Andy's Aura, Patti's Power, My Sister's Boxes,
My Father's Press Clippings, Paul Nelson's Withering,
and Other Aspects of Art and Fame, Obscurity
and Loss, Death and Resurrection

Before anything bad ever happened, we lived in a bungalow on a dead-end street in Staten Island. On summer afternoons our son Holden would snooze in his baby carriage in the yard, in the shade of a little grape arbor from which our elderly Italian landlady, Mrs. Orsini, made her own wine.

We had few visitors. As far as I can recall only two strangers ever found their way to our door. One was a representative of the hokey correspondence course called The Famous Artists School. (I had copied a sketch of a lumberjack from a matchbook cover and Jeannie had mailed it in on a lark.) One day he showed up out of the blue with good news: I had “those magic talent fingers.”

We gave him a glass of iced tea, made as if to listen raptly to his spiel, and managed not to crack up until we had shown him out.

The other unexpected visitor was an itinerant baby photographer who had somehow found out that we had a newborn in the house. We didn’t realize we had signed up not for a single session, but for annual ones over several years, until threatening letters started arriving with the invoices. They didn’t stop until Jeannie informed them that the contract was not legally binding, since she was still a minor.

Since we both wrote and painted, we dreamed of putting aside enough out of the unemployment insurance checks from my last job as a copy-boy for Women’s Wear Daily to move to Manhattan and take part in the art and poetry scene. And eventually we did. But I know now that we were as happy in our romantic isolation back then as we would ever be again

* * *

Around the same time, Patti Smith and her boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe shared an apartment in Brooklyn and commuted to Manhattan every day, he to trim windows at F.A.O. Schwarz Toy Store, she to sell books at Scribners, nearby on Fifth Avenue.

Patti had already had a baby girl with some no-account boy back in South Jersey, where she had spent her adolescence after her family moved there from Philadelphia, but had put her up for adoption. Later she would say, “I gave it up...because I wanted to be an artistsimple as that. I wanted to create and recreate in my own way. I didn’t want to create through another personat that point in my life.”

At night, Patti made drawings inspired by the madhouse scrawls of Antonin Artaud and wrote lowercase beatnik poetry while Robert, who had not yet claimed his gay identity and started taking the erotic photographs for which he would become known, worked on assemblages of found objects influenced by the box-constructions of Joseph Cornell. They, too, inhabited their own little creative haven in isolation, while dreaming of finding a place in Manhattan, where all the art action was.

But unlike Jeannie and me, they weren’t romanticizing cold water lofts on Tenth Street, where the Abstract Expressionists had paid their dues. As Janet Hamill, one of Patti’s early friends would later recall, “They were both totally enraptured by the idea of being artists and living outside of society, but they wanted to be rich and famous, too...”

* * *

In contrast to Robert Mapplethorpe’s early-Seventies photographs of a raven-haired punk waif with a beguiling chip on her shoulder, more recent portraits of Patti Smith by Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz project mature self-possession.

In a youth-obsessed era, when female celebrities of every vintage invariably present themselves to the public eye dolled up in girly draglike female impersonators to the gender born!these pictures make a brave statement. They say: Here, take it or leave it, is a serious woman of a certain age, unafraid to be seen without makeup, uncoiffed; to let her gray grow out, and even to flaunt a faint menopausal mustache in serene indifference to the cosmetic dictates of the Male Gaze.

Discounting a radical feminist or two, bent on making a political statement, no woman of notable accomplishment has posed so forthrightly since Georgia O’Keeffe let her hair down for Alfred Stieglitz, projecting a new species of feminine beauty signifying strength rather than acquiescence.

Indeed, in Patti’s pantheon of mostly male artistic heroes, O’Keeffe, for whom she named a characteristically incantatory poem (“georgia o’keeffe / all life still / cow skull /bull skull / no bull shit / she’s no fool” ), stands lone and tall.

It has to please her that many will be reminded of O’Keeffe when they see the title of photographer Frank Steranko’s new coffee table volume: “PATTI SMITH: AMERICAN ARTIST.”

* * *

The first time Jeannie and I were introduced to her, at a private showing of Robert Mapplethorpe’s assemblages at the Hotel Chelsea in 1971, Patti struck me the way she once described herself in high school: like the kind of plain, insecure girl who did the homework of boys she had a crush on.

But when I mentioned having seen her byline on record reviews in Rolling Stone, the magazine for which I wrote feature articles and a regular column called “New York Confidential,” she cut me off with, “Ackshully, “I’m a Poet!”

With her ratty hair and oversized men’s sportjacket, she may have looked like Diane Keaton put through a shredder, but Patti Smith would not be patronized. I admired her healthy self regard, and thereafter we greeted each other amiably whenever we met in the orbit around the Chelsea, Max’s Kansas City, and Andy Warhol’s Factory.

Although I never knew her well, I once spent a pleasant evening with her and Mapplethorpe, sharing our mutual enthusiasm for the Beat writers in a Village coffee shop, after a boozy reception at the Gotham Book Mart. She was surprisingly well read, particularly in French poetry, despite her semi-literate pose and her irritating habit of saying “writ” instead of “wrote,” which persists to this day. (I later came to realize that even this affectation was cleverly calculated, since the peculiar locution sounded simultaneously punky and biblically prophetic.)

In any case, I liked her well enough to attend her first performance as a singer. It took place at The Poetry Project at Saint Mark’s Church, in the East Village, before an audience of downtown scenemakers who were there mainly for Gerard Malanga, the poet and Warhol associate with whom she shared the bill. But Patti stole the show with her sheer chutzpah, dedicating her performance “to all that is criminal” and launching into a rant about The Tower of Babel: “Everybody tells about the great tower that they rose up to face God, but no one talks about the pit that was being dug at the time, so men could stick their tongues in the mouth of Hell...”

Such stream-of-consciousness rants, segueing into classic rock ‘n’ roll riffs, would become hallmarks of her style, starting with her first album, “Horses,” in which a monologue about a kid tormented by schoolmates for being gay gradually takes on speed like a runaway merry-go-round and builds into the chorus of “Land of 1,000 Dances.”

Always eager to cement the fine art connection, Patti would later refer to this device as “abstract expressionism in rock ‘n’ roll.” But this night at Saint Marks, backed by a scholarly fellow record reviewer named Lenny Kaye on plodding instruction manual guitar, she inaugurated her showbiz incarnation with a rendition of “Mack the Knife” that might have raised the hackles of both Berthold Brecht and Bobby Darin.

At the time, it seemed an act of charity

to make no mention of the event in my


* * *

Many a nerdy intellectual record reviewer must harbor Walter Mitty fantasies of leaping onstage and cutting loose as a rock star. And even distinguished poet-professors like Princeton’s Paul Muldoon have been known to form garage bands with their faculty buddies. So for a long time, even as I became aware of her steady ascensioncritically acclaimed albums, a collaboration with Bruce Springsteen that put her on the charts, gigs with Dylan and U2I couldn’t help thinking of Patti Smith’s career as a bout of air-guitar that got seriously out of hand.

Consequently, more than two decades went by before I saw her perform again, quite by accident, when she made a surprise appearance on New Year’s Day, 1995, at the annual marathon reading at Saint Marks Church, where she began her career. In the interim, she had released three albums, to which I had never really bothered to listen, not only because I had been so underwhelmed by her debut performance but also because it had been a good many years since rock ‘n’ roll had seemed culturally relevant to me.

So I was taken aback to see grownups who had been sitting sedately for most of the day, listening with furrowed brow as poets recited from their work, start shrieking like teenyboppers the minute she took the stage. The level of adulation bestowed upon her was extraordinary, even though she appeared without her entire band and sang only one song to the now more competent strumming of her stalwart guitarist and longtime band member Lenny Kaye. The song, “Ghost Dance,” was a ponderous period-piece about a Native American uprising and her nasal drone was no more appealing than before. But that was beside the point.

In retrospect, although Patti’s charisma is lost on me, the only thing I can compare it to was a performance by Garrison Keillor, appearing with the New York Philharmonic, that Jeannie took me to recently for our wedding anniversary. Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, was filled with fans of Keillor’s radio show “A Prairie Home Companion,” to which we are faithful listeners. Keillor sang off-key, told windy stories about his mythical Minnesota town, Lake Woebegone, and even recited silly limericks. But we would have been just as happy if he had come out and tossed rolls of toilet paper in the air.

* * *

In the best tradition of most humanity, people in my family tend to come and go quietly, making no vulgar spectacle of themselves in posterity. The closest any of us ever came to fame was my father’s stint as trainer for the old Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. But that was in the late thirties and early forties, before I was born. By the time I knew him, Daddy shaped the docks as an ordinary longshoreman. And if you asked him about his years with the ball club, he would wave a dismissive hand and say, “Ahhh, that’s all water under the bridge, kid.”

In one of my mother’s photo albums there were pictures of him putting the players through their paces in the Dodgers training camps in Havana, Cuba, back when the young Fidel Castro still dreamt of being added to the team roster. There was also a snapshot of my father wearing a white suit and posing like some suave, greasy-haired movie actor at a cafe table, the inevitable drink in front of him. Still, I never realized how well known he had been until my sister Maureen’s estate was settled and I found a cache of his yellowed press clippings among her belongings.

One, from Hearst’s New York tabloid The Daily Mirror, dated April 3, 1939, began, “When trainer Doc Knowles, of the Giants, attempted to make the players step through conditioning maneuvers in their 1928 Hot Springs, Ark., training camp, he had tough sledding making the players cooperate. But when Eddie McCormack put the Dodgers through the strangest calisthenic gyrations ever seen in a training camp this Spring, they were so taken by his personality that even the most skeptical veterans did every trick he ordered and would have jumped through hoops if he had requested.”

That my father possessed a personality was news to me. He certainly never wasted it on his family. We knew him as the silent, solitary rebuttal to the old saying “No man is an island.” When my sister and I went out to play, he wouldn’t wave or even look our way as he sat on a bench in the courtyard of the Vladeck Projects, right down the block from our tenement on Henry Street, casting his long shadow on the pavement and nursing a quart of Rheingold cloaked in the brown paper bag of Propriety.

Exiled from the idyllic Irish beer gardens of his beloved Woodside, Queens, because my mother needed to be near her recently widowed father, he never referred to the Lower East Side as anything but “this godforsaken neighborhood” and remained forever aloof from the lively society of the surrounding sidewalks and stoops.

It would have amazed us back then to hear our tightlipped father wax so loquacious as he does in an interview with Associated Press sportswriter Frank Eck: “Physical conditioning helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win the National League pennant in 1941. I had 40 players under me at Havana...There’ll be a lot of young players in the training camps this spring and everyone knows the youth of today is tense and needs loosening up.”

That he noticed anything at all about the “the youth of today” would also have come as a surprise to Maureen and me. But there was a lot we didn’t know about our father growing up, other than losing his job with the Dodgers had had something to do with his drinking.

Later clippings chart, however spottily, his swift downward trajectory:

”It’s a boy (Edward Bruce) for the Eddie McCormacks of Woodside,” reads one from 1943. “McCormack, a guard at the Sperry plant in Brooklyn, was a trainer for the Brooklyn Dodgers for three years...”

More than a decade after he went from being a minor celebrity, to security guard in a defense plant, to a full-time dock worker, my father was still planting items: “ Dip your pen in sunshine,” wrote Daily Mirror columnist Nick Kenny, in 1953, when I was recovering from an appendectomy, “and write to shut-in Eddie McCormack, Jr.,10, Medical Arts Hospital, New York, N.Y.”

Although he never would have admitted it, my father’s determination to keep the family name in bold-face tells me that he continued scheming long after the water had passed under the bridge. (For a time, he moonlighted as a waiter at the Stork Club and I imagine him passing items to the columnists with their checks.) No matter that his chances of a comeback were as slim as winning the Irish Sweepstakeshis less covert strategy for being rescued from the practical circumstances of his life.

Buying a Lotto ticket the other day, as I do every week religiously, I thought of one of my mother’s favorite expressions: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

* * *

In one of his most famous essays, the great cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.”

One can only wonder what Benjamin, a German Jew who committed suicide during the Nazi era, would have made of how Andy Warholwhose myth would later inspire Patti Smith to flee New Jersey for New Yorkremoved the withering aura from the work of art and placed it like a halo on his own media persona.

”Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art,” Benjamin observed in the same essay, “is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence in the place where it happens to be.”

But what happens when the subject of a work of art is itself a reproduction, turned out on an assembly line, and is replicated again and again by a commercial illustrator turned fine artist? Andy Warhol became a household nameas much a product as the staple of the American diet that he chose to enshrinealmost as soon as he exhibited his first paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans in 1962.

