Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith became inseparable after meeting each other in the late 1960s, and could be seen sipping Cokes at Max’s Kansas City when they were living together at the Chelsea Hotel; in 1975, Mapplethorpe shot the iconic cover photo for Smith’s Horses album.
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
By this point, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe had moved out of the Chelsea and were living across the street on Twenty-Third Street in an apartment that gave them more space to pursue their art (he was focusing more on photography, and Smith continued to create visual art and write poetry). She was happy to return to the Chelsea after Sam Shepard began living at the hotel, where they spent hours in his room reading, talking, or just sitting in silence. During this time, Smith wrote two sets of lyrics for songs that Shepard used in his play Mad Dog Blues, and they also began to collaborate on a one-act, Cowboy Mouth. One evening Shepard brought his typewriter to the bed and said, “Let’s write a play.” He proceeded to type, beginning with a description of Smith’s room across the street: “Seedy wallpaper with pictures of cowboys peeling off the wall,” described the stage notes. “Photographs of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. Stuffed dolls, crucifixes. License plates from Southern states nailed to the wall. Travel poster of Panama. A funky set of drums to one side of the stage. An electric guitar and amplifier on the other side. Rum, beer, white lightning, Sears catalogue.” Shepard introduced his own character, Slim Shadow—“a cat who looks like a coyote, dressed in scruffy red”—and he then gave her the typewriter and said, “You’re on, Patti Lee.” Smith called her character Cavale. “The characters were ourselves,” she recalled, “and we encoded our love, imagination, and indiscretions in Cowboy Mouth.”
From Chapter 25 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
With no major labels interested in signing an androgynous poet-singer, Patti Smith decided to do it herself. Lenny Kaye had produced an album by the Sidewinders for RCA Records and previously played on a single as a teenager, so he knew his way around the studio. “We recorded our single in June of 1974,” he said, “mostly just because I knew that you could make records easily from hanging out in these record stores.” Robert Mapplethorpe loaned them the money to press a seven-inch single, which was recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios on West Eighth Street. The Patti Smith Group performed the Hendrix staple “Hey Joe,” along with one of her original songs, “Piss Factory,” to which Tom Verlaine added guitar. The group began distributing the single via mail order, at local bookstores and record stores, and during Smith’s shows—where Jane Friedman sold them out of a large shopping bag. “The DIY way of working in the poetry world was completely assumed,” Richard Hell said, “so that idea leaked into the music world when Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye pressed their single.” Hell also pointed out that this independent route was a continuation of what Warhol had done when he produced the first Velvet Underground record. Instead of waiting to sign to a major label, he paid for the sessions himself so as to avoid being constrained by record company executives.
From Chapter 31 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Patti Smith’s audience grew throughout her CBGB residency with Television in early 1975, which created more momentum for the scene. “That was the first time when it started to get crowded,” doorwoman Roberta Bayley said, “and I think by the end it was sold out.” This was followed by CBGB’s Festival of Unsigned Bands in the summer of 1975, which drew even more attention. “The Ramones started to get a following,” she said, “and I think the Ramones were probably the first band to really build a fan base, and packed the place. Not long before it was just thirty, forty, maybe eighty people on a good night.” The media coverage that CBGB and Smith received benefited both parties, and on May 1, 1975, Arista Records mogul Clive Davis offered her a contract. Later that month, after signing, they celebrated with a live set that aired on the local radio station, WBAI, which she revered for its lack of formatting constraints (a freedom that complemented her approach to music, both aesthetically and ideologically). It was Smith’s first, but certainly not last, appearance on radio. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale produced the Patti Smith Group’s debut, Horses, and Robert Mapplethorpe shot the striking cover photo of her in a white men’s dress shirt and skinny tie. By this point, Smith’s band had outgrown CBGB and started to play larger venues in the city, such as the Palladium (formerly the Academy of Music).
From Chapter 32 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore