Hear Patti Smith’s First Poetry Reading, Accompanied by Her Longtime Guitarist Lenny Kaye (St. Mark’s Church, 1971)

There are so many ori­gin sto­ries of punk that no sin­gle his­to­ry can count as defin­i­tive. But there’s also no dis­put­ing its roots in the New York poet­ry scene from which Pat­ti Smith emerged in the 1960s and 70s. She learned from Allen Gins­berg and William S. Bur­roughs, and Gre­go­ry Cor­so and Sam Shep­herd inspired the poetry/rock hybrid that would become the music of Hors­es.

Cor­so, who called him­self a “punk debauche” in his 1960 poem “1959,” lived up to the label. He would heck­le poets “dur­ing their list­less per­for­mances,” writes Kem­brew McLeod in Down­town Pop Under­ground, “yelling, ‘Shit! Shit! No blood! Get a trans­fu­sion!’ Sit­ting at Corso’s side,” dur­ing poet­ry read­ings host­ed by the Poet­ry Project at St. Mark’s Church, “Smith made a men­tal note not to be bor­ing.”

She fol­lowed her friend Sam Shepard’s advice to add music to her first pub­lic read­ing and called gui­tar play­er Lenny Kaye to accom­pa­ny her. “It was pri­mar­i­ly a solo poet­ry read­ing,” McLeod writes, “with occa­sion­al gui­tar accom­pa­ni­ment.” The 1971 appear­ance, which you can hear in the record­ing above, set the tone for almost all of her sub­se­quent per­for­mances for the next sev­er­al decades.

“We did ‘Mack the Knife,” Kaye recalls, “because it was Bertolt Brecht’s birth­day, and then I came back for the last three musi­cal pieces. I hes­i­tate to call them ‘songs,’ but in a sense they were the essence of what we would pur­sue.” Odd­ly, that year also marked the first usage of “punk” to describe a style of music, though it was applied to the garage rock of ? and the Mys­te­ri­ans, not to Smith and Kaye’s music. She her­self has said she didn’t con­sid­er what they were doing to be “punk” at all.

This does­n’t much mat­ter. It was atti­tude and the ener­gy Smith trans­lat­ed from St. Marks to the CBG­Bs scene that secures her “God­moth­er” sta­tus. She was impressed, as she says above, by Jim Mor­ri­son and Jimi Hen­drix. She was also impressed by a 1971 essay writ­ten by Andrew Wylie, who pub­lished her first book after her St. Mark’s read­ing. “Liv­ing as we were in an extreme­ly vio­lent, frag­ile time,” Smith’s Unau­tho­rized Biog­ra­phy recounts, “[Wylie] was drawn to short, almost ampu­tat­ed works.” He con­clud­ed that “just to be alive in such times was an act of vio­lence.”

Punk poet­ry, or what­ev­er we want to call it, was born in a church on St. Mark’s Place in New York City in 1971. From then on, what­ev­er oth­er strains came togeth­er to make punk rock, Smith’s chan­nel­ing of Cor­so, Shep­ard, Bur­roughs, Mor­ri­son, etc., backed by Kaye’s steady gui­tar work, has res­onat­ed through the music into the present.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Pat­ti Smith “Saved” Rock and Roll: A New Video Makes the Case

Pat­ti Smith’s List of Favorite Books: From Rim­baud to Susan Son­tag

Pat­ti Smith Sings “Peo­ple Have the Pow­er” with a Choir of 250 Fel­low Singers

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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