One might have thought he had done so in answer to Benjamin’s thesis, if only it were possible to imagine Andy reading anything more complex than a society column or a movie magazine. But frankly it was not, for those who interacted with him (I can’t say “knew” him), as I did when I wrote for his magazine Interview in the early Seventies and was listed on its masthead as a contributing editor. (I make this professional association clear so as not to be confused with the entourage of Factory hangers-on that Robert Hughes characterized so accurately as “cultural space-debris, drifting fragments from a variety of sixties subcultures.”)

By that time, Andy had switched from soup cans to portraits, a genre of which Benjamin wrote, “It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face.”

But once again, Andy did Benjamin one better. Rather than the cult of vanished loved ones, it was that of cultural icons like Marilyn and Elvis which he exploited, bathing them in silkscreened auras of Day-Glo.

* * *

Andy Warhol was wary of Patti Smith when she first began to make herself visible in New York in the early seventies. She struck him as “a social climber”an ironic epithet from a man who made an art of social climbing, while reviving the society portrait with all the fulsome zeal of a latter-day John Singer Sargent. And even after Patti became famous (the surest way to gain access to Andy), he confided to his diary after they had lunch together, “All I could think about was her b.o.”

In the beginning, at least, Patti may have reminded him a little too much of another scruffy female punk, Valerie Solanis, who, just a couple years earlier, in 1968, had pumped several bullets into his abdomen, almost killing him.

But even after it became clear that Patti was no potential assassin, his wariness was warranted in one regard: Patti would eventually emerge as a kind of anti-Andy in her romantic attitude toward art. In contrast to Andy’s impassive fascination with all that was commercial and banal, Patti would be hailed by John Rockwell of The New York Times for her “absorption with demonic, romantic excess.”

One unembarrassed to wax as ponderous as Rockwell and other pop pundits could even suggest that the contrasting styles of Andy and Patti represented a battle for the soul of the zeitgeist.

* * *

”It’s a challenge to God,” Patti told one interviewer, about the title track of “Radio Ethiopia,” released in 1977. Two years earlier, her critically hailed first album “Horses” had contained the killer line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

Now she declared, “I wanna be God’s daughter. No, I wanna be God’s mistress. I’m not willing to witness one miracle and believe. I wanna be fucked by God. Not just once, a thousand times.”

Only a religious nut who thought her boast blasphemous would consider it no coincidence that Patti later fell fifteen feet off a stage while performing a song from “Radio Ethiopia” and spent the next three months in a neck brace. Undeterred, she completed her third album, and, with characteristic chutzpah, named it “Easter” for the feast of the Resurrection.

”Easter” gave Patti her first hit single, “Because the Night,” co-written with Bruce Springsteen. But in 1980, soon after releasing her fourth album, “Wave,” she married a fellow musician and namesake, Fred “Sonic Smith,” formerly of the Detroit cult band MC5, and abruptly stopped touring and recording. If, as some speculated, she withdrew because “Wave” got so-so reviews, it was a long snit. For the next eight years, Patti lived quietly in a Michigan suburb, raising two children. She published a prose tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe, who had died of AIDs, during her domestic exile, and performed with Fred at a benefit for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. But by all reports, the majority of her days were spent in domestic boot camp: cleaning, doing laundry, taking care of her kids.

Later, when she confided to a reporter that “Fred’s motto around the house was 'fame is fleeting,’” it could have sounded like her husband was making her pay penance for having been much more famous than he. Nor was she convincing when she insisted, “I’m grateful to him...To strip oneself of all that is quite interesting. It’s somewhat humiliating and painful at first, but once you do it, it’s liberating.”

Still, I could never have dismissed “Gone Again,” the album she put out after her husband died of heart failure in 1994, as flippantly as James Wolcott did when he wrote in The New Yorker, “At risk of being offensive, I think she’s overdoing her widowhood.” For while it is fair to question the quality of the art, when it comes to grief, the authenticity of the emotion must be taken on faith, even at a time when the psychobabble term “codependency” has become a synonym for “love.”

After all, Patti the punk romantic walked away from the fame she had always coveted to stand by her man as faithfully as Tammy Wynette. Then, having managed, as James Grauerholz, William Burroughs’ secretary, put it, “to be a rock ‘n’ roll death without having to die,” the Wild Girl was resurrected as the Wise Woman.

