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