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The Time Patti Smith Broke My Heart

The legendary <i>Punk</i> magazine editor Legs McNeil talks about the time he tried to interview his friend Patti Smith for the classic book <i>Please Kill Me</i>.

by Legs McNeil
Jul 4 2016, 1:37pm

Holy shit, has it really been 20 years since Gillian McCain and I published Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk? Seems like just yesterday we were doing interviews around the clock, getting nearly three hundred folks to tell us the most delicious stories we'd ever heard, and writing and editing those stories into one, tight, entertaining, and chronologically-correct narrative. Please Kill Me has become a classic read. It's one of the few things I've done that doesn't make me shudder with embarrassment whenever I pick it up. Gillian McCain is also very proud of the book, as she should be, since it was an extreme team effort.

But people keep asking me what we left out of the book. There isn't much, with the exception of a back-story about Patti Smith that I think you would enjoy. It's a tale of love, betrayal, and—believe it or not—a muddy puddle of redemption.

I bumped into Patti Smith in the courtyard restaurant at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles last winter. It was weird. Patti looked friendly and happy. She came at me with a big grin, but I just mumbled, "Oh, hi Patti, what's happening?" Then I turned my back to her and took my seat at the table. I was "taking a meeting" with my associate producer Robyn Hale and Adam Goldworm from Aperture Entertainment. As Patti wandered away, Adam asked, "Who's the grey-haired old lady?"

"Patti Smith," I said, before quickly busying myself with the question, "Why, if we're outside on the terrace, can't we smoke cigarettes?" It was a much better thought than worrying about missing all the wonderful people from Please Kill Me who are no longer with us. And detesting some that survived, like Patti.

"I can't believe you snubbed Patti Smith," Robyn chastised me. But I just mumbled, "She's probably so stoned that she thought I was somebody else..."

Patti was on a tour in Los Angeles to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of her first record, Horses, one of the greatest debut albums of all time. She was performing at the Orpheum Theater the next night and tickets had been sold out for weeks.

All the cool kids were going, except me.

"I can't believe you snubbed Patti Smith," Robyn kept repeating, but I put an end to it by saying, "Fuck Patti. She liberated millions of women around the world, she did whatever she wanted—spit, cursed, fucked... She was the first riot girrrl, I mean Patti rocked! She was the real thing! The Women's Movement was theory; Patti was the proof! And then she turned her back on all of that, cause now she's a 'wife and a mother!' What a fucking hypocrite!"

I was still pissed from the last time Patti and I had run into each other.

See, Patti and I had been close back in 1977, when she was recovering from a broken collarbone after falling off a stage in Tampa, Florida. After the accident, I'd go over to her place at One Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and drink beer and laugh and share gossip about what went on at CBGB or Max's the night before. And for someone recovering from such a horrible injury, Patti was a lot of fun.

But all that changed in the mid-90s when I asked her for an interview for Please Kill Me. The falling out occurred after her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, passed away in 1994. I'd gone to Fred's funeral in Detroit in hopes of asking Patti for an interview.

I knew that a funeral was not the place to ask for anything, but I was hoping Patti and I would talk and reconnect, and sometime in the future we'd sit down in front of a tape recorder and rehash the old times.

But there was also another reason I went to Detroit. Besides being cool with Patti, I was also friendly with her brother, Todd Smith, who worked as Patti's roadie and was one the guys I drank with at CBGB and the Mudd Club. I needed to interview him, too, because Todd had gotten into a fight with Sid Vicious at the Hurrah nightclub the day Sid was released on bail for the murder of Nancy Spungen.

The fight at Hurrah was a little known bit of rock and roll trivia, and I thought it was important to the story Gillian and I were trying to tell, since it caused Sid's bail to be revoked and sent him back to his jail cell in Riker's Island, the infamous prison complex in the middle of the East River.

The fight between Sid and Todd was one of those incidents that illustrated the antagonism at the time between English and American punks. And it foreshadowed Sid's death from a heroin overdose a few month's later, which many saw as the death of punk.

I always liked Todd Smith. He was someone I enjoyed bumping into on the scene. Todd was Patti's roadie, and later became her road manger. I loved hanging with roadies like Todd because they were more fun than the "artists." They knew the truth about the "legends" they worked for, and they had an unpretentious take on the whole "sex and drugs and rock and roll" world we lived in.

We were the same age, which meant a lot when we were in our early 20s and all the rock luminaries on the scene had ten years on us. Checking in with each other over the years was a great way to measure our status and to gloat to one another, "Man, we got the fucking life, don't we? We really lucked out!"

Todd also gave me a barometer for what could be. Like, "Wow, you got a car? Motherfucker, I wanna cool car, too! How much was it?"

You know the goofy connection's guys make? Well that was me and Todd.

At Fred's funeral in Detroit, Patti had other things on her mind, so I didn't talk to her about the book. But I got to laugh with Todd out on the front steps of the church and smoke cigarettes.

I told him that I needed to interview him about CBGB and Max's, and especially about the fight with Sid Vicious at Hurrah. Todd laughed and immediately started telling me about that night when Sid said something to his girlfriend, and he said something back to Sid, and then Sid clocked him with a beer bottle...

And I almost had a nervous breakdown, telling him, "Stop, stop, wait for the tape recorder!" I hate when people start telling me stuff when the tape recorder isn't on. So Todd and I exchanged phone numbers, made plans to have dinner in a few weeks, congratulated each other for surviving, and said our goodbyes.

But a month after Fred's funeral, Todd Smith died of a heart attack.

Fuck.

I was more upset with Todd's death than I was with Patti's husband, since Fred "Sonic" Smith's, the great MC5 guitarist, basically drank himself to death. If I had to go to 12-step programs for ten years, then Fred could've too.

