Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Storyby Dave Thompson
Offering a unique analysis and discussion of her life, career, and work, this is the true story of Patti Smith. Widely acknowledged as one of the most significant American artists of the rock age, an acclaimed poet, and a figurehead for many liberal political causes, Patti Smith went from an ugly-duckling childhood in postwar New Jersey to become queen of the 1970s
Offering a unique analysis and discussion of her life, career, and work, this is the true story of Patti Smith. Widely acknowledged as one of the most significant American artists of the rock age, an acclaimed poet, and a figurehead for many liberal political causes, Patti Smith went from an ugly-duckling childhood in postwar New Jersey to become queen of the 1970s New York art scene. Not a tell-all biography, this measured, accurate, and enthusiastic account of Smith’s career is written for her loyal fans as well as for neophytes hungry for a great rock 'n' roll story. Guided by interviews with those who have known herincluding Ivan Kral, Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, John Cale, and Jim Carrollit relies most of all on Patti’s own words.
“Dave Thompson knows how to tell a gripping, carefully researched story. This one is about a young woman from the swamps of New Jersey who became an artist’s muse, then a rock star, then a wife and mother, then an award-winning author, andmost importantlyone of the major American poetic champions of her generation.” Stephen Davis, author of Hammer of the Gods and Walk This Way
“A complete portrait of a revolutionary told mostly through her own words. . . . Thompson is able to transport readers into the world of Patti Smith rather than just inform them of the details.” —SLUG magazine
“A succinct and vivid overview of Smith’s creative life. . . . From raucous and indelible performances to her retreat to raise a family in Detroit to crushing tragedies
to her glorious resurgence, Thompson reveals Smith’s profound impulse to celebrate, memorialize, and inspire others.” —Booklist
“Dancing Barefoot captures the energy of a time before punk rock hardened into a definition.” —Shepherd Express
“A commendable, enlightening portrait of a notoriously private person, a book that dovetails nicely with Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids.” —Detroit Metro Times
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The Patti Smith Story
By Dave Thompson
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2011 Dave Thompson
All rights reserved.
THE SHEEP LADY FROM ALGIERS
SHE WAS BORN Patricia Lee Smith, Tricia to her friends and family, in Chicago on December 30, 1946. World War II had been over for eighteen months, and Christmas for five days, but the remnants of both were still visible everywhere. The very air, it seemed, crackled with optimism and hope, a tangible sense that after so many years of hardship — the Great Depression preceded World War II; the Great War preceded that — the United States was finally poised to embrace its long-postponed destiny. The American Dream was coming, and from the upper echelons of society to the lowest rung of the economic ladder, the mantra that suddenly anything was possible was coming true.
Grant and Beverly Smith, a skilled pattern- and model-maker and his homemaker wife, certainly believed in the dream. Born in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, on July 29, 1916, Grant H. Smith was thirty and newly discharged from the military when his daughter arrived; his wife, Beverly Williams, was twenty-six. The Irish American couple had married following the war's end and moved to Illinois because they knew they'd find work there. They were not wealthy, by any stretch of the imagination; sometimes, it felt as though they were barely getting by. Their tiny house was already cramped before the arrival of Patti's sister Linda in 1948.
One of Patti's earliest memories is of sitting on a stoop in Chicago singing "Jesus Loves Me" while she waited for the organ grinder to come up the street with the pet monkey that made her laugh so hard. But when Beverly became pregnant again, with Patti's brother, Todd, in late 1949, it was time to move on. Patti's Grandpa Williams had a farm in Tennessee, so they lived there for a short while. Then they returned north, to a housing block on Newell Street in Philadelphia. The homes were originally constructed as a GI housing project, but in later years Patti would prefer a more figurative description: army barracks.
It was a grim environment, but Grant Smith continued to struggle to build a better life for his family. Patti rarely saw her father after he took a night job at the Honeywell corporation, making thermostats and regulators for the modern heating products that a lot of her neighbors and friends' families couldn't even afford. To bring extra money into the household, he would offer to do peoples' tax returns for them.
Even at the age of six, Patti was no stranger to music. She grew up listening to her mother's collection of June Christy and Chris Connor jazz records. Later in life, Patti's biographers would describe her mother as a former jazz singer; in fact, she was simply a woman who loved jazz and would sing it around the house. She also sang opera, and Patti would join in. When her school presented a version of Verdi's Aïda, Patti played a young Gypsy boy.
