a baby wolf with neon bones
interview by Nick Tosches, Penthouse, April 1976
Patricia Lee Smith hit the linen on December 30, 1946, in Chicago, and was raised, the eldest of four children, in Deptford Township, New Jersey. She had been slapped about by tuberculosis; she was a frail-seeming punkling, skinny and daydreamy. She attended Glassboro State College, briefly, and tried doing piecework at a toy factory. Both made her carsick. In 1967 she came to New York. From there she went to Paris with her sister Linda. She wanted to be an artist, but her drawing became poems. She returned to New Jersey, then to New York, where she slowly but steadily became arch moll of rhythm’d word.
Patti coauthored a book with playwright Sam Shepard, Mad Dog Blues & Other Plays. She appeared in a film, Robert Mapplethorpe Gets His Nipple Pierced. Late in 1971, Telegraph Books published her first volume of poems, Seventh Heaven, which she dedicated to Mickey Spillane and Anita Pallenberg. She began to publish prose-poem essays about rock ‘n’ roll in such magazines as Rolling Stone and CREEM. A second book of poems, Kodak, appeared in 1972. By the time Gotham Book Mart published her Witt in 1973, Patti had become a legend on the New York poetry circuit. She was feared, revered, and her public readings elicited the sort of gut response that had been alien to poetry for more than a few decades. Word spread, and people who avoided poetry as the stuff of four-eyed pedants found themselves oohing and howling at what came out of Patti’s mouth. Established poets feared for their credence. Many well-known poets refused to go on after Patti at a reading, she was that awesome.
The music, too. It had started with just Lenny Kaye on guitar, intuitively the two reinvented melic poetry. The band grew; piano, another guitar, then later drums. Finally, after all those years, rock ‘n’ roll had a poet.
In early spring on 1974, financed by her friend, artist Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti issued two thousand copies of a record, “Piss Factory” coupled with “Hey, Joe,” on the Mer label. The rhythmics were coarse and truculent, the images were alternately raw and aflash with hallucination. In “Hey, Joe” she transmuted a sixties rock classic into an Iliad of subliminal violence that culminated with a fantasy image of Patty Hearst worshipping black revolutionaries in a world ruled by phantom guitars and confused girl-things.
Poetry readings became concerts, audiences grew. Patti spewed forth a mix of sheer rock ‘n’ roll power and delicately wrought poetry. She sang a Marvelettes song, “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” or sometimes Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” and then, somehow, she was in some ineffable dream-closet:
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. thorozine brain cloud. rain rain comes coming down.
The music ebbed to feedback sounds and low piano:
I’m gonna peep in bo’s bodice. lay down darling don’t be modest let me slip my hand in. ohhh that’s soft that’s nice that’s not used up. ohh don’t cry. wet whats wet? oh that. heh heh. that’s just the rain lambie pie. now don’t squirm. let me put my rubber on …
The record companies came to sniff and hedge. Finally, she signed with Arista, and her debut album, Horses, was released late in 1975. Everyone from Rolling Stone to the New York Times showered it with petals. Still, some said, Patti was too weird to sweep the masses. The ever underestimated masses, however, proved otherwise, and Patti and her album rose to the top of the national charts.
This interview was conducted by Nick Tosches in New York City. It begins with the one question with which all interviews should begin.
Penthouse: Were you a horny teenager, Patti?
Smith: Yeah, I was horny, but I was innocent ‘cause I was a real-late bloomer and not particularly attractive. In fact, homely. See, nobody told me that girls got horny. It was tragic ‘cause I had all these feelings inside me. I was like one of the boys in school who flap their legs frantically under the desk. I always had this weird feeling between my legs and I had no idea what it was. I didn’t know girls masturbated. I never touched myself or anything…I did it all in my mind. I was so horny in school it felt like my body was filled with electricity. I felt like I had neon bones or something. All my report cards said, “Patti Lee daydreams too much.” I didn’t know what it was but I couldn’t wait to get home each day. And when I got home I’d just lay down and let my mind spill out, y’know?
