At this stage in my writing career, having spoken to a heck of a lot of rock stars and otherwise artistic legends (particularly for my current Todd Rundgren studio history) I should be well past the tongue tied and sweaty, Chris Farley Show moments (“You’re awesome!”). But then again, maybe I shouldn’t be in a rush to be so inured to the appreciation of actual human beings in my midst who have made actual artistic contributions that affected the lives of real people. I say all this as a preamble because I just had a fan gawk moment as I sat down to interview Patti Smith in a Greenwich Village cafe.
Before she even arrived at the cafe, at which she had suggested to meet me, I was apprehensive. I had arrived a few minutes early to stake out a quiet place in which to record my interview (for the aforementioned Todd Rundgren: Sounds of the Studio, he produced Wave for the Patti Smith Group) and noticed a hand written sign that said “NO LAPTOPS.” I was in trouble. I record all my interviews these days directly onto my MacBook Pro, with Sony mic going in through an iMic USB adapter, and Apple’s GarageBand software. I don’t have a backup plan, and since I never told Patti ahead of time about my method, she couldn’t have warned me. I totally get it, this is an old beatnik place and laptops would just yuppify and wreck the ambience. But I’m screwed. She’s running a few minutes late so I tell the staff of my dilemma.
“I’m supposed to interview Patti Smith here in a few minutes,” I tell the polite waitress. “But I record onto my laptop, can you bend the rules for 30 minutes.”
“I know Patti,” says the waitress, “she comes here all the time, but the boss is very strict about the rules so I can’t let you do that.”
Patti’s not here yet. Sweat. Heartbeat. Panic. A distinct need for Pepto-Bismol.
Then I see Patti walking up the street. I walk toward her and while she’s greeting the staff I cut in and introduce myself, and start explaining my situation.
“You record on a laptop?” she says, looking geniunely puzzled that anyone would do that.
I apologize and start the self-flagellation, which in hindsight seems entirely appropriate given the Catholic imagery in her songs.
“I feel like a dork!” I blurt out, immediately regretting the poor choice of words. Me, a wordsmith and her, Patti Smith, and all I can come up with is “dork.” Now I’m really racing. And I haven’t even ordered a coffee yet.
“You can do it,” says that manager. “But sit in the back area, and don’t be very long.”
We’re on. I rush us back to the table and start opening up my MacBook and hooking up the mic. Quick sound check. There’s a very loud refrigerator in the background, but nothing I can do about that now. The waitress turns down the radio though, which is nice.
And so I begin.
“First Patti,” I blurt out in a very loud and panicked tone, and way too rushed to be comprehended, “I want to say thanks for doing this. Let’s not waste your precious time. If you don’t mind, I want to go right back to when you first met Todd…”
Patti looks concerned. She stops me, cold.
“Can I just tell you,” she leans in, “that you’re speaking very loudly, try to keep your voice lower.”
Now I’m freaked out that I’m freaked out. But also very thankful that she had the sense to calm me down before I went any further, or any faster. Her note to me wasn’t a rebuke or put down, it was maternal, like she just wanted me to not be in any distress, not to mention give her any. I took a deep breath. I smiled, quietly apologized and put my head down. Looking up, I knew it would be okay to calmly begin again.
“Thanks,” I said, “I guess it’s partly because, although I’ve interviewed a lot of ‘famous’ folks, not everyone of them is such an iconic artistic force…you know?” In a most polite, and self-effacing way, she did.
“So why don’t you tell me how you met Todd,” I began. Again.
And off she went. I had hoped for 30 minutes. I warned her at the 50 minute mark that she could stop if she needed to. She generously, and at times, excitedly recounted the whole story. Every detail. At 75 minutes, I turned off the recorder and thanked her for her time. For her art. And for calming me the fuck down. She told me to contact her if I needed anything more and went off into the Village, down the streets where Bobby Neuwirth had once told a young bookstore clerk named Patricia Lee Smith that her poems were great and that she should write songs.
I smiled to myself at the history in these streets and how I’d been lucky enough to intersect with some of it.
I love my job.