Maria Callas was another favorite, and Puccini as well. It didn't matter that Patti couldn't understand what was being sung. The emotion, alive within the voice of the singer, was enough, and Patti would laugh, cry, or rage as the opera's stories unfolded, as if she were Italian born and bred.
"I dreamed when I was a kid about being an opera singer," she told Terry Gross in an interview on NPR's Fresh Air. "But I never thought about singing [professionally]. I think I sang in this school choir or something, but I didn't really excel or have any real gift. But what I did have was, I've always, for some reason, been comfortable talking in front of people, or performing in front of people."
Patti was indeed an adventurous child. "I don't want to get too hung up on biochemical warfare," she told a California audience in 1976. "When I was a kid I ate dirt." Marshalling a bunch of neighborhood boys, she formed a gang called the Cool Cats, built their base out of empty refrigerator boxes, and laid down one law: no girls were allowed. Only sister Linda was ever admitted, in her capacity as the gang's nurse, patching up the wounds that would arise whenever the Cool Cats went out to fight the kids down the block. Even Patti was not immune from this single regulation, which is why her fellow warriors all believed she was a boy.
And then one day her cover was blown. She never did find out how; it was probably one of her gangmates' mothers. But that was it for her life as a Cool Cat. She was kicked out of her own gang.
The rejection did not blunt Patti's intrepid spirit. One day, when she was seven or eight, she found herself walking through an area that the locals called Jericho, an accumulation of truly makeshift homes constructed from shopping trolleys, planks of wood and strips of tarpaulin, and old refrigerator boxes. Just like her old club house. She stopped to look, mindless of the cries of "white cracker" that the predominantly black residents were hurling her way, or the stones and handfuls of dirt that followed the oaths. She just dodged out of the way and continued looking, returning day after day until finally people started to acknowledge her with a wave or a smile. Soon, she laughed years later, she was happily hanging out with them.
Not all of Patti's adventures were so courageous, and many more took place in her mind alone. She was a vivid dreamer, with imaginings that bordered on the hallucinatory, and as time passed, she trained her mind to recall them when she woke, to be written down in one of the pads she was constantly scribbling in. She once boasted that she'd never had a dream that she didn't remember, and she shared many of them with her two siblings, entertaining them with stories of her nocturnal activities. Later, the same training would become a part of her creative process: "Most of my writing and a lot of my songs, or sometimes a melody, comes from a dream," Patti revealed to British journalist Sandy Robertson in 1978.
She credited her mother with teaching her that. "[Mother] was always great in weaving a fantasy world, telling us fairy stories, or getting us involved in stories," Patti told Mademoiselle's Amy Gross in 1975. Her mother's fantasies would even inspire her future writing. Destined for Patti's debut album, the poem "Free Money" was rooted in Beverly's weekly dream of striking it rich. Her mom "always dreamed about winning the lottery," she laughed during an interview with Simon Reynolds of theObserver in 2005. "But she never bought a lottery ticket! She would just imagine if she won, make lists of things she would do with the money — a house by the sea for us kids, then all kinds of charitable things."
I'll buy you a jet plane, baby ... And take you through the stratosphere.
Other times, Patti would draw Linda and Todd into the worlds that unfolded from her reading. Both of their parents were very well read — later Patti described them as liberal-minded and sophisticated readers — and she grew up with the same voracious appetite for books. Louisa May Alcott's Little Women was a particular favorite, and as soon as Patti was old enough to formulate the notion of hero worship, Jo — the so-capable elder sister who binds the March family together — became her first role model. It was Jo whose example first led her to write; it was Jo who showed her the magic of performance.
Patti began writing her own stage plays, which she would later disparage as the childish constructs that they surely were. But she acted them out with and for her family all the same. Not because she actually enjoyed doing it, but because it was what Jo did. She told writer Scott Cohen in a 1976 interview in Oui, "I studied her to see what it takes to be a girl who keeps her family together — who writes, creates, inspires people, likes to teach and to entertain."
"I wasn't a disturbed child. I actually had a happy childhood. I loved my brother and sister. We were inseparable. They thought the world of me," Patti told Terry Gross. She recalled going through some of Todd's possessions following his death in 1994 and discovering some of the childhood memories that he'd written down, "about how I was like King Arthur, and they were like the knights in my court, and they always believed in me, and I invented endless games and plays and stories for us to be involved in."
