Once dominated by Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, by the 1970s and ’80s, New York City’s creative scene had given way to a punk rock–era defined by figures like Debbie Harry and Richard Hell. While the aesthetics of these two movements seem different on the surface, author and prolific interviewer Victor Bockris—who witnessed it all—argues that the punks borrowed from the ideology and style of the beats, and that the beats were reenergized by the emergence of punk.
In intimate conversation, Bockris’s close friends—including celebrities from both periods, such as William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, Joey Ramone, and Patti Smith—reveal more about themselves and their art to him than to any other interviewer. Along with dozens of rare photos, Bockris’s interviews and essays capture the energy of this unique time.
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New York's Underground Culture from the Beat Generation to the Punk Explosion
By Victor Bockris
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Victor Bockris
All rights reserved.
The Patti Smith Interview
This interview was conducted in the loft Patti Smith shared with Robert Mapplethorpe just down the street from the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd street in Manhattan. Mapplethorpe's art, though sparse, was prominent on the walls. It was early August 1972. Patti had seen the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden a week earlier. My press, Telegraph Books, had published her first book of poems, Seventh Heaven, earlier that year. I had just returned from an extensive visit to England. Patti's pretty little sister, Linda, was also present. The interview is significant because this was the first occasion on which I realized I had some talent as an interviewer. And I imagine Patti must have realized she was an outstanding interviewee. It was published that September in one hundred copies by Jeff Goldberg by his Philadelphia based Red Room Books series.
VICTOR BOCKRIS: Would you consider yourself to be the greatest poet in New York City?
PATTI SMITH: Um, the greatest poet in New York City? Um, Shit. I can't think of what to say. I don't think I'm a great poet at all. I don't even think I'm a good poet. I just think I write neat stuff.
BOCKRIS: Why does it sell well?
SMITH: 'Cause I sell. 'Cause you know I got a good personality and people really like me. When people buy my book you know they're really buying a piece of Patti Smith. That book is autobiographical. It sheds the light of my heroes on it. No good poet thinks they're good. Blaise Cendrars said he was a bad poet.
BOCKRIS: How does it work in relation to people who don't know you? People in Omaha?
SMITH: Because I think I'm a good writer. I'm a good writer in the same way Mickey Spillane or Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain is a good writer. There's a lot of American rhythms. I mean I can seduce people. I got good punchlines, you know. I got all the stuff that Americans like. Some of it's dirt. There's a lot of good jokes. I mean I write to entertain. I write to make people laugh. I write to give a double take. I write to seduce a chick. I wrote "Girl Trouble" about Anita Pallenberg. Anita Pallenberg would read it and think twice and maybe she'd invite me over to the south of France and have a little nookie or something. Everything I write has a motive behind it. I write to have somebody. I write the same way I perform. I mean you only perform because you want people to fall in love with you. You want them to react to you.
BOCKRIS: John Wieners said to me yesterday that he figured he'd only just become a poet. He's thirty-eight and he figured this latest book of his [Selected Poems] was his first book. And it took him seventeen years to get there. What do you feel about that?
SMITH: The other day I reread my book and figured I had written my last book. I don't think that has anything to do with anything. Rimbaud wrote his last book when he was twenty-two and sometimes I figure I did my best work as an artist from post-adolescent energy.
BOCKRIS: Do you think you're a genius?
SMITH: I'm not very intelligent.
BOCKRIS: But genius is something else. So you agree, right?
SMITH: Yeah, yeah. It's like when I was a little kid I always knew that I had some special kind of thing inside me. I mean I wasn't very attractive. I wasn't very verbal. I wasn't very smart in school. I wasn't anything that showed physically to the world that I was something special but I had this tremendous hope all the time, you know, I had this tremendous spirit that kept me going no matter how fucked up I was. Just had this kind of light inside me that kept spurring me on.
BOCKRIS: Why don't you take us back there to New Jersey in those days when you were a teenager beginning the great trail out? I mean, tell us when you first started to write and everything. How it happened.