Remember when Anne Frank was real big and Life was doing all that stuff on Nazi atrocities? Well, I’d read that stuff and I’d get really cracklin’ down there. Anytime I’d read about a dog getting beaten or any weird thing, it would trigger me off, and the only way I could relieve myself was by laying in bed and putting a flashlight on inside my brain. There’d be this flood of light and then these movies would start up in my mind. Nothing specifically dirty or anything, just a lot of abstract action. It was like being horny in a really vague way.
My one regret in life is that I didn’t know about masturbating. To me that’s really sad. Think of all that fun I could’ve had!
Penthouse: Were you a juicy date?
Smith: I never had any dates. I never really had any boyfriends. I was the girl who did the guys’ homework. I was really crazy about guys but I was always like one of the boys. The guys I always fell in love with were completely inaccessible. I didn’t want any middle-of-the-road creep. I always wanted the toughest guy in school, the guy from south Philly who wore tight black pants. Y’know, the guy who carried the umbrella and wore white shirts with real thin black ties. I was really nuts over this guy named Butchie Magic ‘cause he let me carry his switchblade. But I couldn’t make it with guys.
I was always trying to pick guys up. I’d ask guys out and stuff like that. I had no pride. I was the biggest lurch at dances, waiting for the ladies’ choice. I’d lunge at my prey like a baby wolf. I was really skinny, and guys would tell me I wasn’t their type. But I was ready, y’know? I got along better with the niggers, but they didn’t wanna fuck me either. They kept saying, “You gotta stay a virgin ‘cause if we find the right colored buy he’ll pay five hundred bucks for a virgin white girl.” I believed in love, so it never worked out.
Y’know what it was? I was really stupid. I mean, on one hand I was totally aware, totally in tune with cosmic stuff. But when it came to basics, like the fact that I was a girl, I just never noticed it. I was so involved in my boy-rhythms that I never came to grips with the fact that I was a girl. I was twelve years old when my mother took me inside and said, “You can’t be outside wrestling without a T-shirt on.” It was a trauma. In fact, I got so fucked up over it when my mother gave me the big word that I was absolutely a girl and there was no changing it, that I walked out dazed on a highway with my dog Bambi and let her get hit by a fire engine.
And then that whole thing about masturbating. Most girls, I guess nobody has to tell them, they just figure it out, right? I had to be told. Some girl actually had to show me a hairbrush and demonstrate exactly what to do. I just never figured that stuff out naturally.
I’m still pretty dumb about girl stuff. For a while I said, “Ah, girls are stupid.” But after seeing all these Jeanne Moreau movies, I think being a girl is where it’s at. Like when I’m about thirty-five I’m gonna start wearing black cocktail dresses and become a real cunt.
Penthouse: Do you get a kick out of being sexy?
Smith: I guess I like it. Actually, the only time I ever tried to cultivate being sexy was when I read Peyton Place. I was about sixteen and I read that this guy’s watching this woman walk and he can tell she’s a good fuck by the way she walks. It’s a whole passage. He’s telling Allison McKenzie, “I know you’re a virgin.” And she says, “Well, how?” And he says, “I can tell by the way you walk.” And I thought, Uh-oh, everybody knows! I was ashamed to be a virgin, so I tried to cultivate a fucked walk. I tried to figure out what it looked like. I figured I’d watch any hot woman I could. I mean, look at Jeanne Moreau. You watch her walk across the street on the screen and you know she’s had at least a hundred men.
Penthouse: In a lot of your material, such as your version of “Hey, Joe” and your poems “Rape” and “Sally,” there’s a preoccupation with violent sex.
Smith: Yeah, that’s a complex thing. It’s ironic how God make women, how women are real intellectual in bed. I mean, it’s really hard for a woman to get out of her mind, y’know? I think guys are more emotional. Men are supposed to be the strong ones, they have pressure on them to be strong, but when it comes to sex men are much more emotional than women. I really don’t like how women are in that respect. The only way I can lose my mind in bed is to destroy myself in a fantasy.
I wrote a poem where this guy comes in this girl’s window and she’s sitting there and she has this real dense mind, so he simply takes a pistol and shoves it in her mouth and shoots it. That’s what I think of sperm — it’s the stuff that bursts brains, y’know? I mean, women need their brains burst out.
