Excerpt: Patti Smith's Just Kids

Rock icon Patti Smith recalls burroughs and Mapplethorpe, the early days of CBGB, and saddling up for Horses in this memoir excerpt
By PATTI SMITH  |  March 3, 2010


The stars were lining up to enter the Ziegfeld Theatre for the glittering premiere of the film Ladies & Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones. I was excited to be there. I remember it was Easter and I was wearing a black velvet Victorian dress with a white lace collar. Afterward, Lenny [Kaye] and I headed downtown, our coach a pumpkin, our finery tattered. We pulled in front of a little bar on the Bowery called CBGB. We had promised the poet Richard Hell that we would come to see the band in which he played bass, Television. We had no idea what to expect, but I wondered how another poet would approach performing rock and roll.

I had often come to this area of the Bowery to visit William Burroughs, who lived a few blocks south of the club, in a place called the Bunker. It was the street of winos and they would often have fires going in large cylindrical trash cans to keep warm, to cook, or light their cigarettes. You could look down the Bowery and see these fires glowing right to William's door, just as we did on that chilly but beautiful Easter night.

CBGB was a deep and narrow room with a bar along the right side, lit by overhanging neon signs advertising various brands of beer. The stage was low, on the left-hand side, flanked by photographic murals of turn-of-the-century bathing belles. Past the stage was a pool table, and in back was a greasy kitchen and a room where the owner, Hilly Krystal, worked and slept with his saluki, Jonathan.

The band had a ragged edge, the music erratic, angular, and emotional. I liked everything about them, their spasmodic movements, the drummer's jazz flourishes, their disjointed, orgasmic musical structures. I felt a kinship with the alien guitarist on the right. He was tall, with straw-colored hair, and his long graceful fingers wrapped around the neck of his guitar as if to strangle it.

Tom Verlaine had definitely read A Season in Hell.

In between sets Tom and I did not talk of poetry but of the woods of New Jersey, the deserted beaches of Delaware, and flying saucers hovering in the western skies. It turned out that we were raised 20 minutes from one another, listened to the same records, watched the same cartoons, and both loved the Arabian Nights. The break over, Television returned to the stage. Richard Lloyd picked up his guitar and fingered the opening phrase of "Marquee Moon."

It was a world away from the Ziegfeld. The absence of glamour made it seem all the more familiar, a place that we could call our own. As the band played on, you could hear the whack of the pool cue hitting the balls, the saluki barking, bottles clinking, the sounds of a scene emerging. Though no one knew it, the stars were aligning, the angels were calling.

So free
The Patty Hearst kidnapping dominated the news that spring. She had been abducted from her Berkeley apartment and held hostage by an urban guerrilla group tagged the Symbionese Liberation Army. I found myself drawn to this story partially due to my mother's fixation on the Lindbergh kidnapping and consequent fear of her children being snatched. The images of the grief-stricken aviator and the bloodstained pajamas of his golden-haired son haunted my mother throughout her life.

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