But I felt for Patti. She lost her brother and her husband. That must have been a lonely time for her; that kind of pain is physical. Your heart's fills up with puppy dogs screeching in agony. Just to be awake is a horror.

I haven't handled that kind of grief very well in my life, so I'm always amazed to see how friends overcome their tragedies. After Fred's death opened up Patti to make her comeback, I finally approached her at a book signing in Ann Arbor, Michigan to see if I could talk to her for the original Please Kill Me. Plus, I wanted to tell her how sorry I was about Todd.

There was the usual line of Patti worshipers at the Ann Arbor bookstore. So, I waited until it was just me and her, and then I said, "Patti, it's Legs. I was wondering if I could talk to you about doing an interview for..."

Patti reared back, shot me a look, and said, "Show me some respect. I'm a wife and a mother now!"

I was stunned. This was from the person who sang, "Patty Hearst, you're standing there in front of the Symbionese Liberation Army flag with your legs spread, I was wondering where you gettin' it every night from a black revolutionary man and his women!"

Now Patti was playing the wife and mother card? I just shook my head and left. What I did not realize then was that if anyone was going to be mythologizing Patti Smith, it was going to be Patti Smith. It was too sacred a task to be left to a former Punk magazine editor.

Patti's 2010 memoir Just Kids, a romanticized version of 70s New York and her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, would go on to be a national best-seller. The book was a soothing narcotic for every middle-aged woman in America who embraced the fantasy, "What would have happened if I pursued an art career instead of getting married to this asshole and having all these idiot kids?"

Moms who abandoned their dreams of being a painter, or a poet, or a mime, got to live vicariously through Just Kids. Because if there's one thing Patti knows, it's what her audience wants. And she always delivers it, which is why Just Kids won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2010.

But back at that bookstore in Ann Arbor, I was one humiliated guy. I mean,"I'm a wife and a mother now!" Really?

I know some people think Patti Smith is kind of artsy-fartsy, but I always thought fondly of the skinny girl from Jersey who sang, "I'm gonna get out of here, I'm gonna get on that train, I'm gonna go on that train and go to New York City, I'm gonna be somebody, I'm gonna get on that train, go to New York City, I'm gonna be so bad, I'm gonna be a big star and I will never return. Never return, no, never return, to burn at this piss factory!"

I watched her become everything she ever dreamed of. So Patti's reprimand at that book store stung. I never did get to interview her for my book.

Consequently, Gillian and I ended up republishing the first interview that Patti ever did in Please Kill me. It was conducted by writer Victor Bockris after he and Andrew Wylie published Patti's first book of poems, Seventh Heaven in 1972.

It was a great Q&A because it accurately portrayed Patti at that time; ballsy, arrogant, and in love with words and how they were delivered. Perfect for Please Kill Me.

But I heard Patti did not like the book because she didn't appreciate the way she was portrayed. I don't think Patti came off badly in it, I thought she came off as a cool chick and an authentic artist. I counted up all the quotes about her in Please Kill Me and they came out to 50 percent positive and 50 percent negative, which is the way it should be.

See, Gillian and I took our cue from rock and roll raconteur Danny Fields, when he said that all the rock stars he knew—Jim Morrison, Nico, Iggy, the Ramones—were a bunch of assholes, as well as the most charming, charismatic, and funny people he ever met.

Anyway, I was down on Patti after Ann Arbor. My feelings were hurt, and that was the reason I wasn't too thrilled to see her at the Chateau Marmont last winter.

It wasn't until I was working on Please Kill Me: Voices from the Archives, a two-hour NPR radio special that me and Gillian produced and wrote along with Michael Des Barres for the 20th Anniversary Edition of Please Kill Me, that I started to get over my bitterness towards Patti.

While we were doing the NPR show, one of problems we faced was that we did not have actual audio interviews of some of the main subjects of Please Kill Me, including Lou Reed, Nico, and, of course, Patti Smith.

Purchasing those interviews from other writers was fine for a book, but not so great for a radio show. We needed some audio from these missing links to maintain a strong narrative.

So it was while I was searching for replacement Patti interviews that I began to get over myself and that night in Ann Arbor. I came across an interview between George Stroumboulopoulos and Patti that was taped by CBC Television taped in 2013 promoting her show of photographs at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Stroumboulopoulos started off by saying, "There's a lot of death that's a part of this exhibit, but it doesn't feel like it's about death in a way. It's just you've got this collection of stuff connected to other people's death..."

Patti said, "Well, I think it's because so many people I love have died. I mean, I lost in four years, four of the most important men in my life... I've lost so many people that I've loved, and also [I was] so attached to great artists who were dead before I was born. And then friends of mine like Allen Ginsberg or William Burroughs, so many people... And I keep them close at hand... I know physically they aren't here, but they're a part of my daily life... You know, sometimes I hear my friend Robert Mapplethorpe or my brother. My brother is always with me, spurring me on."

Stroumboulopoulos said, "You talk about how the passing of your brother made you a better person..."

Patti answered, "Yes. I said that because my brother was a better person than me. I lost my brother when he was 42. He had a bad heart. And I lost him a month after my husband... and when he died, a lot of his goodness—his openness, his support, a lot of the things that were his—I could feel within me... And really, he resonates so much that I feel like a better person for carrying him around with me."

Wow. I fell in love with Patti all over again for acknowledging Todd's generous spirit. And I swore I'd give her a big hug the next time I bumped into her.

Come to Please Kill Me's 20th Anniversary Party on July 14th at Liberty Hall at the Ace Hotel in NYC from 7 to 10 PM. And listen to "Please Kill Me: Voices from the Archives" on your local NPR station. For times and listings go to pleasekillme.com.