Penthouse: Do you feel that girls want to get slapped around?
Smith: Yeah, it’s not masochistic or nothing. I just think that women need help in getting their minds out of bed. It’s the plight of women. It took me years to get over that, to be totally, physically involved. When I was younger and couldn’t come, I figured there was something wrong with me. I went to all these doctors and shit, and I kept saying, “There’s something wrong with me,” Most broads don’t come, but nobody told me that. I used to beg girls in the bathroom at school, “Please tell me, is something wrong with me?” It was like, “Would you look at my pussy and see if it’s made right? I’ll look at yours.” And all of a sudden they’d think I was a queer, y’know?
Penthouse: What did doctors tell you when you told them you couldn’t come?
Smith: They’d say, “Oh-ho-ho. You’re a normal young girl.” They’d say stuff like “Tell your partner to engage in more petting.” Petting. Let me be your dog.
Penthouse: Do you jerk off a lot?
Smith: Only when I’m working. It’s such an intense procedure for me. It’s like a ritual ‘cause I take it real seriously. I try to eat some hashish and then I read a little. It doesn’t have to be dirty, just so long as it’s well written.
I think masturbating is a really important function in art. People don’t like to hear that kind of stuff, but it’s true. That’s what Genet did to create. I can always tell when somebody’s been jerking off. All the great writers, Alexander Trochi, William Burroughs, and Arthur Rimbaud. To me, fucking and masturbation and art is all the same because all it is is total concentration. And that’s what performing is, too. When I’m doing a long piece, a ten- minute “Gloria” or a really long “Land of a Thousand Dances,” I have to concentrate just like I’m trying to come with a guy or just like when I’m masturbating. A good artist’s always got his hand in his zipper.
Penthouse: Do you feel any ties with the current flock of female writers?
Smith: Well, the only parts I like out of any of those women books is the dirty parts. But I don’t think their dirty parts are any good, really.
Most women writers don’t interest me because they’re hung up with being a woman, they’re hung up with being Jewish, they’re hung up with being somebody or other. Rather than just going, just spurting, just creating. These women get so caught up with their heritage that they can never really spiral out. I mean, to me Erica Jong ain’t a woman, she’s just some spoiled Jewish girl who’d rather whine than go out of her brain.
They don’t do anything to me, those broads. I don’t care whether they’re men or women, that’s bullshit. A good writer can get into any gender, can get into any mouth. When I write I may be a Brando creep, or a girl laying on the floor, or a Japanese tourist, or a slob like Richard Speck. You have to be a chameleon when you’re writing, and to get caught up with being a Jewish girl or a black girl or a divorced girl or a girl period, to me that’s a big bore and a lot of silly bullshit.
I’ve never felt grounded because of my ancestry or my gender. I think until women get away from that they’re not going to be great writers. Now, I can tell you about some women writers who truly are fantastic. One is Anna Kavan. She writes stories like I approach “Land of a Thousand Dances”: she’s caught in a haze and then a light, a little teeny light, come through. It could be a leopard, that light, or it could be a spot of blood. It could be anything. But she hooks onto that and spirals out. And she does it within the accessible rhythms of plot, and that’s really exciting. She’s not hung up with being a woman, she just keeps extending herself, keeps telescoping language and plot.
Another great woman writer is Iris Sarazan, who wrote The Runaway. She considered herself a mare, a wild runaway. She was a really intelligent girl stuck in all these convents with a hungry mind. I identify with her ‘cause of her hunger to go beyond herself. She wound up in prison, but she escaped and wrote some great books before kicking off. Her books aren’t page after page of her beating her breast about how shitty she’s been treated, they’re books about her exciting telescoping plans of escape. Rhythm, great wild rhythm. What Erica Jong and people like that lack is rhythm, rhythm and strength. They write only boredom, pages and pages of fidgety self-examination.
The French poet, Rimbaud, predicted that the next great crop of writers would be women. He was the first guy who ever made a big women’s liberation statement, saying that when women release themselves from the long servitude of men they’re really gonna gush. New rhythms, new poetries, new horrors, new beauties. And I believe in that completely. But hung-up women can’t produce anything but mediocre art, and there ain’t no room for mediocre art.
