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spacer Patti Smith, New York City, 1976
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Patti Smith, New York City, 1976

Look at these hands. More grace than you’d expect from a Jersey girl, especially in the dead of a New York winter, January to be precise. Patti Smith was always fond of telling people that she had grown up in the farm town of Pittman, NJ. It was no cow town; it was where Columbia Records pressed its vinyl discs. In fact she was raised in Mantua, where her mother Beverly worked at a Tyco factory painting model train sets. “She was always a dreamer, and I encouraged her fantasies,” Beverly said of Patti. “When she was little, she and a girlfriend used to dress up like Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddie, and make believe they were in movies. She used to say she wanted to grow up to be Judy Garland.” This portrait was shot on 47th Street, a few doors east of The Gotham Book Mart, where Patti had just given a poetry reading. William Burroughs was there, as were Allen Ginsberg and Aaron Copeland – who left quickly because there was too much cigarette smoke in the air. All of them were clearly happy that something literary was afoot in the rock world. Two months earlier Patti had released her debut album, “Horses,” to rave reviews. Some critics, myself included, saw her as the successor to Jim Morrison, who had died in a Paris bathtub in 1971. But clearly she was torn by all this attention: delighted that rock audiences could appreciate her clever commingling of poetic verses with riffs from “Gloria” and “The Land of 1,000 Dances;” but terribly conscious of not wanting to forsake the beat poets who had warned her early on about the kind of flashy, shallow existence that engulfs most rockers. This night was a homecoming. She had been on the road with her band for several months, and now was back at the Gotham, an entrenched literary salon, the meeting place of the Finnegans Wake Society. She had to pull herself away from the crowd there so we could head off for dinner. I had no flash, and told her I wanted to make a portrait – somewhat presumptuous, since she was living at the time with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who had shot the Vogue-worthy cover of her album. She picked a doorway that had the best lighting to be found on the block, fluffed up her hair and arranged her Tibetan prayer shawl around her neck. And she knew exactly how to stand. She froze into a perfect pose. Click. Another perfect pose. Click. “When I was a kid I always read Vogue,” she said. That’s my real dream, to be on the cover. I want Helmut Newton to do it. I turned down Sacvullo; he’s too commercial. Don’t you think I’m a great model?”

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