Artwork by Brian Walsby
The furious antics of punk didn’t get real until 1977, when Patti Smith fell off a stage in Tampa, Florida. Up until then, it had all been cartoon violence, like a Tom and Jerry episode. When Iggy Pop fell off stage, he always got up, showing off his bloody wounds like some grinning, battle-weary Viking cartoon—and kept going.
But those days were over. Now life was foreclosing on our accrued promises of endless possibility.
I had first met Patti when I was sent to interview her at the Record Plant while she was recording her new album, Radio Ethiopia, and I made the mistake of asking her, “Uh, is anybody from Aerosmith playing on your new record?”
It was a question that someone from the Punk magazine office told me to ask her, and since I was so drunk and unprepared when I showed up, Patti really laid into me for asking her such a stupid question.
Patti forgave my drunken interview, though, and a few weeks later sent me a note asking me to call her. When she fell off stage, she'd broken her collar bone, and was recuperating at home at One Fifth Avenue in the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, Allen Lanier, the rhythm guitarist in Blue Öyster Cult. Patti’s assistant, Andi Ostrowe, would spend the day taking care of her, since she was a lot more banged up then the press reported, and Andi would leave at around five. Most nights Patti needed someone to keep her company until Allen came home from his gig, and I was enlisted to help out her out, in exchange for a six-pack of beer.
I knew that some people had a hard time with Patti, claiming she was nothing more that a gold-digging bitch who had used her boyfriends to get where she was, but I wondered if that wasn’t some kind of blatant sexism.
Mick Jagger was quoted as saying, "I think she's so awful. She's full of rubbish; she's full of words and crap. I mean, she's a poseur of the worst kind, intellectual bullshit, trying to be a street girl when she doesn't seem to me to be one—I mean, a useless guitar player, a bad singer, not attractive. She's got her heart in the right place, but she's such a POSEUR! She's not really together musically. She's… all right.”
Thanks, Sir Mick “I’m-Not-a-Fucking-Poseur-I-Just-Like-Hanging-Out-with-Royalty” Jagger. I mean, when a guy behaved the same way as Patti, he was called a stud. Accolades for the men, disparaging remarks for the women. It didn’t seem fair. Patti was truly a usurper in the male-dominated world of rock 'n’ roll, and even though I was a pussy hound, I was smart enough to see the writing on the wall. Before Patti, women in rock were nothing more than disposable trinkets to be used and abused and never taken seriously. Yeah, there were a few—Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Tina Turner, and Marianne Faithfull were all undeniably talented—but they never changed the equation. They were just ear candy, no matter how rebellious they behaved.
Patti was the first female rock star that guys imagined being. I never understood how difficult it was for a woman to be replacing a man as the new rock god. I still don’t know—it just seemed to me that women could finally be whoever they dreamed—at least at CBGB—which was pretty much my entire universe.
I was naive.
Still, for all her androgynous posturing—spitting, swearing, and sneering—Patti had a girlish playfulness that was infectious—a kind of “let’s dress up and pretend to be stars” quality that I found wonderfully attractive. She was funny, intuitive, and for all her babbling about art and artists, she could gush about TV reruns, comic books, and old rock 'n' roll songs with as much enthusiasm as she held for William Blake and Jean Genet. And I especially loved that Patti could be a real smart-ass…
“See, Legs, ya don't roll it in joints,” Patti explained. “Ya give everyone their own pipe, 'cause it's cooler that way. It's how the Moroccans do it…”
“But I hate pot,” I told her.
“No, no, no,” Patti protested. “It's better for ya than all that beer…”
“But I always get paranoid when I smoke pot,” I hedged, trying to think of a way to escape another trip to Paranoia-ville.
“Aw, don't be such a wimp…”
“It doesn't have any angel dust in it or anything?” I asked nervously.
“What kind of punk are you anyway?” Patti griped. “Sheesh, ya sound like somebody's mother…”
She filled the little ceramic pipe from the big bowl of ganja sitting on the mattress and handed the pipe to me with a look that said, “Smoke it and shut the fuck up!”
I was out of beer, and Patti hadn't been to the bank for a while—unfortunately, that day she had spent the last of her cash on groceries to make couscous, a foul-looking concoction, for a late lunch. These being the days before ATMs, it didn't look like she'd be buying me my usual six-pack, my standard payment for babysitting her.
Even though Patti was already a rock 'n’ roll legend in that spring of 1977, she didn't fully appreciate the “wonders” of beer and was always trying to convert me to the heightened spiritual experience of marijuana, that stupid green weed that smells worse than my sneakers. But Patti wouldn’t roll it into joints—she kept the big bowl of ganja always within her reach—and provided her guest’s ceramic pipes to fill from her bottomless bowl of buds. Patti didn’t like sharing.
I was usually successful in finding excuses for not smoking her shit, but that day they had run out of it—as well as the beer.
“See, it's good for ya….”