Penthouse: Has the women’s movement had anything to do with your growth as a poet?
Smith: No. I remember getting totally pissed off the first time I got a letter that started off with “Dear Ms. Smith.” A word like Ms. is really bullshit. Vowels are the most illuminated letters in the alphabet. Vowels are the colors and souls of poetry and speech. And these assholes take the only fuckin’ vowel out of the word Miss. So what do they have left? Ms. It sounds like a sick bumblebee, it sounds frigid. I mean, who the hell would ever want to stick his hand up the dress of somebody who goes around calling herself something like Ms.? It’s all so stupid.
I don’t like answering to other people’s philosophies. I don’t have any philosophy, I just believe in stuff. Either I believe in something or I don’t. Like, I believe in the Rolling Stones but not in the Dave Clark Five. There’s nothing philosophic about it. Whenever I’m linked with a movement, it pisses me off. I like who I am. I always liked who I was and I always loved men. The only time I ever feel fucked around by men is when I fight with a guy or when a guy ditches me. And that’s got nothing to do with women’s lib. That has to do with being ditched.
I don’t feel exploited by pictures of naked broads. I like that stuff. It’s a bad photograph or the girl’s ugly, then that pisses me off. Shit, I think bodies are great.
Every time I say the word pussy at a poetry reading, some idiot broad rises and has a fit. “What’s your definition of pussy, sister?” I dunno, it’s a slang term. If I wanna say pussy, I’ll saypussy. If I wanna say nigger, I’ll say nigger. If somebody wants to call me a cracker bitch, that’s cool. It’s all part of being American. But all these tight-assed movements are fucking up our slang, and that eats it.
Penthouse: Do you have many encounters with groupies?
Smith: Yeah, but they’re almost always girls. They’re usually pretty young, too. They try to act heavy and come on like leather. I always act as if they’re real cool. I never go anyplace with them. They bring me drugs and poetry and black leather gloves and stuff like that. It’s pretty funny. I don’t really know what they want. I mean, I think they’re actually straight girls.
The guys that I get, they’re always such great losers. Really pimply faced fuck-ups with thick glasses, but a lot of heart, y’know? My heart really goes out for those kids ‘cause I can still taste what it feels like to be sixteen and totally fucked up. I remember everything. And I figure if I came out of it okay, then these kids are going to be okay, too. They just need to be told that they’re going to be okay, that’s all.
Penthouse: Is there a lot of New Jersey in your stuff?
Smith: Yeah, south Jersey. There was a lot of railways there. All this bullshit about me being a street poet — did you ever read that shit they write about me? I had nothing to do with the streets. It’s all railroad tracks, hanging out by the tracks.
I danced a lot. I’d put on a stack of records, all the Marvelettes’ stuff. Most of them are in the key of A, and that’s my key. I’d stand in front of the mirror and sing and dance. I guess it all goes back to that.
Most of the cool people I knew in south Jersey are dead now, or in jail, or disappeared. A couple are pimps in Philly. I haven’t seen them in about twelve years, but a week doesn’t go by that I don’t think of ‘em. The coolest things I have, the coolest rhythms, all come from my life in south Jersey and Philly. All my dance steps, all my sensibilities. I think about all that old stuff a lot when I’m onstage. Those people, they haunt me in a real sweet way.
Me and my family are still real tight, though. I’ve always been the black sheep of the family, always getting in trouble or fucking up the family name — of Smith! But I’m finding that in my old age I’m affecting my mothers’ gestures. She’s all cigarettes and coffee. I told her to sing harmony on my record, but she said, “No, doll, I got a cigarette tenor.” Someday I’m gonna do a jazz album called Cigarette Tenor.
Penthouse: Did you start writing when you were a kid?
Smith: Yeah, I decided I wanted to be a writer when I read Little Women. Jo was so great. I really related to her. She was a tomboy, yet guys liked her and she had a lot of boyfriends. She was a real big influence on me, as much an influence as Bob Dylan was later. She was so strong and yet she was feminine. She loved guys, she wasn’t a bull or nothing. So I wanted to write. I had always been a daydreamer. I mean, I had a gang and stuff, I’d beat up Irish kids and things like that, but basically I was a daydreamer.
