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Remembrances of the Punk Prose Poetess

After they separated as lovers—though they would still make a movie where Mapplethorpe changed Smith’s menstrual napkin—Smith began to date Jim Carroll, watching as he shot heroin into his freckled hand, “like the darker side of Huckleberry Finn,” and started an affair with Shepard, with whom she would write the play Cowboy Mouth. She gathered a large following for her poetry readings at St. Mark’s Church, alongside her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye, finding the “reactions so intense that I actually wanted to back off,” she says. “People came at me with all sorts of offers, wanting to make me into a hard-core Cher. I had no desire for any amount of money to be reformed for someone’s vision, because in the end that’s what you got: your clay in someone else’s hands.” After Richard Hell introduced her to CBGB—where she played a legendary two-month residency with his band Television in 1975—she married poetry to the punk movement, then the callow province of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. “Go Rimbaud” and “Do the Watusi” weren’t lines that came to their minds, nor rebel yells like “Yum yum the stars are out. I’ll never forget you how you smelled that night. Like Cheddar cheese melting under fluorescent light. Like a day old rainbow fish. What a dish. Gotta lick my lips. Gotta dream I daydream. Thorazine brain cloud. Rain rain comes coming down.”

Although Smith became famous first, she and Mapplethorpe continued to guard each other’s talent. “Robert believed in me as much as he believed in himself, and it was incredible how much he believed in himself,” says Smith. “He would not rest until he helped me dive down, down, down, and access my confident part. And I did access it, finally. It came out in a funny way, as a performer. But because he gave it to me so early in life, I don’t have to be given it again and again—I just have it. I might have to work to find it when my world gets shook. But I can always find it.”

After coffee, Smith walks a few blocks to her studio in an age-encrusted townhouse, where the floorboards creak under her weight. Her children, Jesse Paris, a 22-year-old composer, and Jackson, a 27-year-old musician married to Meg White of the White Stripes, were brought up in Detroit with her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, guitarist of the legendary band MC5. He died of heart failure in 1994, and she chose to move back to New York afterward. “For my book, I spent a year thinking about the one sentence that I used to describe my husband,” she says. “A very simple sentence: ‘He was a king among men, and men knew him.’ That’s as accurate as I could portray Fred.”

In New York, Smith’s lawyer helped enroll her kids in the Little Red School House, and Michael Stipe, who decided to become a musician when he heard Horses, found them a brownstone. “The Velvet Underground didn’t sell that many records, but everyone who bought one started a band, and that’s times 100 for Patti,” says Stipe now. Ann Demeulemeester supplied a wardrobe. Bob Dylan asked her to tour with him. “I was a little down-and-out financially, to be honest,” says Smith. “It was hard to come back here.” None of Smith’s records are gold in the U.S., and her most consistent checks come from royalties on her only radio hit, “Because the Night” (Bruce Springsteen owns the publishing on the song). “I made a lot of decisions that affected my success, I know that,” says Smith. “I wouldn’t go on Dick Clark because I’d be required to lip-synch. I showed armpit hair on the cover of my Easter album, and it was so disturbing to people, which I still don’t understand, so they wouldn’t rack it in the South. Then other people wouldn’t rack it because I had a song called ‘Rock N Roll Nigger.’ ” Punks said the Springsteen song proved she was a sellout. “I liked hearing myself on the radio,” she says, with a shrug. “To me, those people didn’t understand punk rock at all. Punk rock is just another word for freedom.”

Smith still loves the city but thinks about moving in a few years—could be Ireland or Rhode Island, anywhere she can have a fisherman’s cottage by the sea. “I think things changed after 9/11, when the two most powerful teeth were knocked out of the mouth of the skyline,” she says. “The mayor felt this impetus to rebuild New York bigger and better than ever. Rebuilding the stadiums, ripping down the MoMA, a holy museum, to make it a huge corporative space—well, that’s not what New York is about. It’s about the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, come if you have a dream. This city is not supposed to be the biggest, the baddest, the most expensive, the hippest. Now the kids go to Brooklyn.” She snorts a little. “What about Newark, yeah, maybe that’s it.”