* * *

The same boxes of my sister’s belongings in which I discovered my father’s old press clippings also contained an extraordinary trove of photographs of her son, Charlie. Like our son Holden who fell ill with fullblown AIDS in 1993, Charlie was an only child who, with a fateful symmetry that will forever baffle me, also died young.

The sheer number of pictures (literally thousands, almost filling the six large supermarket shipping cartons that arrived via Fedex from North Carolina) was startling, even for one long familiar with the obsessiveness of our family. They progressed from when my nephew was a newborn in my sister’s arms, through all the stages of infancy and childhood, through all the phases, fads, and fashions of adolescence, right up until shortly before the pickup truck that Maureen and her husband Richie had bought Charlie for his eighteenth birthday collided with a tree, killing him, his girlfriend, and another boy who was riding with them.

Charlie is seen in a variety of different outfits, engaging in all manner of everyday activities: wearing diapers and cuddling one of several puppies; sporting sunglasses and a loud Hawaiian shirt like a pint-sized parody of a Miami Beach retiree; striking a batting stance in his Little League uniform; bowing to his Japanese karate instructor in his white fighting togs; posing in classrooms with elementary, junior high, and high school teachers (some of whom he eventually towers over); opening presents in his pajamas on successive Christmas mornings; blowing out an increasing number of candles on one birthday cake after another...

It seems doubtful that any child’s life has ever been so thoroughly documented, day to day, moment to moment, as that of my nephew, who apparently grew up in a peculiar domestic limelight. If developing under such adoring scrutiny ever felt intrusive or tried his patience, one would not know it from the evidence at hand. Charlie seemed to accept it with graceful equanimity, a kind of natural sangfroid. Accommodating the camera goodnaturedly, he smiles, mugs, mock-grimaces, flashes the high-sign, the peace sign, playing whatever role is expected of him with all the poise of an unusually compliant celebrity. If he basks in all this attention, he does so with becoming modesty, as if aware that photographing him so incessantly satisfies some need in his mother that neither of them can name.

For Maureen’s part, it would later seem almost as if she had some sort of premonition that compelled her, by freezing so many random moments into snapshot stillness, to try to stop, or at least forestall, the split-second of impact on a country highway that shattered her world and began her own life’s unraveling. But that, of course, is the kind of conjecture in which we indulge when hindsight runs rampant in the wake of any tragic event.

My sister even went so far as to photograph her son’s freshly laundered and folded white t-shirts, undershorts, and sweat-socks, piled high in an easy chair. Since I have no way of knowing whether this picture was taken before or after his death, I can’t say whether it signifies the “cult of remembrance” of which Benjamin wrote, or is simply Maureen’s monument to her own maternal industry.

Either way, this fetishistic still life exemplifies the cult value we attach to those beloved nobodies, living or dead, whose fame far surpasses that of the most universally revered cultural iconsat least in the private pantheons of our infinitely breakable hearts.

* * *

”Ms. Smith appears to be taking on a new image in the nineties, that of an extremely empathetic and compassionate woman pushed back into the public eye by the hand of death,” Neil Strauss wrote in 1995 in The New York Times.

”I never left,” Patti told one concert audience soon after her comeback. “I was never gone. I was with you always. When I was cleaning my toilet, I thought of you. When I was changing my children’s diapers, I thought of you. Do you believe that? You may.”

Although the confounding combination of feigned humility and peel-me-a-grape grandiloquence (“I writ”“You may”) was pure Patti Smith, the former punk firebrand seemed to be reinventing herself as a benign hippie earth mother.

Once, her hunger for notoriety had been so naked that she could state, “Billy Graham is a great performer even though he is a hunk of shit. Adolf Hitler was a great performer. He was a black magician. And I learned from that. You can seduce people into mass consciousness.”

Once, when her song “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger” prompted a reviewer to comment that any white person’s use of the inflammatory word was ill-advised, she replied, “If I wanna say 'nigger,’ I’ll say 'nigger.’ If somebody wants to call me a cracker bitch, that’s cool. It’s part of being an American.”