I was a terrible writer back then. I read a lot of Spanish poetry by Lorca and I wrote these long, stupid romances about men in love with their dead wives. Very Spanish. Orange trees and glowing moons and incestuous brothers and sisters and father kneeling in the dirt trying to get their dead wives to show them some warmth. Or killing their wives. It was always the same long story. Archaic language. Terrible, terrible stuff. “Ach! You are as cold in death as you were in life!” That was my big line. I thought it was really great. Then I realized I was a lousy writer so I started to paint.
Penthouse: What brought you back to being a writer?
Smith: I was living in Paris, painting and messing around. And I started to notice that my paintings were becoming more and more like cartoons, and that the words in these cartoonlike things were becoming more important to me than the paintings. I had gone to Paris to immerse myself in painting and I came back wholly involved in words and rhythms. I returned to New York and concentrated on poetry. That was in 1970, 1971.
Penthouse: You got a lot of heat from publishers at first, didn’t you? Was it your style or your content that most editors found hard to swallow?
Smith: They objected to both. They said I had sick attitudes for a woman. I’d get letters, “We find your thinking and ideas and your morals very immature. Write back when you mature.” I was twenty-six, for Chrissake! They were looking for the usual jive-ass poetry, I guess. But now they’re all knockin’ at my door with bags of money. Fuck ‘em.
Penthouse: When did it first occur to you to blend rock ‘n’ roll with poetry?
Smith: I had that idea all along. I always wrote like rock ‘n’ roll. And I always listen to rock ‘n’ roll as poetry. I’m talking about that dippy singer-songwriter stuff, I’m talking about “I Sold My Heart to the Junk Man,” shit like that.
At first it was just me and Lenny Kaye on electric guitar farting around at poetry readings. Then it started to gather force. We advertised for a piano player. We were really just bluffing, y’know? And all these guys would come in and say, “Hey, wanna boogie?” Me and Lenny were stoned, trying to talk all this cosmic bullshit to them like, “Well, what we want to do is go over the edge.” And finally Richard Sohl came in wearing a sailor suit, and he was totally stoned and totally pompous. We said, “This guy’s fucked up.” Lenny gave him the big cosmic spiel and Sohl said, “Look, buddy, just play.” We felt like we were the ones getting auditioned. So Sohl said, “Whadaya want? Ya want some classical?” He played a bunch of Mozart. “Ya want some blues?” He played a bunch of blues. I mean, the fuckin’ guy could play anything! So we started talkin’ and it turned out that he’d been raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, which I had been, too. We’d both rebelled against the same shit, and that helped. So we just brought him in.
And then we started looking for another guitarist. We had days and days of guitar players, all sort of maniac baby geniuses from Long Island, kids with $900 guitars who couldn’t play anything. Mother had sent them — in a cab! We’d make them do forty minutes of “Gloria.” I’d go off on this long poem about a blue T-bird smashing into a wall of sound or some shit like that and Lenny would keep the same three chords going, louder and louder. And we’d see who dropped out first. If the guy auditioning dropped out first, that meant he wasn’t any good. These kids couldn’t believe it, they thought we were nuts. So finally Ivan Kral came in. This little Czechoslovakian would-be rock star. He said, “I am here to be in your band.” He was so cute. And we said, “Oh, yeah?” So we did “Land of a Thousand Dances” and it went on so long I thought I was gonna puke. But Ivan was so nervous he wouldn’t stop, and we figured that was really cool. He ain’t no genius, but he’s got a lotta heart, Ivan does.
Then we picked up a drummer. It was natural, we had to have a drummer for Ivan. We didn’t really need a drummer, but Ivan wanted to be a rock star. He’d keep saying, “Oh, we must have a drum!” So we figured, Oh, fuck, okay, let’s get Ivan a drummer. That’s where Jay Dee Daugherty came in. The reason I like Jay Dee so much is that he’s really young and wants to be part of something that’s really cookin’. He was the most recent addition to the band, so we had to give him a crash course in everything. We’d tell him about the Arabs and sixteenth-century Japan and flying saucers. The poor kid had to carry all these books and records home every night.
