Like many hardcore New Yorkers, I was born someplace else. In my case, it was San Francisco, a lovely city where I did my earliest lame adventuring. Bruce Thiesen, a Bay Area native who writes the blog, Ram On, recently published a post featuring verse by Patti Smith that triggered memories of an up close and personal encounter I had with her in May 1978.
Patti was on tour promoting her latest album, Easter. It featured her biggest mainstream hit, a song she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen called Because the Night. It reached number 13 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. She had also just published a book of poetry called Babel. I saw her on that tour when she played a fantastic concert at Winterland Arena. The next day, the San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic, Joel Selvin, published a rave review of her performance. He compared her “to a young Mick Jagger”. Mick was 34. Patti was 31.
Patti was appearing at B. Dalton Booksellers on Sutter and Kearny Streets in San Francisco’s financial district where she was signing Babel. I had a copy that I wanted autographed. I also packed my camera, a 35 mm Minolta SRT201. That was my parents’ reward to me for both graduating high school and getting accepted into San Francisco State University. It was their way of encouraging their slacker to graduate college, a feat that took me seven years to achieve, just like Sarah Palin. I attended my class in some subject that made absolutely no lasting impression, and then jetted over to Dalton’s. I was such a sloth it never occurred to me to cut class. That was very Bozo, for there was a line of people streaming out of the store and down Kearny Street; what appeared to me to be far more people than those that attended the concert. The cynic in me, who coincidentally comprises most of me, sensed that these were people that were there only because they read Selvin’s review and very few were actual fans.
It was apparent that I didn’t have a hope in hell of getting in to have my book signed, much less to take her picture. But I knew that my camera looked professional enough. A young guy in front of me, who had attended the show, held my place in line so I could slip into the store to take a shot.
When a store worker came outside to confirm my fear that we would not gain entry, I spewed a bald faced lie. I claimed that I was supposed to photograph her for the Phoenix, State’s campus newspaper. Swallowing the bait whole, he instructed me to go to the freight entrance where she’d be exiting.
So, there I was, 19-years-old but I could still easily pass for 12, with the real deal all-male press. When she exited that elevator, in a bowler hat and a ratty fake fur jacket, I jumped in front of all those guys, and started snapping shots.
What I didn’t anticipate was Patti wrapping her arm around me and holding me close. I kept taking pictures. My adrenaline was pumping.
Me (thinking): Patti Smith is holding me! This is so cool! I can see up her nose!
When she saw the beat-up VW van her record label had waiting for her, she said in an incredulous tone:
Patti Smith: I came early and I stayed late and this is my limousine? This is the best that Arista* can do for me?
She turned to me:
Patti Smith: Wanna go to San Diego?
She held me closer and insisted:
Patti Smith: C’mon!
A security guard the size of a redwood approached.
Mr. Big: Let the kid go.
Just as he was going to grab me, she let me out of her grasp and entered the van.
I can still see her gesturing at me to get in. But I didn’t pursue my groupie moment further. I had to head over to Petrini’s, a supermarket near my house, to pick up the fish for the family dinner that night. If we were the type of family where the parents were inclined to ask:
Parents: How was your day?
I would have answered:
Me: I almost went to San Diego with a rock star leaving you guys to eat canned tuna!
Sometimes I wonder what might have happened had I accepted her invitation and entered that van. Then I reason that that no-nonsense guard probably would have pulled me out with such force I might have ended up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
But there is an epilogue to this lame adventure. Consider it another lame adventure that happened thirty years later here in New York. Patti and I met again. I was at a screening of a documentary about her that played the Film Forum.
My friend, Albee, urged me to have her sign those photos I shot in 1978. He joked:
Albee: Maybe she’ll try to pick you up again?
That lightning didn’t strike twice, probably to the relief of both 61-year-old Patti and 49-year-old me, but she was still as cool as ever in person. Maybe even cooler. I finally got her autograph.
*Arista was her record label.