Now, at a benefit performance for Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign, a kinder, gentler Patti Smith sang her new anthem, a more benign cousin of the 1960s Black Panther slogan, “Power to the People,” about which, writing in The New Yorker at a later date, Sasha Frere-Jones would ask rhetorically: “Who else could sing a song like 'People Have the Power’ and make a roomful of icy New Yorkers come to their feet, sing along, and maybe even tear up?”

* * *

Jeannie and I often talk shop as we take our morning tea in bed. Not only is my wife my most exacting editor ever, but she is a wonderful listener and has a degree in social work, which comes in handy when she’s trying to help me sort out my angst and break my writers’ blocks. This morning, however, she was more at a loss than usual, as I went on about the problems I was having trying to divine the source of Patti’s power so I could resolve this rambling piece I am writing about her. Since Jeannie has little interest or expertise in popular music, I was wishing I could call upon either Lester Bangs or Paul Nelson, the only two of my former colleagues at Rolling Stone whose opinions in such matters I respected, to provide me with some clue as to why Patti Smith matters so much to those who take rock ‘n’ roll more seriously than I do. (“Smith is the fusion of two decades: she has the optimism and open-mindedness of sixties hippies as well as the skepticism and fire of seventies punks,” Shasha Frere-Jones wrote recentlya summary I’m sure both Lester and Paul would have dismissed as simplistic.)

Lester, who has been called “the dean of American rock critics” and whose peculiar combination of cynical cool and naive belief in the redemptive power of rock ‘n’ roll was channeled so uncannily by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film “Almost Famous,” made a bellowing attempt at becoming a rock star during the punk era but never achieved Patti-like prominence. Still, his dedication to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle was so passionate that he was finally found dead of a drug overdose in his record and tape strewn downtown apartment.

Paul, who had introduced Bob Dylan to the music of Woody Guthrie when they were both students at the University of Minnesota, was arguably the first critic to write about rock intelligently, and eventually became editor of Rolling Stone’s review section.

”For hundreds of musicians, from Dylan to Springsteen to the Stones, Nelson was the voice of quality control,” Neil Strauss wrote of him, “so much so that some artists, rather than wait for a review, would actually call him to see what he thought.”

However, I was reminded that Paul’s first love was film, when an email came to Gallery&Studio from someone named Kevin Avery, saying, “I am trying to reach Ed McCormack regarding a book I’m writing on the critic Paul Nelson. It’s my understanding that Paul used to write film reviews for Changes, a publication edited by Ed McCormack. If you could put me in touch with him, I’d greatly appreciate it.”

Yes, Kevin, Paul Nelson did write film reviews for Changes, an arts magazine published by Susan Graham Mingus, wife of the great jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus. Paul was by no means the only future luminary who wrote for that struggling but influential publication: Fran Lebowitz penned (she refused to learn to type) a regular column called “I Cover the Waterfront” before moving on to best-sellerdom; Billy Joel contributed a series called “Diary of a Young Artist,” all about starving and struggling before “Piano Man” made him a star; Lenny Kaye wrote record reviews for Changes, and I seem to recall that Patti Smith did, too (although I’ll be damned if I’m going to stir the dust in those boxes of back issues stored in my workroom and activate my allergies to confirm it ).

In lieu of proper payment for writing most of the magazine’s lengthy cover features, Susan put my name at the top of the masthead as Managing Editor. But all I actually did was run around in what I referred to in print as either “The New York Satyricon” or “New Hades,” gleefully chronicling what I took to be the fall of Western Civilization.

Susan was always on the verge of finding some great Mafia distributor who was going to go around breaking peoples’ legs to get Changes on every newsstand in town, and then we’d all be lighting our cigars with hundred-dollar bills. Then again, Susan’s favorite joke was that oldie: “What are the two biggest lies in the world? 'The check is in the mail’ and 'I promise not to come in your mouth.’ “

None of us were making any real money, but we got to eat and drink lavishly at an endless round of press parties funded by the record companies. Even the legendary gourmand Charles Mingus, who was universally revered as a genius but never got rich like the rock stars the parties were held to hype, would show up to freeload. Sometimes he’d pull his chair right up to the buffet table so he didn’t have to keep getting up to refill his plate. Mingus was a giant, physically as well as musically, and had a fierce reputation. So none of the press flacks ever commented on his table manners. Had they the effrontery to do so, the very rock ‘n’ roll musicians being promoted, all of whom genuflected in his Buddha-like presence, surely would have helped him to dismantle the place.

