As you may well have known by now, we’re massive fans of Patti Smith here in the Far Out offices. The iconic punk poet has always, to us at least, been an icon of musical energy and unabashed creativity. In this short clip from 2014, the Godmother of Punk reminisces about her first-ever gig reading poetry in New York City.
The star was far away from title as one of the founding members of the rock and roll musical pantheon when she was asked to perform at the poetic Mecca of St. Mark’s church in New York City on February 10th, 1971 – backed, of course, by Lenny Kaye.
The venue offered Smith the chance to deliver her poems in one of the most iconic poetry venues in the world. As she recalls in the clip below for NME, some of poetry’s finest have graced the pulpit at St. Marks. “Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and all of our poets performed there.” However, the crux of Smith’s character and the energy of her humanity meant that she wouldn’t be satisfied to just stand there and read.
Smith remembers: “I was young, in my early twenties, with extreme amounts of agitated energy,” she continues “I wanted to perform my poetry in the way that I was learning from Jim Morrison, or Jimi Hendrix, or the great Beat poets. And also I liked to sing a little.” She knew she had to change it up just a little for it to be authentically Patti Smith she needed to “inject a little song into it”.
So she invited Lenny Kaye and his electric guitar to perform an interpretive piece alongside a poem about a car crash. He came equipped with a small amp and his electric guitar and, unbeknownst to him and Smith would cause quite a stir. Not only had this girl come into the church to perform her aggressive and provocative poetry but now she was bringing with her Satan’s favourite instrument.
It was enough of a stir to instantly put Patti Smith and her intoxicating mix of song and poetry in the spotlight of New York’s creative clientele. “It drew a lot of attention to what we were doing but it was so innocent,” Smith says as she expands on turning down a record contract that immediately followed the evening, “I didn’t capitalise on on that performance because I didn’t have a design except to make the night a little more exciting”
Smith would continue to perform as she did that night and a few years later the attention from record labels had grown too large to ignore and she began performing and writing as a recording artist. Her performance today is still littered with these poetic indications of early performing life, but most notably so are the poems.
As she confirms in the video, one of the poems performed that night titled ‘Oath’ begins with “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” the iconic first lines of ‘Gloria’ one of the standout songs from Smith’s seminal record. “Horses didn’t come out of the air it evolved organically from my first poetry reading.”
Smith ends the clip with a simple yet affirming conclusion “It was a bit controversial because we had sort of desecrated the home of poetry with an electric guitar but on the other hand it got quite a good reception.” And with it, Patti Smith neatly summarises not only her first ever gig but her career thereafter – classic, confrontational, intelligent, engaged, daring and utterly, utterly authentic.
Watch below as Patti Smith reminisces about her first-ever gig.