Patti Smith at Rather Ripped Records (11-24-74)

Patti Smith, New York City’s rock ‘n’ roll poet, blew into town a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving and cut her way through several local gigs before heading back East. I caught her at Rather Ripped Records in Berkeley and I was knocked out. That Smith has just released a 45 (on the obscure Mer label—you can get it at Rather Ripped) in which she wraps the tale of Patty Hearst around the rock classic “Hey Joe,” and that Rather Ripped fronts on Hearst Street, is an irony I missed at the time—but Smith probably appreciated it. Connections of that sort is a good part of what her stuff is all about.

Smith, 28, came out of a Chicago slum or a backwoods outpost in the swamps of South Jersey inhabited by a strange, primitive tribe known as “the piney people,” depending on who you believe. Her first notoriety came in 1971, when she appeared on a poetry reading bill with Gerard Malanga at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, and backed by Lenny Kaye on guitar and roaring out Lotte Lenya’s “Mack the Knife,” stole the show. Creem came out with a spread of her poems, many later published in her book Seventh Heaven (Telegraph Books, through Berkeley’s Bookpeople). “I embrace Eve,” she wrote in “Oath,” “and take full responsibility/For every pocket I have picked/every Johnny Ace song I’ve balled to…” Shortly after she inaugurated an annual Arthur Rimbaud Birthday Celebration in New York, over which she now presides regularly. But rock ‘n’ roll—Patti’s heroes include Brian Jones, Bob Dylan, Kurt Weill, the Jesters—bleeds through most everything she writes, and finally the time came to put it right on a stage and see how good she really was.

Well, there’s little question. Smith drew a good hundred plus upstairs at Rather Ripped on a Thursday night for a free show, and with Kaye on guitar and Richard Sohl on piano, proceeded to demonstrate a mastery of rock that worked as well below the surface of the music (what does Blonde on Blonde have to do with Chris Kenner yelling “Do you know how to Pony?”) as it did on the surface (Do you know how to Pony?). She was sexy, fast, mysterious, and tough, in a manner that suggested she didn’t completely trust her pose, but that suggested she knows exactly how to use that pose when she needs to. When I realized that a long, stomped-out cracking poem was on the verge of turning into “Gloria” I could feel a chill shoot through me; as Smith sang that name—“G-L-O-R-I-A”—no one had any doubts they were seeing the real thing once again.

I especially liked the way she tossed the Who and Allen Ginsberg together: “I saw the best minds of my g-g-g-g-generation…”; that, and the fact that she had on a Keith Richard T-shirt that looked even more wasted than Keith Richard does.

It was also completely appropriate that this show was taking place at Rather Ripped, the best record store in the Bay Area. The people who work there care more about rock ‘n’ roll, and its many stray alleys, blind corners, and back roads, than any I’ve run into in years. If you come to the counter with a record they think is shit, they’ll try to argue you out of it and turn you on to something else; they stock 45s, cut-outs, a slew of new lps for $2, and have set up a Wednesday night hang-out where you can drop in and listen to anything you can’t hear on the radio, stuff that the patronizing burghers at other outlets haven’t heard at all. Rather Ripped brought Patti Smith to town on their own, got her gigs, rounded up an audience. The audience she convinced on her own, and I can’t wait till she’s back in town again.

City, November 24, 1974

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