Soon after moving to New York City, Patti Smith met photographer Robert Mapplethorpe—who shared a room with her in the Chelsea Hotel and later shot the iconic cover photo for her debut album, Horses; along the way she appeared in Off-Off-Broadway shows (at La MaMa and elsewhere) and performed poetry in various downtown locations.
Much of the pop music Debbie Harry and Patti Smith listened to as adolescents was a product of record companies and song publishers that were located in the midtown area. The music industry was concentrated around the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, which was packed with songwriters who pitched their musical products to hit-seeking record labels. Midtown was also Manhattan’s primary entertainment district, where popular and highbrow fare could be enjoyed in Broadway theaters, Radio City Music Hall, and Carnegie Hall. Additionally, the area had several large movie palaces, such as the Bryant Theatre on Forty-Second Street.
From the Introduction of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith’s longtime musical collaborator, was also bitten by the rock ’n’ roll bug at an early age. Born in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, he moved around with his parents to the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn before settling in North Brunswick, New Jersey, as a teen. “Growing up in New York,” Kaye said, “most of the music that came to me was seeing the older kids sing doo-wop on the corner, but of course you’re also very close to the cultural centers of Greenwich Village. Even though I was too young to go there, you felt part of the cultural crosstalk in the city.” Most doo-wop groups around New York during the Brill Building era were basically street bands—young men who sang on corners and in school talent shows and recreation centers. “I hoped that I would be a high tenor in a doo-wop group, and that’s what singing on the corner is about,” Kaye said. “But it was mostly for fun and we weren’t very serious about it.” This was also true of future Ramones frontman Joey Ramone (born Jeffrey Hyman) and his little brother Mickey Leigh (Mitchel Lee Hyman), who as kids heard the sounds of doo-wop street singers creeping into their bedroom. Their window faced another building across the alley, which created an echo, so kids would congregate there to sing songs like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens. Pointing out the affinities between doo-wop and 1970s punk groups, Leigh said, “Those teenagers who were singing doo-wop in the street, you could say that was the first manifestation of DIY groups. They didn’t really need anything. They just needed a bunch of guys, and they figured out who was going to sing which parts.” Kaye also believes that the appeal of early doo-wop had to do with its accessibility. “If you weren’t trained to be a classical musician, you could sing on the corner emulating the records that you heard on the radio,” he said. “It was a sense that I think punk would also access—that you didn’t have go through a conservatory to make the music.”
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Patti Smith was another New Jersey native who grew up on rock ’n’ roll. The flamboyantly queer rhythm and blues pioneer Little Richard first rocked her world, introducing the young tomboy to androgyny. Later, in Patti’s teen years, Factory superstar Edie Sedgwick made a similar impression with her boylike stick figure. Recalling the time she first saw Sedgwick in Vogue magazine during the mid-1960s, Smith described her as looking like a thin man in black leotards. “That’s it. It represented everything to me,” she recalled, “radiating intelligence, speed, being connected with the moment.” Smith saw Sedgwick in person during the fall of 1965, when she accompanied Andy Warhol to the opening of his first retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. “Edie Sedgwick with the blonde hair and dark eyebrows,” Patti recalled, “she didn’t mess around. She was really something.”
Recalling Jackie Curtis’s Femme Fatale play at La MaMa, Jayne County said Patti Smith “played a mafia dyke with a mustache and a really ridiculous Italian accent, like ‘Heeeeeey, wassa matta, you fuck-a-wid me, I blow-a ya fuckin’ brains out!’ She had a big phallus hanging between her legs and she was always picking it up and waving it at people.” The ambiguously gendered Smith also shot-gunned lines like “He could take her or leave her. And he took her and then he left her.” At the end of Femme Fatale, the cast crucified Curtis’s character by stapling her to a giant IBM computer punch-card as one character said, “Christ, you’re hung!” While Curtis put on an unforgettable act, it was Smith who struck audience member Lenny Kaye as one of the show’s breakout performers. “It was pretty sweet,” the future Patti Smith Group guitarist recalled. “I immediately thought she was one of the most engaging persons I’d ever seen, and I didn’t even get to meet her that time. I just remember seeing her from afar. She was with Robert Mapplethorpe, and was a gloriously charismatic person with a lot of style.”