SMITH: Well, I always wrote. After I was seven when I read Little Women I wanted to be like Louisa May Alcott. The whole thing to me was in Little Women. Jo was the big move. It seems silly but Jo in Little Women with all those fairy tales and plays introduced me to the writer as performer. She would write those plays and perform them and get her sisters laughing even in the face of death so I wanted to be a chick like her, you know, who wrote and performed what I wrote and so I used to write these dumb little plays and then I wrote these banal little short stories but I wasn't good. I showed no promise and then when I went to high school I used to write these really dramatic poems just like any other kid writes. About everything I didn't know about. I was a virgin. I had never faced death. I had never faced war and pestilence and of course I read about sex, pestilence, disease, malaria, I read about everything but I never ...
BOCKRIS: What year is this?
SMITH: '62–'63. Then in '64 you know I started really getting involved in the lives of people. You know, it was like around '63–'64 I got seduced by people's lifestyles, like Modigliani, Soutine, Rimbaud.
BOCKRIS: How did you get in touch with Rimbaud?
SMITH: Well, I was working in a factory and I was inspecting baby-buggy bumper beepers and it was my lunch break and there was this genius sausage sandwich that the guy in the little cart would bring and I really wanted one. They were like $1.45 but the thing is the guy only brought two a day and the two ladies who ruled the factory, named Stella Dragon and Dotty Hook, took these sausage sandwiches. They were really wrecks, they had no teeth and everything.
So there was nothing else I wanted. You get obsessed with certain tastes. My mouth was really dying for this hot sausage sandwich so I was real depressed. I went across the railroad tracks to this little bookstore. I was roaming around there and I was looking for something to read and I saw Illuminations, you know, the cheap paperback of Illuminations. I mean, every kid had it. Rimbaud looks so genius. There's that grainy picture of Rimbaud and I thought he was so neat looking and I instantly snatched it up and I didn't even know what it was about, I just thought Rimbaud was a neat name. I probably called him Rimbald and I thought he was so cool. So I went back to the factory. And I was reading it. It was in French on one side and English on the other and this almost cost me my job 'cause Dotty Hook saw that I was reading something that had foreign language and she said, "What are you reading that foreign stuff for?" and I said "It's not foreign," and she said, "It's foreign — it's communist — anything foreign is communist." So then she said it so loud hat everybody thought I was reading The Communist Manifesto or something and they all ran up and, of course, complete chaos, and I just left the factory in a big huff and I went home. So of course I attached a lot of importance to that book before I had even read it and I just really fell in love with it. It was gracious son of Pan that I fell in love with it 'cause it was so sexy.
BOCKRIS: At what point in this stage did you figure out and begin to understand what you were doing?
SMITH: Not until a few months ago.
BOCKRIS: Why then?
SMITH: Well, see, what happened is I didn't really fall in love with writing as writing. I fell in love with writers' lifestyles: Rimbaud's lifestyle — I was in love with Rimbaud for being a mad angel and all that shit. And then I became friends with Janet [Hamill] and she was a writer, there was all these writers in New Jersey. There was just like this little scene. I was secretly writing. I was doing a lot of art. People knew me as an artist and so, like, I was secretly ashamed of my writing because all my best friends were great writers. So I didn't have no confidence in myself. I used to write stuff mostly about girls getting rid of their virginity and I used to write like Lorca. I wrote this one thing about this brother raping his cold sister under the white moon. It was called, "The Almond Tree." While his father raped the young stepmother and she died and he was ... He looked at her cadaver and he said, "You are cold in death even colder to me than you were in life."
BOCKRIS: What do you find are the major problems you have as a writer at this point?
SMITH: When I was a kid? Well, I had no understanding of language. I was so romantic and I thought all you had to do is expel the romance. I had no idea the romance of language was a whole thing in itself. I had no idea of what to do with language. I mean, all I had was I used to record my dreams. I had no conception of style of words.
BOCKRIS: Tell me how Seventh Heaven got put together. It's a 48-page book. That's a lot of work.
