Via the Poetry Project at St. Marks, I came across this brief video posted by the music site/magazine NME featuring Patti Smith, called “My First Gig: Desecrating a Church with Electric Guitar.” Smith talks about her first performance “worthy of remembering,” which was a poetry reading she gave on February 10, 1971, at the Poetry Project at St. Marks.
Smith also writes about this reading as a life-changing event in her celebrated memoir Just Kids. There she explains how Robert Mapplethorpe helped arrange the reading for her, by asking Gerard Malanga if Smith could open for him at a reading he was giving at the Poetry Project, and Malanga “generously agreed.” At that point the Poetry Project was “shepherded by Anne Waldman,” and, Smith writes, “was a desirable forum for even the most accomplished poets.” In the interview, she says St. Marks was “a very classic poetry venue, where Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and all of our poets performed and it was quite an honor to perform there.”
Smith’s reading that night was quite unusual and controversial, as it included an electric guitar punctuating her poems and also featured her singing some songs. As she tells it in this interview: “I was quite young in my early 20s with extreme amounts of agitated energy. I wasn’t content to just stand there and read poetry. I wanted to perform my poetry in the way that I was learning from Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix or the great Beat poets, and also I liked to sing a little, so I injected a little song within my poems.” She asked the guitarist Lenny Kaye to add a little “interpretive electric guitar” in the midst of a poem of hers about a car crash.
“It was a bit controversial,” Smith notes, “because we had sort of desecrated the hall of poetry with an electric guitar, but on the other hand it got quite a strong reception.” She says “No one had ever done that in this church, certainly not a girl, and certainly, well, no one had brought an electric guitar in the church before and it caused a bit of a stir.”
In Just Kids, she writes: “It was a night of nights. Gerard Malanga was a charismatic poet-performance artist and drew much of the creme of the Warhol world, everyone from Lou Reed to Rene Ricard to Brigid Berlin to Andy himself … Poets like John Giorno, Joe Brainard, Annie Powell, and Bernadette Mayer… Anne Waldman introduced us. I was totally wired. I dedicated the evening to criminals from Cain to Genet.”
In the NME interview, she points out that Horses, her landmark debut album, often considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time, actually grew directly out of the pieces she performed at St. Marks that night in 1971: “A lot of these poems that I performed in 1971 found their way into Horses. The opening line of ‘Gloria,’ ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,’ was in a poem called ‘Oath’ that I read that night in 1971.”
In case anyone has ever doubted the connections between the New York School of poetry and at least one powerful strain of rock music, Smith puts it pretty bluntly: “So Horses didn’t just come out of the air. It evolved organically from my first poetry reading.”
(Note: Patti Smith’s February 1971 reading is also discussed in detail in Daniel Kane’s terrific in-depth exploration of Patti Smith and the Poetry Project, which appeared in the collection Among Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry. Philip Shaw’s book on Horses for the 33 1/3 series also opens with a detailed description of the event. Some of Smith’s early performances can be found at UbuWeb, here, though not this one. However, a recording of the February 1971 performance is available on CD).