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Wendy Clarke felt that the Chelsea was a great place for her mother, Shirley Clarke, because it connected her to other like-minded souls. “It was the perfect lifestyle for her,” she said. “The lobby was like your living room, so you can sit in the lobby for hours and just have conversations with the most amazing people—Jonas Mekas, Divine, the guys who did Hair, Jim Rado and Gerry Ragni.” Just off the lobby was El Quijote, a Spanish restaurant and bar that served inexpensive lobster and was a popular hangout. Smith wandered in one night and came across Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, and other rockers who were downing mounds of shrimp, paella, sangria, and bottles of tequila. She was amazed, but didn’t feel like an interloper because they were on her turf.
Patti Smith was wary of the Warhol scene, but she supported Robert Mapplethorpe’s desire to break into that world. This led them to what she called the downtown’s “Bermuda Triangle”: Brownie’s vegetarian restaurant, Max’s Kansas City, and Warhol’s Factory, which were within walking distance of one another. Warhol had become reclusive after he was shot by Valerie Solanas, but the back room of Max’s remained one of the downtown scene’s hot spots. Its social politics were reminiscent of high school, though the popular people were not jocks and prom queens, but rather drag queens (who, as Smith observed, knew more about being a girl than most females). Mapplethorpe and Smith sat for hours nursing twenty-five cent coffees or a Coke as they slowly edged their way into the dark, red-lit cabaret that was Max’s back room—where “superstars” made grand entrances, blowing theatrical kisses. Smith was especially taken by Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, and Wayne County, whom she viewed as hybrid performance artists and comedians. “Wayne was witty, Candy was pretty, and Holly had drama,” she recalled, “but I put my money on Jackie Curtis. In my mind, she had the most potential. She would successfully manipulate a whole conversation just to deliver one of Bette Davis’s killer lines.”
Through hanging out in Max’s Kansas City, Patti Smith became friendly with Jackie Curtis—who cast her, Wayne County, and Penny Arcade in Femme Fatale, which debuted at La MaMa on May 6, 1970. Wayne County, who would become Jayne County by the end of the 1970s, was the newest addition to the downtown’s glitter mafia. She met Curtis, Darling, and Woodlawn in 1969, soon after moving from Georgia to New York, and by this point she was living with Curtis and several others in a tiny cold-water apartment on the Lower East Side. “It was during this time that I first got the idea of going on stage,” County recalled. “Jackie had been writing a play called Femme Fatale at the flat, and she was looking for people to be in it. So she said to me one day, ‘Wayne, you should be in Femme Fatale. You’ll play a lesbian.” County’s first line was the setup for a gross-out gag: “You scared the shit out of me” (after which she pulled a plastic poop novelty item from under her dress). “That was my debut on the New York stage,” she said, “in Jackie Curtis’s Femme Fatale. You can imagine.”
Shirley Clarke had lived at the Chelsea since 1965, and at times her daughter Wendy also had a room in the hotel, where the two often crossed paths with Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Patti prowled the hallways and peeked in other rooms, each of which was its own little universe. On some days she loitered in front of Arthur C. Clarke’s room, hoping she might get a glimpse of the famous author. During another one of her hallway adventures she came across the underground filmmaker, folklorist, and occultist Harry Smith, who wore big Buddy Holly–style glasses that complemented his wild silver hair and tangled beard. On another evening, Patti Smith wandered into the restaurant connected to the lobby of the Chelsea and came across Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, and other rockers who were downing mounds of shrimp, paella, sangria, and bottles of tequila. She was amazed, but didn’t feel like an interloper because they were on her turf.