SMITH: Right before I met Telegraph Books I started in the last two years reorganizing my style. I started feeling confidence in my writing. I just realized what language was. You know, I started seeing language as magic. Two things happened that really liberated me. The major thing was reading Mickey Spillane. Because I wanted to move out of ... I was starting to get successful in writing these long almost rock and roll poems. And I liked to perform them but I suddenly realized that though they were great performed, they weren't such hot shit written down. I'm not saying I didn't stand behind them, but there's a certain kind of poetry that's performance poetry. It's like the American Indians weren't writing conscious poetry, they were making chants. They were making ritual language and the language of ritual is the language of the moment. But as far as being frozen on a piece of paper is concerned, they weren't inspiring. You can do anything when you perform, you can say anything you want as long as you're a great performer, you know you can repeat a word over and over and over as long as you're a fantastic performer. You know you never understand what Mick Jagger is saying except "Let it Boogie" or "Jumping Jack Flash" but it's always so powerful 'cause he's such a fantastic performer.
BOCKRIS: Well how do you deal with that problem? That's a central problem in your work. Tony Glover says in his review of Seventh Heaven. He talks about the poetry of performance. I feel that's a central thing we're dealing with at the moment. How to get it down so you can have a book that people can read, but that you can also perform.
SMITH: That book to me represents me on the tightrope between writing and performing. I was writing stuff like "Mary Jane" or the Joan of Arc stuff, which is total performance poetry but, you know, I think they were worthy of being printed because their content is important. The Joan of Arc poem is almost total rhythm masturbation but it puts Joan of Arc in a new light, it puts her forth as a virgin with a hot pussy who realizes that she's gonna get knocked off before she gets a chance to come. So there is a concept there that made the rhythm worth of being frozen. But like I said, I was reading Mickey Spillane. I couldn't get into prose 'cause I don't talk that well. I'm not good in grammar. I can't spell. I have lousy sentence structure. I don't know how to use commas so I just get very intimidated when I write something that isn't completely vertical. So I started reading Mickey Spillane, you know, and Mike Hammer, his hammer language: I ran, I ran fast down the alley. And back again. I mean he wrote like that. Three- word sentences and they're like a chill and they're real effective and I got real seduced by his speed and at the same time I started reading Céline 'cause it's just too intellectual but the idea that he could freeze one word and put a period. He dared put one word — yellow — and follow it by forty other words like forty movements, also like some kind of concerto or something. He's not as seducing to me as Mickey Spillane but I juggled the two.
And then the third thing: I was reading Michaux. He's so funny. He wrote this thing called The Adventure of Phene and it's about this guy who's totally paranoid. He's so paranoid he goes to Rome and wants to see the Coliseum and the travel guide says, "Oh, I'm so sorry. Well, could I at least have a postcard?" and he says, "Don't be ridiculous." And he says, "Oh, I never really meant to have a postcard. I don't even know why I came to this country." And he leaves.
So I mean I got three things. I got speed, humor, the holiness of the single word. So I just mixed them all up.
BOCKRIS: Mostly European influences, Rimbaud, Cendrars, CÃ(c)line, Michaux.
SMITH: Well, it used to be totally European. I had no interest in American writing at all.
SMITH: It's because of biographies. I was mostly attracted to lifestyles and there just were not any great biographies of genius American lifestyles except the cowboys. And I'm a girl and I was interested in the feminineness of men.
BOCKRIS: What you're trying to do in your writing is create a lifestyle. Seventh Heaven is a lifestyle.
SMITH: If I didn't think so much of myself I'd think I was a name-dropper, but there's a difference. You can read my book and who do you get out of it? Edie Sedgwick, Marianne Faithfull, Joan of Arc, Frank Sinatra ... all people I really like. But I'm not doing it to drop names. I'm doing it to say this is another piece of who I am. You know, I am an American. It's ironic I should be so involved with the French because I'm absolutely an American. I'm shrouded in the lives of my heroes.
BOCKRIS: Would you find anybody in America now who you think influences you a lot?
SMITH: It's mostly dead people.
BOCKRIS: Anybody alive?
SMITH: Dylan. You can't reject Dylan. But Dylan seduced me when he had a fantastic lifestyle. I'll always love Dylan all my life but Dylan was a big thing to me when he was BOB DYLAN. Now he's whatever he is but when he was there and had America in the grip of his fist, then I got so excited about him. As far as anybody living.
