Were your parents culture consumers?
My father worked in a factory. Privately he was a very introspective and spiritual man, but my parents spent most of their life struggling to take care of us; we didn’t go to cultural events. We read a lot—I was very impressed with Little Women because the heroine was a writer. It gave me the courage to think that I could be one, too. I read every fairy tale, every Wizard of Oz book, biographies, Heidi. And I also liked travel books—anything about the Himalayas and Tibet really moved me.
Do you remember your first night in New York?
The first couple of months, I didn’t have the money to go to a movie or a play—to go anywhere, except to just walk around. It was beautiful going to Washington Square or Tompkins Square Park and seeing people gathered to read poetry or sing or play chess. For me, New York meant freedom; I loved that people didn’t stop and question you because of the way you were dressed. I didn’t need any entertainment.
I know you had a job at the Strand Book Store.
Well, I worked at Scribner’s bookstore from 1967 to 1972. The Strand was just a short period after that, and I didn’t like it. I worked in the basement, and it wasn’t very friendly. Scribner’s, though, was beautiful. People there took being book clerks seriously—you had to read The New York Times Book Review. I read a lot of French poetry: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Nerval. Paul Bowles. Biographies of Yeats or Diego Rivera. And I could look at all the art books I wanted during lunch. I saw Pollock as sort of the next stop after Picasso and William Blake—like looking at jazz, but also a link with Cubism. And Scribner’s was so close to MoMA.
MoMA must’ve been good for your film education, too.
I really loved the New Wave: Godard, Bresson, Rivette. I liked Rossellini, but especially the French. You had to wait till they came to the all-night theaters or the MoMA festivals—it still amazes me that I can walk into a video place and get The Passion of Joan of Arc or these movies that were so rare … sometimes you had to wait ten years to see a movie like that!
Did anything inspire your look?
In the early sixties I went to thrift stores—it was possible to buy an Irish-tweed coat for 50 cents, or a Dior blouse. When I had more control, I liked the way nineteenth-century poets dressed. Even the cover of Horses reflects that: the black ribbon, the white shirt. I’m still pretty much wearing the same kinda clothes as when I was 20.
Do you remember any moments at CBGB that made you think, That’s what I want to do?
When I started performing a lot with Lenny Kaye and Richard Sohl, we had goals: to infuse new life into performing poetry—merging poetry with electric guitar, three chords—and to reembrace rock and roll. It drew us together and kept us informed, whether through Bob Dylan or Neil Young or the Who. In the early seventies, rock and roll was monopolized by record companies, marketing strategies, stadium rock. Tom Verlaine and Television were for me the most inspiring: They were not glamorous, they were human.
Did anyone represent the enemy?
I didn’t think a band like Kiss represented the direction I wanted to see rock and roll go. But it’s not fair to point the finger only at them; the atmosphere at the time was going toward light shows and smoke bombs.
What about the Velvet Underground? I know John Cale produced Horses.
Well I wasn’t consciously influenced by the Velvet Underground, but it’s hard not to be, if you’re merging poetry and rhythmatic structure. We were pretty evolved by the time we got John; he shepherded us through, but we knew who we were.
Any musical influences that might surprise us?
Maria Callas. From her I learned how to develop a narrative within a song, to tap into the emotional content. She’s a great teacher, even if one doesn’t have the range, the voice. And John Coltrane, for how to improvise—to explore and be responsible to the audience.
Did your roommate Robert Mapplethorpe introduce you to photography?
I’ve taken pictures off and on throughout my life, of objects that seem humble but also resonate, like my father’s coffee cup, or Hermann Hesse’s typewriter, or Virginia Woolf’s bed. I was recently in Africa, and what I really liked [photographing] was the texture of the ground.
What do you remember about the Horses cover shoot?
Robert knew where he wanted to take it, with natural light. We found the room; I knew what I wanted to wear. I rolled out of bed, put my clothes on; we ate at the Pink Tea Cup, we went to the place he wanted; he took, like, twelve pictures, and at about the eighth one, he said, “I have it.” I said, “How do you know?” and he said, “I just know,” and I said, “Okay.” And that was it.