New Jersey native Patti Smith lived in a dream world filled with poetry and rock ’n’ roll. She had fallen for Little Richard when she was a young girl, and at the age of sixteen came across a copy of Illuminations by nineteenth-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. By spring 1967, she had had a child and given it up for adoption, and was doing temp work at a textbook factory in Philadelphia. Smith plotted her escape to New York, where at first she was homeless and had to sleep in Central Park. “I walked for hours from park to park,” Smith recalled in her memoir Just Kids. “In Washington Square, one could still feel the characters of Henry James and the presence of the author himself. Entering the perimeters of the white arch, one was greeted by the sounds of bongos and acoustic guitars, protest singers, political arguments, activists leafleting, older chess players challenged by the young. This open atmosphere was something I had not experienced, simple freedom that did not seem to be oppressive to anyone.” She finally landed a job at Brentano’s bookshop, where she met photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. During their first evening together they wandered through downtown, taking in the scene at St. Mark’s Place and buying a cheap egg cream at Gem Spa. Mapplethorpe took a job at the Fillmore East just after it opened in early March 1968, reporting to work in an orange jumpsuit. They were too broke to pay to see concerts, but Mapplethorpe was able to get Smith a pass to see the Doors play—another turning point in her creative life. “I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would ever be possible, yet I harbored that conceit.”
When Patti Smith was performing in Femme Fatale at La MaMa during the summer of 1970, she got to see the Velvet Underground for the first time in the upstairs room at Max Kansas City’s, which held about a hundred people. That same evening, Ridiculous director Tony Ingrassia asked Smith to read for his play Island. It was about a family that met at Fire Island for summer vacation, and Smith played another amphetamine-crazed character who rambled incoherently about the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. “It’s probably Tony Ingrassia’s best work,” Off-Off-Broadway actor Tony Zanetta said. “It was this big ensemble cast, where Patti was a speed freak niece who shot up onstage, threw up onstage.” Smith didn’t actually vomit—that effect was achieved by a mouthful of cornmeal and crushed peas—nor did she really shoot up onstage. Ingrassia had assumed that she was a genuine speed freak because of her disheveled hair, pale skin, and skinny frame, but Smith nearly fainted when he casually asked her to use a needle to shoot water into her veins and pull a little blood (they ended up putting hot wax on her arm to make it look real). Smith said that her experiences doing Island finally solidified the notion in her head that she could be a performer. However, she hated memorizing lines and didn’t like how scripted action constrained her—something that wasn’t true of performing poetry and music, her next destinations. “Even though she became known for her music,” Zanetta said, “Patti was kind of a natural actress. She was obviously at the beginning of something, because she had a little following already.” Theatre Genesis playwright and director Anthony Barsha ran an acting workshop that Smith was a part of, in which they worked with sounds and movements, and did other theater games. “She got more into more physical stuff like that as a result of the workshop,” Barsha recalled. “Later, Patti said she had learned a lot from that, and it helped her become more of a rock performer onstage.”
When Patti Smith began transitioning into music, she staged a series of shows playfully dubbed “Rock and Rimbaud.” On November 10, 1974—the anniversary of the death of her favorite poet, Arthur Rimbaud—the Patti Smith Group kicked off the series at the Le Jardin disco in the Hotel Diplomat. She recalled looking out in the crowd and seeing Susan Sontag and other downtown luminaries, then realizing that something was really starting to happen. Also in attendance at the Le Jardin show was Cockette Pam Tent, who was dating bassist Dee Dee Ramone. “It was so crowded with people,” Tent recalled, “and it was so hot and sweaty and filled with energy that Dee Dee and I actually had sex standing up in the crowd.” On another night of the series—this time at the Blue Hawaiian Discotheque—the Fast’s Paul Zone captured Smith’s performance with an unlikely photo that included the raggedy punk singer and a glittering disco ball in the same frame.
In 1969, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe moved into the Chelsea Hotel after escaping a dangerous Lower East Side loft building and a stint in a fleabag hotel. In this shabby artist-friendly residential hotel, Smith cultivated social connections that led her to become a performer—first on Off-Off-Broadway, then as a poet, and finally as a musician. Stanley Bard, co-owner and manager of the Chelsea, filled the lobby with art created by those who couldn’t pay for their rooms. (Bard not only accepted artwork in lieu of rent money, he also charged artists lower rent than other professionals.) Smith offered Bard the couple’s portfolios as collateral, which secured them Room 1017 for fifty-five dollars a week. “Stanley was real schizophrenic,” Warhol superstar Viva recalled. “He could be extremely generous and then he could be really mean.” Lisa Jane Persky saw both sides of Bard when she worked as an assistant for another Chelsea resident, fashion designer Charles James. “Even though Stanley was a real bastard,” she said, “he did care about the talents of people” (perhaps because he hoped to sell their work). When Persky met “America’s first couturier,” as James was known in his prime, he had been on the downslide for years; James’s friend Harry Koutoukas helped secure her a job as his assistant, which entailed a variety of tasks. “Charles would send me downstairs because I was cute and young, and I would say, ‘Please don’t lean on him right now—he’s not well.’ So Stanley would give him a little more time, and it was always like that for a lot of people in that hotel.”