Ten minutes after I finished the pipe, my brains were running out of my ears. This stuff was so wacked it didn't need any extra ingredients. We were watching Mothra, the ridiculously bad Japanese monster movie about a giant moth controlled by two miniature geisha girls who live inside a clam shell and always speak the same sing-song sentences in unison. Whenever Patti would see the giant moth, she'd tell me about shopping at Bloomingdale’s for cashmere sweaters, and running into this snotty salesgirl who gave her a hard time, and telling the bitch she’d take them all—and how good it felt to show that she was somebody.
And I couldn't take any more.
“Patti, what is this shit?” Whatta stupid question. I could see the words coming out of my mouth.
“Whatta ya think?” Patti groused, wiggling her neck brace since she couldn’t shake her head. “That I'm gonna smoke some homegrown bullshit?”
Patti was disgusted with my lack of cool, and very disapproving of my eyes dripping out of their sockets and bouncing off the floor while different clumps of brains shot through weak points of my skull. Then booster rockets fired—and long spaghetti threads of my cerebellum shot up to the ceiling, where they sat like molten spitballs, grew eyes, and stared down at me. The “me” who was still sitting on the cushion on the floor—melting. My fingers dripped off. My sneakers were grinning at me. But worse was that Patti was lying there, giggling at my drug-induced hysteria.
“I think my head's shrinking!”
“Then ya probably need it,” Patti nodded. “Ya know what William Burroughs said about his trips on yage, the psychedelic drug from South America…"
The blood in my head was rushing and running. I stared at Patti and said in desperation, “What I need is a beer…”
“Aw, don't start…”
Realizing that Patti couldn’t sympathize with my whacked-condition, I understood that I was on my own. I looked around the sparse luxury apartment and noticed a portable stereo record played on the floor next to Patti’s mattress.
What I need is some music, I thought as Patti went on about a dream she had about running naked through the desert with Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia… There was a copy of her first album, Horses, lying on the floor next to a turntable and speakers. I grabbed it up and put the needle down…
“JEZZZZUS DIIIED FOR SUUMEBODY'S SINS, BUT NOT MIIINE…”
Suddenly, my body stopped dripping and came to attention. My brains were still out there, but now focused on the force, busy giving orders to start moving in time…
“I GO TO THIS HERE PAAARTY, AND I JUST GET BOOOORED…. UNTIL I LOOK OUT THE WINDOW, SEE A SWEEET YOUNG THIIANG… HUMPING ON THE PARKING METER, LEANING ON THE PARKING METER…”
Yeah, the attitude was back. Fuck this pot bullshit, I wanted to kick some ass. Man, oh man, it was all there on that record…
“OHHH SHE LOOKED SO GOOOOO, OHHH SHE LOOKED, SO FIIIINE AND I GOT THIS CRAZY FEELING THAT I'M GONNA, UH, UH, MAKE HER MINE…”
I was gone again—fists clenched—arms straight out in front—pulling and tugging—mouth leering and sneering—legs spread and poised in belligerence—and my hair flopping in my face, just right! Yeah, I was becoming Patti on stage, even if it was just in my own mind. Yeah, the Patti who captured the cool so expertly—that skinny little girl from South Jersey who wanted to be Keith Richards.
“OHHHH, SHE WAS SO GOOOOD, OHHHH, SHE WAS SO FIIINE…”
I was so stoned that I forgot I wasn't in my own bedroom listening to tunes, performing in front of my mirror. I took my head out of the speakers and looked over at Patti lying there on the mattress on the floor—wearing the white neck brace, a sweaty, gray, sleeveless T-shirt and black sweat pants—and her entire body was convulsing in laughter.
“Legs, Legs, stop it! I can't laugh, it hurts my neck!”
Patti's head was bouncing in hysterics as I spelled out every letter with my hand, daring her to take 'em away.
“Where's the beer, Patti?”
“Stop, it hurts!"
“Where’s the beer?” I taunted her. “And not just any beer, but 16-ouncers!”
“Stop! Stop! Stop!
“DO YA KNOW HOW TA PONY? LIKE BONY MAROONY?"
I don't remember if she ever bought more beer. I only know that Patti Smith kicked ass so hard she knocked down the whole fucking wall.
As I said earlier, Patt was the first woman in rock 'n’ roll that guys aspired to be. She was the first woman to get it down so good that it didn't matter what fucking planet she was from. Patti kicked gender in the balls. In the process, she opened the door for every woman who looked up on the stage and refused to imagine herself down on her knees, blowing the rock god—and instead saw herself firm on her feet, becoming one.
Back in 1975, Legs McNeil co-founded Punk magazine, which is part of the reason you even know what that word means. He also wrote Please Kill Me, which basically makes him the Studs Terkel of punk rock. In addition to his work as a columnist for VICE, he continues to write for his personal blog, PleaseKillMe.com. You should also follow him on Twitter.
Previously: Dirty Water—The Story of the Standells