Coffee with Ms. Patricia Lee Smith

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.

Patti Smith by © Annie Leibovitz (used without permission)

Patti Smith by © Annie Leibovitz (used without permission)

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.

The Wave album cover by Mapplethorpe.

The Wave album cover by Mapplethorpe.

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.

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14 Responses to “Coffee with Ms. Patricia Lee Smith”

  1. please send link/access to your interview with PS.
    I have a taped Interview between her & Todd from late seventies, which is one of the most revealing/vulnerable revelations that i’ve read/heard from either of them.

  2. Michael Watt Says:

    Are you writing a book about recording studios or about Todd Rundgren or about Todd Rundgren and recording studios? Either way, please keep me apprised of its progress. I would love to get a copy of it once it is published.

  3. This is great. Love it.

  4. Janet Murphy Says:

    I am very interested in Todd Rundgren: Sounds of the Studio. May I be on your e-mail list for that? Thanks.

  5. namelessneed Says:

    It’s important that I join the group and request a look at yr interview, pulleese. I’m a long time fan of Patti & Todd both.
    I enjoyed you sharing yr experience. thanx

  6. Marc Jeffrey Says:

    thanks for posting. some related thoughts:

    * she reviewed Ballad of Todd Rundgren for Rolling Stone

    * she had a poem inserted in the sleeve of A Wizard a True Star.

    Wondering if either of those came up in the chat.

  7. This was such a fun read, Paul!
    Your dorkery amuses me.

  8. What a great story. I did a come back show with Patti at the Phoenix in Toronto about 98 or 99. Her band was terrible but at least Lenny Kaye was playing guitar.
    She signed a mini poetry book the tour manager gave me and during her set she asked me where she could pee. I told her that just up the stairs was a toilet but she shook her head like that wouldn’t do. We were standing next to a garbage can. She looked at me and I looked at her and said (probably too loudly) “Go ahead”. I love Patti Smith.

  9. Shawn Gommer (TRouBLe) Says:

    Paul, I love your honesty. It sets you apart from other writers. And you are so right about Spectacle, great program

  10. Patti Smith is a load of crap.

  11. Dale Van Every Says:

    Great story, Paul. I felt for ya. Thank you.

  12. Mr wordsmith, it’s YOUR precious time, not YOU’RE precious time. Otherwise great story. Just love PS.

  13. […] may recall, by clicking here, that I blogged in real time about my interview with Patti herself, and the emotions I felt sitting […]

  14. […] Village cafe a couple of years ago (while she was preparing Just Kids) and I blogged about that here. I was struck then by her down-to-earth, almost folksy, nature and pragmatism about being a […]

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