Theatre Genesis playwright and director Anthony Barsha first met Patti Smith when she and Sam Shepard performed Cowboy Mouth on the same bill as Back Bog Beast Bait, which starred James Hall and Shepard’s estranged wife. “It was pretty crazy,” said Hall. “He cast his own wife in a play that was followed by a one-act about his affair with Patti.” Barsha, who directed Back Bog Beast Bait, confirmed that it was a complete debacle—though he acknowledged that Cowboy Mouth itself was quite stunning. “Their chemistry was like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor,” he said. “It was an excellent performance, Patti and Sam. It was a treat to see. It’s too bad it had to end abruptly.” Cowboy Mouth opened and closed at the American Place Theatre on West Forty-Sixth Street at the end of April 1971. “Patti and Sam’s thinly disguised characters’ relationship was destined to end,” Hall recalled, “just like what really happened between them. Then we found out that Sam had disappeared, and even Patti didn’t know where he went.” Shepard found the emotional strain too much—“like being in an aquarium,” he later said—so he fled to a Holy Modal Rounders college gig in Vermont. Like his character in Cowboy Mouth, Shepard returned to his family and responsibilities; meanwhile, Smith set off on new adventures.
From Chapter 25 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Patti Smith met her future musical collaborator Lenny Kaye at a downtown record store. After playing in garage bands during the second half of the 1960s, he was working at Village Oldies while also freelancing as a music writer. “You work in a record store, you’re surrounded by music,” Kaye explained, “and then you think, ‘Hey, it’s not unreasonable for me to try to make that music and be one of a hundred million records that we’re selling here.’ It makes it less mysterious in a certain way, and gives you a sense that you could perhaps participate. Those older records also provided me with the way that I met Patti, because I wrote an article about those songs for Jazz and Pop magazine around 1970.” Kaye’s article spoke to Smith about her own youth, when boys would gather to harmonize on doo-wop songs in southern New Jersey. She called him up and began dropping by Village Oldies, which sold vintage 45 rpm singles. “I’d play some of our favorite records—‘My Hero’ by the Blue Notes, and ‘Today’s the Day’ by Maureen Gray, and the Dovells’ ‘Bristol Stomp,’ ” Kaye said, “and Patti and I would just sit around and shoot the breeze.” They were attracted to not only classic group harmony records, but also artists like John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and others who pushed jazz beyond traditional Western harmonics—an improvisational spirit influenced their later musical collaborations.
Patti Smith had been interested in doing public poetry readings, though she was wary of many of the poets’ staid, practiced delivery. In the early 1970s, Beat poet Gregory Corso started taking her to readings hosted by the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, a collective based at the same church where Theatre Genesis was located. It was home to A-listers like Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, and Ted Berrigan, but Corso was less than reverent. He heckled certain poets during their listless performances, yelling, “Shit! Shit! No blood! Get a transfusion!” Sitting at Corso’s side, Smith made a mental note not to be boring if she ever had a chance to read her poems in public. On February 10, 1971, Gerard Malanga was scheduled to do a reading at the Poetry Project and he agreed to let Smith open for him. Her collaborations with Shepard taught her to infuse her words with rhythm, and she sought out other ideas about how to disrupt the traditional poetry reading format. For the St. Mark’s event, Sam Shepard suggested that Smith add music—which reminded her that Lenny Kaye played guitar. “She wanted to shake it up, poetry-wise, and she did,” said Kaye, who recalled that it was primarily a solo poetry reading, with occasional guitar accompaniment. “I started it with her,” he said. “We did ‘Mack the Knife,’ because it was Bertolt Brecht’s birthday, and then I came back for the last three musical pieces.” Setting chords to her melodic chanting, Kaye recalled that she was easy to follow because of her strong sense of rhythmic movement. “I hesitate to call them ‘songs,’ but in a sense they were the essence of what we would pursue.”