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“One of the best poets in rock and roll”: Luc Sante on Patti Smith

By Harriet Staff

Writer and critic Luc Sante remembers the first time he ever heard of Patti Smith— at age 17 when the two of them were floating around the same “impossibly fecund” New York of the 1970s— and then charts his fascination with her over many decades in a long (and good!) essay for the New York Review of Books. He writes of that first noticing:

The occasion was an unsigned half-column item in the New York Flyer, a short-lived local supplement to Rolling Stone, marking the single performance of Cowboy Mouth, a play she cowrote and costarred in with Sam Shepard, and it was possibly her first appearance in the press. What caught my eye and made me save the clipping—besides the accompanying photo of her in a striped jersey, looking vulnerable—was her boast, “I’m one of the best poets in rock and roll.” At the time, I didn’t just think I was the best poet in rock and roll; I thought I was the only one, for all that my practice consisted solely of playing “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground very loud on the stereo and filling notebook pages with drivel that naturally fell into the song’s meter. (I later discovered that I was just one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of teenagers around the world doing essentially the same thing.)

And of the first live Patti Smith performance he saw (in 1973), he writes:

Accompanied on guitar by Lenny Kaye, a rock critic familiar from his job behind the cash register at Village Oldies on Bleecker Street, she read and talk-sang: Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low,” Hank Ballard’s “Annie Had a Baby,” a version of Édith Piaf’s “Mon vieux Lucien,” and twenty-two more poems, four of them about Rimbaud. She was skinny, quick-witted, disarmingly unprofessional, alternating between stand-up patter, bardic intonations, and the hypnotic emotional sway of a chanteuse, and she was sexy in an androgynous way I hadn’t encountered before. The elements cohered convincingly; she seemed both entirely new and somehow long-anticipated. For me at nineteen, the show was an epiphany.

The whole piece — which reflects on Smith’s early chapbooks Seventh Heaven and Witt, her rise to punk queendom, her semi-retirement to a Detroit suburb in the 1980s, and her recent reemergence— is worth reading in its entirety.


Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, January 26th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.