Now it’s at the point where I really love the group. I did a solo reading the other week in Philadelphia. I went great, but I was so lonely. I read “Land Without Music,” and right away I’m thinking, Here’s the part where Lenny always fucks up; Here’s where I’d look at Sohl and tell him to stop sleeping on the keyboard. I missed them so much I didn’t want to ever again perform without them. They give me tremendous energy. I get like a little kid, and it’s beautiful.
Penthouse: Do you prefer live performance to recording?
Smith: Oh, yeah, I like energy. I like to feel it cracklin’, I like sexual energy in a room, and I like tension. I get mad when some asshole goes “Sh-h-h-h” when I’m doing a poem. People can talk, I don’t give a fuck. I don’t demand nothing from my audience. They’re the ones who are payin’. I hate to be told anything by a performer. Don’t you hate it when some guy up on stage tells you to be quiet? I mean, fuck him, y’know?
Penthouse: Some people say they hate to play in bars because people drink and make noise.
Smith: Shit, I like that stuff. I love playing bars. Hearing that pool cue really inspires me. When we used to play on the Bowery, I would almost burst into tears ‘cause of all the stuff that was happening. I’d look out at that long line of neon beer signs over the bar and that dog running around shitting while I’m in the middle of a beautiful ballad. There’d be a bunch of niggers beating the shit out of each other over by the pool table and all these drunks throwing back shots. It was the greatest atmosphere to perform in, it was conspiratorial. It was real physical, and that’s what rock ‘n’ roll’s all about: sexual tension and being drunk and disorderly!
Penthouse: What about those to try to place rock ‘n’ roll in the context of conscious intellectualism?
Smith: I don’t like people interpreting or psychologizing pure energy. They should go read tea leaves or something, ‘cause they’re fuckin’ up rock ‘n’ roll with their jive.
Another thing that’s fuckin’ up the music is television. I think that Helen Reddy hosting “Midnight Special” is bullshit. That broad never had a place in rock ‘n’ roll. That “I Am Woman” song is a piece of shit! All that stuff has warped kids’ minds. Kids see that schlock on TV, then they go out and buy it.
It’s like when they censored radio. You’d hear “Dance with Me, Henry,” but you wouldn’t hear “Work with Me, Annie.” You’d hear Pat Boone doing “Tutti Frutti,” but not Little Richard. That’s what it’s like all over again. It’s the fifties.
But we’re past the midpoint of a decade now, and I think a lot of people are ready to take a leap. I think we’ve had enough mediocrity. There is no way that singers like Elton John or Helen Reddy can ever transport people the way that Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix did. There’s just no way. They just ain’t there, y’know? I don’t feel that people will allow this shit to go on much longer. They won’t really let rock ‘n’ roll die or peter out or turn into Hollywood ‘cause when you clear away the tons and tons of bullshit, the heart of rock ‘n’ roll is integrity.
Penthouse: Now that you’ve begun performing for bigger audiences, do you think you’re in danger of losing anything, or having to alter your music and poetry?
Smith: Nah! I just think I’ll be talking less onstage. I have a lot of confidence in what we do, and I ain’t changing nothin’. As long as something’s perfect, as long as something’s effective, it doesn’t really matter.
I’ll never do a number in which I don’t have to put myself on the line. By that I mean that I’ll always enjoy putting myself on the spot, always enjoy playing with fire. That’s what “Land of a Thousand Dances” is for; that’s the one where I always hallucinate a long story at the end. And sometimes it’s really frightening, it’s like boxing: go crazy or go down.
Penthouse: You’ve been getting a lot of press lately. Is it the kind of press you like?
Smith: I really don’t want somebody writing something positive about me if they don’t believe in it. I’d rather somebody write something real mean, y’know? I like reading bad stuff, it gets me excited. In fact, the only reviews I keep are the bad ones ‘cause I think they’re the cool ones. I like when some guy in Variety gets outraged about my stuff. Or some school teacher writing for the Villager.