One of my fondest memories is of Mingus stopping in front of me, as he and Susan headed out of one such party at The Rainbow Room, and saying, “You goin’ to Duke’s birthday party?”

”I wasn’t invited I,” I answered, knowing he could not be referring to any Duke other than Ellington, who remained his hero, even after firing Mingus many years earlier for getting into a dispute with a fellow musician and halving his chair with a fire-axe in the middle of a concert.

”You are now,” Mingus grunted, and I tagged along to the ballroom of a midtown hotel, filled with jitterbugging geriatric hepcats, to be graced by the living presence of a man who was legendary even to the jazz giant who’d invited me.

So, you see, Kevin, there were certain fringe benefits to working for Changes. But we all had to eat (even when we were not being feted by press flacks) and eventually Paul, like me, moved on to Rolling Stone. Then, about fifteen years ago, he simply stopped writing when the music stopped exciting him as much as movies still did, and took a job in a video store just to be around fellow film buffs.

Paul lived a few blocks form us on the Upper East Side, and one afternoon two or three years ago, Jeannie and I ran into him on 2nd Avenue. Looking as spectral as ever, with his dark glasses, Zapata mustache, dangling cigarillo, and that thin, colorless hair trickling like tapwater out of the tweed cap he never took off, he complained that his landlord was trying to evict him from his apartment.

”Mannnn, I don’t wanna die in New Jersey,” he said mournfully, as though that state represented an exile as distant as the Lake Woebegone-like Minnesota town he’d fled in the early Sixties to make his name in New York.

That was the last time I saw or thought of him, until one day last summer when a headline jumped out at me as I flipped through The New York Times: “Paul Nelson, Critic Who Spanned Folk and Rock, Dies at 69”. The obit went on to say “Mr. Nelson, who had been suffering from memory problems, had apparently died of starvation.” The only good news, if you can call it that, was the part that said he had been “found dead in his apartment in Manhattan...”

Lester Bangs kept the faith and had a rock star’s death; Paul Nelson lost the faith and, apparently, had a slow withering. Both men were fine writers, but they practiced a genre of criticism that always struck me as the making of mountains out of mole hills (a prejudice Patti Smith was perceptive enough to pick up the first time we were introduced). Neil Strauss wrote that Paul’s writing “ sprung from a certainty that mass culture worked in the same way, and deserved the same passionate, considered criticism, as great art.” But I could not share Paul’s belief that rock ‘n’ roll lyrics deserved to be taken seriously as poetry. No one wrote better lyrics than Bob Dylan, but even Dylan’s lyrics were reduced to doggerel on the page. As for Patti Smith, as much as she revels in the role of the poet, her poems read like... well, song lyrics.

Yet, as Jeannie pointed out to me when I dismissed them scornfully in bed this morning, their incantatory quality (which could be compared to Vachel Lindsay, as well as the late Beat “street poet” Jack Micheline) suggests drum beats and primitive chants, which may be why William Burroughs once referred to Patti as “a shaman.”

While her point was well taken, I still insisted that Patti was overrated as a poet, if not as a song lyricist, arguing that true poetry must possess subtle natural rhythms that do not scream out for the din of electric guitars to lend the words velocity.

I stated this with such smug vehemence that, despite being no great fan of popular music, my wife had to play devil’s advocate, gently invoking the troubadour tradition and reminding me that the Beat writers who first inspired me to write as a kid were all about restoring the oral tradition.

”Suppose, for example, someone wrote a poem that you liked very much,” she said, adopting the exaggeratedly reasonable tone that she uses whenever she is trying to get something through my thick skull, “and then they set it to music...Would that, as far as you’re concerned, make it any less valid as a poem?”

She had me there. So I had to switch gears and argue that rock ‘n’ roll was a purer when it stayed true to its low-rent jukebox origins and didn’t try to imitate art.

”In fact, the best song I ever heard Patti Smith sing,” I argued, “was her cover version of that trashy old Marvellettes tune 'Hunter Gets Captured by the Game.’ “

And when that drew a blank, I tried another tack: “There’s never been a greater need for intellectual snobbery than now, when we’re all up to our asses in popular culture masquerading as High Art!”

Jeannie shook head. “You’re too much! Maybe I should run one of those disclaimers...”