Jo March was not her sole literary influence. Onstage in Oxford, England, in 2007, she told the audience how, as a child, "I cherish[ed] my Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass books, and I learned about the dodo bird in these books, and I couldn't wait till I got older and got to meet one." She also combed the parental bookshelves for copies of Plato and Aristotle, and devoured the Bible as vociferously as she plowed through her father's books and magazines on the UFO phenomenon.
The possibility that our skies were filled with flying saucers was common currency after the end of World War II. Hollywood studios were already churning out their B-movie sci-fi epics; pulp paperbacks and magazines were expounding theory and thoughts. Little green men were everywhere, even if nobody reliable had actually seen one, and it would be decades before the scientific community finally announced its own belief that the whole UFO business was an illusion, a manifestation of the Cold War paranoia that likewise gripped the land.
For it was the age, too, of "reds beneath the bed" and Wisconsin Republican Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunts, of irregular classroom rehearsals for the day the bomb was dropped and nifty public information films that told you what to do when it did. "Duck and cover!" That way, you'd be lying down when you were blown into smoldering atoms. Reality, Patti decided very early on, could be as unbelievable as fantasy.
She grew up to be grateful, then, that her parents were firmly aware of that fact. To writer Dave Marsh in Rolling Stone in 1976, she described her mother as "a real hip Scheherazade," and she told Jeff Baker of OregonLive.com, "My mother was creative and my father was a very compassionate man. ... There were people who were anti-Semitic and, of course, if you were homosexual, that was a taboo subject. My mother opened the door to anybody it was closed to elsewhere. I lived in a very poor but energetic household that was filled with religious dialogue and civil rights, all kinds of things."
"Just like I say I'm equal parts Balenciaga and Brando," she told Dave Marsh, "well, my dad was equal parts God and Hagar the Spaceman for Mega City." I recognize him as the true outcast, she wrote in a prose piece titled "Grant"; he is lucifer the unguided light, judas the translator and barabbas the misused. ... there is no one closer to God than my father.
Young Patti never did meet a gay Jewish alien, but she would not have been shocked if she had — just as she believed that she would one day meet a dodo. Because it was belief that sustained her, even as a child. Belief that she would wake up every morning, belief that she would grow up and marry, have children and grandchildren, and live a long life. And, because there has to be a negative emotion for every positive one, the belief that she was going to drop dead right now, before she had even reached double figures.
Patti was seven when she had her first encounter with mortality, and it was her own. Scarlet fever did more than turn your tongue red and your skin harsh and bumpy, while you roasted in the arms of virulent fever. In those days, it was a killer.
There were plenty of cures available. The first vaccine for scarlet fever had been created back in 1924. But vaccines came from doctors, and doctors charged money. Money that the Smith family could ill afford to spend. There were occasions, Patti recalled, when things were so tight that even their mother's creativity was stretched to the limit. Patti told NPR's Fresh Air, "If my dad was on strike, and we had no food or very little food, [our mother would] make this, like, Wonder Bread with butter and sugar and she'd tell a story and this would become a great delicacy. We'd pretend we were all hiding out from, like, the Nazis or something, and we hadn't eaten in three days and this was our food, and it was so wonderful. She made everything into a game." Even hunger.
Brother Todd and sister Linda had their own medical crises to weather; both of them wound up in the hospital once, struggling with mild malnutrition. But when Patti contracted scarlet fever, by the time the medics finally got a good look at her, any number of complications were on the verge of setting in. Pneumonia, meningitis, sepsis — all can develop from a simple case of scarlet fever, and whether Patti had one, none, or all of them was really immaterial at the time. For a short while there were genuine doubts as to whether she would even survive.
She rallied, but she remained a sickly kid. Reminiscing about her childhood ailments with Jeff Baker in 2010, she catalogued her calamitous health record: "I had TB as a kid and scarlet fever and mononucleosis and the Asiatic flu and the mumps and the measles and the chicken pox. ... I personally had all those things before I was sixteen, and I was just one child." She also had a wandering eye that rolled upward in its socket. To correct it, she was given "a creepy-looking eyepatch and glasses," Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley's Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography quoted her as saying, and the other kids would run from her because they thought she had the Evil Eye.