I’m pretty moral about what I do. If I didn’t think I was worthy of doing something, I wouldn’t do it. I ain’t gonna waste a bunch of people’s time. So good press don’t really mean anything to me, ‘cause I think I deserve it. I’d be full of shit if I said I didn’t think so. Good press, bad press, whatever, only means a lot to me if it’s writ by somebody I respect, by somebody I like.
Penthouse: A lot of people are very interested about what goes on between you and Bob Dylan. What do you talk to him about?
Penthouse: Absolutely nothin’?
Smith: Nah. Well, like he came backstage to see me, and he’s a totally physical guy. There was a period in my life when I thought about Dylan constantly. It was as if he had been my boyfriend. But when he walked into the room he was just a guy, a really cool guy. He ceased being Bob Dylan to me.
I enjoyed hearing him say my name. It was like high school. It was real embarrassing teenage stuff. He didn’t have nothing to say to me, I didn’t have nothing to say to him. We kept walking around, like dogs in a pit. He said, “What do you read Rimbaud in?” I said, “English.” He said, “I read him in French.” Totally teenage nonsense. But I thought he was a really cool guy, y’know? And that’s all he is to me now, a cool guy. I don’t like being around him too much ‘cause we’re two very restless people, and that creates a lot of nervousness. Plus I’m shy around really cool guys until I get to know them. Like, when I met Hendrix we just talked about the weather. When I met Jim Morrison we sat around looking at girls’ legs and discussing who had the best ass.
Dylan asked me about a poem I had written, the one about his dog. I felt like I’d been caught writing about a boy in my diary. I said, “Ah, c’mon, don’t get mad at me.” Really stupid. I told him it was just a dream I had. He said, “Oh, I like dreams. I ain’t mad. I really like what you’re doing.” He didn’t make any heavy statements.
He gave me a fantastic singing lesson. He really lives by singing. We were in a room with a few people who are gettin’ drunk and singing, taking turns singing all this soft, folksy shit, and when it was Dylan’s turn to sing he started singing like he’s at Madison Square Garden. It was pure heart, and I don’t think anyone’s ever captured that successfully on record.
Like I said, he ain’t Bob Dylan to me anymore, he’s a guy. I wasn’t that cool around him, but let me tell ya, he wasn’t no cooler. It was touching to see such great verbalizers acting like non-verbal jerkoffs.
Penthouse: If it came down to it, would you rather make books or records?
Smith: I like making records right now ‘cause I can express myself that way in a very immediate, physical sense. You can always write a book, but you can’t always do a rock ‘n’ roll record that’s gonna work. When I’m forty I don’t wanna try to do a rock ‘n’ roll record like Gene Vincent tried to do right before he popped off. It would have been much better if he’d written a book, y’know? Just a book about piss and shit and watching baseball and getting drunk and beating up broads. I mean that’s nobler than dying an old rock ‘n’ roll failure.
Penthouse: You sometimes mention that there’s a housewife side to you. Can you envision indulging that side?
Smith: Well, actually that’s just a romance of mine. I’m a total failure at housewifery. I always have been, ‘cause I daydream too much. If I start doing the dishes at one in the afternoon, I’ll still be there at six in the evening. Besides, housework makes me nauseous. Repetition makes me carsick. I used to get carsick when I did piecework at the factory in south Jersey. I’d have to inspect baby buggy bumper beepers — no shit — y’know, beep, beep, beep, and I’d wind up puking in the bathroom. I’d have to take those little yellow pills.
Penthouse: That’s what the song “Piss Factory” is about, isn’t it?
Smith: Yeah, right, I inspected beepers, steel sheets. It depended, it changed every week. I cut leather straps for baby carriages, made big cardboard boxes for baby mattresses. Toys, strollers, all that stuff.
Some people told me that “Piss Factory” was immoral, that it was base, it’s not immoral, it’s total truth. To me that little “Piss Factory” thing is the most truthful thing I ever writ. It’s autobiography. In fact, the truth was stronger than the poem. The stuff those women did to me at that factory was more horrible than I let on in the song. They did shit like gang up on me and stick my head in a toilet full of piss. People like beauty and purity. They pretend that’s what it’s all about. I don’t like that. That’s immoral.