work. Figures as disparate as Edie Sedgwick, Georgia O'Keeffe, Carole Lombard, Brian Jones, Anita Pallenberg, Mark Rothko and Arthur Rimbaud waft through the pieces. At the beginning of "Witt," in an introductory rant titled "Notice," Smith declares:
"These ravings, observations, etc. come from one who, beyond vows, is without mother, gender, or country, who attempts to bleed from the word a system, a space base, no rock island but a body of phrases with all the promise of top soil or a star. a core: a center that will hold, blossom and vein the atmosphere with vascular tissue beams that illuminate and reveal."
The foolhardy bravado of youth? Perhaps, but a promise that Smith seems to have done her best to honor during subsequent years. One never gets the feeling that she has ever done anything so much as remain true to her own blazingly personal vision--a path whose foundation is built on the utter force of her convictions and a belief in her ideas, her words, her heroes, creating a mix that happens to be absolutely spellbinding.
Smith first appeared in New York out of working-class New Jersey in the late '60s, a refugee from a teacher's college looking to live an artist's life in Chelsea with her then-boyfriend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. They hung around the periphery of Warhol's Factory scene, hoping fruitlessly to be noticed and turned into Superstars. They buzzed around another epicenter of early '70s underground culture, Max's Kansas City, night after night, having been refused admission there too. Smith and Mapplethorpe eventually won acceptance through sheer persistence and talent.
Lee Childers, a photographer of that demimonde, recalled in "Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk" by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain (Grove Press, 1996) that Smith and Mapplethorpe would be turned away from Max's for having the wrong "look" but, instead of shrinking off into the night, would resolutely plant themselves on the curb outside the club "and talk to everyone as they came and went. . . . I admired Patti's guts to sit there and say, 'This is where I want to go, and if they don't let me in, I'm just going to sit out front.' It was a very punk attitude way before there was a punk attitude."