Illness kept her out of full-time education and kept her from developing the so-called social skills that public school deems so important. "I was very unattractive when I was younger," she mourned to Mademoiselle. "I had bad skin and I was very skinny and totally awkward. And that is when I was six. But I was never depressed about it because I had a real ugly duckling sense. The tragedy about the ugly duckling was that no one ever took him aside and said, 'Look. You're ugly now, but it's going to pay off later.' And that was my view of myself. I figured I'd just bide my time. I'm a real optimistic person." When she was a child, she recalled in Crawdaddy magazine in 1975, "I always had this absolute swagger about the future. ... I wasn't born to be a spectator."
She made friends, she said, by doing Tex Ritter imitations. She would do anything to make people laugh.
In 1955, shortly before Patti's ninth birthday, the family moved house again, across the state line to Woodbury Gardens, New Jersey. Later, she would call it the biggest turning point in her life, relocating to a single story ranch house whose closest neighbor was a pig farm. Her father still worked at Honeywell, while her mother found work as a counter waitress at a nearby drugstore.
Around that same time came another great turning point: a neighbor boy asked Patti back to his house to hear a new record, Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti." The way Patti remembered the story, her mouth fell open and she was instantly enthralled. She would also remember being six years old at the time, sitting in her Newell Street clubhouse when the boy stopped by with his invitation. In fact, she would have been at least nine years old and living in New Jersey when that record became a hit, but her point was clear: she discovered rock 'n' roll when it was still young, and she never let go of it.
Little Richard changed everything, first as he assaulted her ears, and then as she read everything she could about him. And before she truly understood what she was discovering, her mind filled in the gaps around the facts that 1950s America could not bring itself to mention, the secret life and times of the flamboyant black man who valued jewelry and fine clothing so highly that his every song shrieked defiance at the mores of normalcy that she was beginning to decipher around her.
"In another decade," she explained to Steve Simels in Stereo Review magazine in 1978, "rock 'n' roll would be Art. But when I say a decade, I mean for other people. For me, since 1954 or something, it has been Art. Since Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix. I mean, these guys are masters. ...
"Being great is no accident," she continued. "Little Richard wasn't an accidental phenomenon; he knew what he was after. He might not define it with intellectual terminology, but he was defined by what he did. I don't think Jackson Pollock wrote a manifesto first and then did all his painting according to it."
She started building a record collection of her own. The drugstore where her mother worked stocked a bargain bin full of used and exjukebox records. Over the years, she recalled to Thurston Moore in Bomb magazine, she received a copy of Harry Belafonte's 1956 "Banana Boat Song" (which Patti confused with Jo Stafford's 1951 song "Shrimp Boats"), Patience and Prudence's 1957 classic "The Money Tree," and, "embarrassingly enough," Neil Sedaka's 1960 hit "Stairway to Heaven" (which her memory retitled "Climb Up"). One time when she was sick, her mother bought her an LP set of Madame Butterfly. And then she would shut herself away and listen. Music, as she would write years later, permeated the room like an odor like the essence of a flower.
Her mother would also take her back into Philly, stop by Leary's Book Store, and buy her a bag of books for a dollar. "Stuff like Uncle Wiggily and The Wizard of Oz," she told A. D. Amorosi in the Philadelphia City Paper. Then they'd go for a meal to Bookbinders, or Pat's, with the best steak hoagies in town.
She was a happy child, then, nurtured in a loving household. And she looked toward religion, not necessarily for solace, but because she was curious about the source of the strength that it offered people. Beverly Smith was a devout Jehovah's Witness, and that was always a part of her daughter's spiritual landscape. It was her mother who taught Patti to pray, and Patti accompanied her on trips around the neighborhood, distributing literature and canvassing for souls.
It was a sobering experience. Not everybody enjoyed having their weekday evenings or weekend mornings disturbed by the rat-a-tat-tat of a visiting Witness, and not even the presence of a young daughter could shield Mrs. Smith from the anger, scorn, and abuse of those people. Patti was fascinated, not only by the vehemence of the neighbors who chased her mother away, but also by the faith that kept her going back.
Excerpted from Dancing Barefoot by Dave Thompson. Copyright © 2011 Dave Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Dave Thompson is a rock journalist who has contributed to Alternative Press, Mojo, Q, Record Collector, Rolling Stone, and Spin. He is the author of numerous music biographies of artists such as David Bowie, Cream, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and U2, as well as the bestselling Kurt Cobain biography, Never Fade Away, and the story of 1970s punk, London's Burning. He lives in Newark, Delaware.
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