Coffee with Ms. Patricia Lee Smith

Paul Myers’ author note: This story was originally published on my old (and dormant) Pulmyears Music Blog in May of 2009, as I was researching and doing interviews for my subsequent book A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio (Jawbone Press, 2010). I dashed off most of this entry back at my hotel immediately after returning from Greenwich Village where I had just interviewed Patti Smith for the chapter on the fourth and final Patti Smith Group album, Wave, exactly 30 years and 13 days to the day after its release. She was most generous and patient with me, even if the interview got off to a rather horrendous start. So, thank you Patti.

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 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 such a rush to become so inured to my appreciation of the actual human beings in my midst who have made actual artistic contributions that affected my life and the lives of countless others. I say all this as a preamble because I have just suffered through one such fan gawk moment as I sat down to interview Patti Smith in a Greenwich Village cafe about an hour ago.

Patti Smith by © Annie Leibovitz (used without permission)

I was already feeling apprehensive.

Patti had requested that we meet at one of her favorite Greenwich Village cafes, and I had arrived a few minutes early to stake out a quiet place in which to record the interview when I noticed a hand written sign that said “NO LAPTOPS.” I was in trouble. I [used to] record all my interviews directly onto my MacBook Pro, with Apple’s GarageBand software, and I didn’t have a backup plan. I had never even told Patti ahead of time about my method, she couldn’t have warned me. So here I was, with the laptop, Patti’s not here yet, and I am already feeling sick to my stomach. I mean, I totally get it, laptops would probably yuppify and wreck the ambience of this old beatnik place, but either way, 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.

Oh shit, there’s 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 genuinely puzzled that anyone would do that. I am now feeling worse than the time back in Grade 5 at Lescon Road Public School, when I accidentally dropped and killed the school hamster, “Herman,” to the shrieking horror of three girls next to me.

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.

I think to be kind to Patti, the cafe manager relents.

“You can do it,” she says, “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.

Patti leans into the mic and says: “Hello. This is Patti Smith. We are in the Caffe Dante and it’s May 30th, the anniversary of the burning of Joan Of Arc to the stake. It’s Joan of Arc Feast Day, one of my favorite days, obviously not because of the unpleasant event, but it’s just a great day for contemplation.

There’s a very loud refrigerator in the background; nothing I can do about that now. The waitress kindly turns down the radio though, which is nice.

Patti Smith Group, Wave, released May 1979. (album cover photo by Robert 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 really freaking out, mainly freaking out because it’s so plain that I’m so freaked out. And yet, even in this moment of pure humiliation, I am also very thankful that Patti has had the good sense to calm me down before I went any further, or any faster. Her note to me didn’t feel like a rebuke or put down, it was more loving and maternal, like she just didn’t want to see me in such 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 her most polite and self-effacing way, she nodded that 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. But she kept going, generously, and at times, excitedly recounting the whole story. Every detail. At 75 minutes, I turned off the recorder and thanked her for her time. I thanked her for her art. And I thanked her for calming me the fuck down. As we said our goodbyes, she told me I could contact her if I needed anything more and off she went into the Village, down the cobble-stoned 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. Rock and roll journalism isn’t really glamorous as it might sound if you’ve never tried making a career out of it, but some legends live up to your expectations.

And on days like this, it’s the best job in the world.