BOCKRIS: I find the position of a writer is a fairly isolated one. It's fairly lonely task. Do you find that?
SMITH: No, 'cause I don't have the balls to say I'm a writer. I don't think I'm good enough. See, I love my works. I think I've written some really good things. I think "Judith" is just as good as anything ever written, but I couldn't sit down and do it all the time. Oh, Sam Shepard. I admire him.
BOCKRIS: Do you find you learn from him?
SMITH: Sure, I learn from Sam because Sam is one of the most magic people I've ever met. Sam is really the most true American man I've ever met in as far as he's also hero-oriented. He has a completely western romance mind. He loves gangsters, he loves cowboys, he's totally physical. He loves bigness. You know Americans love bigness. In his plays there's always a huge Cadillac or a huge breast or a huge monster. His whole life moves on rhythms. He's a drummer. I mean, everything about Sam is so beautiful and has to do with rhythm. That's why Sam and I successfully collaborated because he didn't know that he was ... intuitively he worked with the rhythm. I do it conceptually. I work with being a thematic writer. He just does it because he's got rhythm in his blood. I do it intellectually. He does it from the heart. And so we were able to establish a really deep communion that way.
BOCKRIS: You're not working with him at the moment, are you?
BOCKRIS: You don't associate with many writers?
SMITH: Well, my best friends are writers. I never collaborate.
BOCKRIS: I wasn't thinking so much of collaborations. People I feel more comfortable with tend to be writers nowadays because they tend to recognize me and I tend to recognize them.
SMITH: No, I don't think I have the modern writer's lifestyle.
BOCKRIS: You don't take yourself seriously?
SMITH: Ultimately, I don't take anything serious and I can take everything seriously. I'm too much of a cynic to take anything serious. If I'm in a good, pure, relaxed state I can look at certain of my works and like them. But most of the time I look at my stuff and say, Ah, this is a load of shit. Mick Jagger listens to his albums and says they're shit. Bob Dylan listens to his albums and says they're shit. It hurts me to read an interview where Bob Dylan says he hates Nashville Skyline. But I know how I feel. The best work to me is the work in progress. Which I why I produce ... I almost hate to see my work go out. I'm more guilty of not being published than any publisher because I'm always in progress. I didn't like to finish my drawings. Yeats was like that. How many versions of "Leda and the Swan" did he do? It's so difficult 'cause it means it's dead. De Kooning did twenty-eight dead women under Women I because you know he couldn't stand to say that she was done. It's like you know when a woman has a baby, she created it. It's just begun. But when an artist does a piece of work, as soon as he does the last brushstroke or the last period, it's finished.
Excerpted from Beat Punks by Victor Bockris. Copyright © 1998 Victor Bockris. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Patti Smith Interview
- 2 King of the Underground: The Magic World of William Burroughs
- 3 The Death Of Allen Ginsberg, By Rosebud Feliu-Pettet
- 4 National Arts Club Literary Award Dinner For Allen Ginsberg
- 5 Muhammad Ali On The Art Of Personality
- 6 Allen Ginsberg On Heroes
- 7 An Interview With Debbie Harry
- 8 An Interview With Marianne Faithfull
- 9 Susan Sontag: The Dark Lady Of Pop Philosophy
- 10 The Captain’s Cocktail Party: Dinner With Jagger, Warhol and Burroughs
- 11 An Interview With Keith Richards
- 12 An Interview With Our Greatest Satirist: Terry Southern
- 13 I Would Have Been A Soldier: An Interview With Nicolas Roeg
- 14 Blondie On The Bowery By Debbie Harry, Chris Stein And Victor Bockris
- 15 An Interview With Debbie Harry
- 16 Blondie Meets Burroughs
- 17 Burroughs On Punk Rock
- 18 Susan Sontag Meets Richard Hell
- 19 Notes Of A Punk Rock Groupie
- 20 Joey Ramone: A Literary Relationship
- 21 Andy Warhol The Writer
- 22 An Interview With Martin Amis
- 23 Berlin Rocks
- 24 Christopher Isherwood Meets William Burroughs
- 25 Robert Mapplethorpe Takes Off
- Image Gallery
- About the Author