She may have been kidding, but I’ll save her the trouble: The irrational opinions of the publisher’s curmudgeonly husband do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of Gallery&Studio.

* * *

It seemed only fitting that Patti Smith should preside over the punk funeral that was the closing of the Bowery mecca CBGB, consoling the crowd from the stage with,”We can have CBGB in our hearts, but the new generation is gonna have their own places to play. They’re gonna find some other shit hole and play in it like we did.” It also made sense to read recently that she had also been nominated for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame; why the hell not?

And while it may have seemed a little less apropos, it never bothered me, while browsing in Barnes & Noble, to pick up a new anthology of French poetry and notice that Patti had been called upon to contribute an introduction; or to flip through the glossy magazine published by the Tate Museum in Britain and see that she had been asked to write about the influence of Blake upon her own workas though they were peers!

In fact, Patti had a photograph of Blake’s gravestone, as well as that of W.B. Yeats in her recent exhibition at Robert Miller Gallery, in Chelsea, where the press release stated that such images “pay tribute to and celebrate renowned artists who have been inspirational to her work.”

Not having followed her fine art career any more closely than her musical one, I was unaware until I read the exhibition press release that, in 2002, a retrospective exhibition called Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith, organized by The Andy Warhol Museum, had traveled to various museums here and abroad. Nor did I know that, in 2005, she “was presented with the prestigious insignia of Commander of the Order of the Arts and Letters, one of the highest French cultural honors,” or that “a retrospective of her work is planned for the Cartier Foundation in 2008.”

The show at Robert Miller, however, gave little indication of why, of all the dedicated artists at work in New York, most of them devoting all of their efforts to one discipline rather than dabbling in different fields, Patti Smith has been singled out for such honors. It was called “A Pythagorean Traveler” and consisted mostly of small black and white photographs, although there were also a few pencil drawings, illuminated with faint handwritten texts, and a large installation called “Traveler’s Bed.”

The latter piece was described in the exhibition catalog as “bed, with linens inscribed with unique poetry, standing vessel, and three drawings: graphite on paper, with unique poetry.” (It had handles like a gurney; there was something lumpy under the text-scrawled linens, suggesting a body, and the standing vessel beside it was filled with brown ricepossibly a reference to the dietary practices that the ancient Pythagorean sect followed, in order to purify the soul for its transmigration to a new body after death.)

The photographs were, in fact, travel snapshots that have been gussied up by the gelatin silver print process. To some, Patti had added “unique poetry” with graphite or affixed random-looking bits of masking tape. The prints that had been been so embellished were generally priced at several thousand dollars more than, say, an unadorned photograph of some stone cherubs in Hamburg, Germany, or of a balloon floating in the sky in Buenos Aires. (The most dramatic examples were two seemingly identical prints of a white horse resting its head on a rough wooden fence, the one with the pencil scrawls and the masking tape ten times more expensive than the plain one.)

Apparently, by the mere touch of a pencil, Patti, the Anti-Andy, restores the lost aura to the contemporary work of art.

* * *

Okay, so maybe Patti Smith's ubiquitousness was beginning to seem more than a little ridiculous by the time I came across a passage, while reading Michael Patrick MacDonald’s second memoir about growing up Irish Catholic in South Boston, in which the author recalled seeing her on television for the first time as a teenager and thinking that she “looked like someone who had come down from the mountain after seeing the Burning Bush.” Still, nothing about her phenomenal notoriety ever came close enough to home to really annoy me, until Jeannie and I showed up one Friday evening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, just a few short blocks from our apartment.

For some time now, we have been in the habit of dining in the museum cafeteria at least one night a week, before taking a long leisurely stroll through the galleries, which are usually free of tourists at that hour, and where the ubiquitous recorded noise that follows one everywhere, from the supermarket to Starbucks, never intrudes. On this particular evening, however, we were greeted by a large poster bearing a familiar face and announcing: “Patti Smith and friends present an evening of poetry and song that pays homage not only to the beautiful painting of Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage, which is part of the Metropolitan’s permanent collection, but other prominent cultural figures in French history. The evening will include songs and poems that salute Edith Piaf, Juliet Greco, and Arthur Rimbaud, whose birthday coincides with this event.”

Standing outside the ladies room opposite The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, waiting while Jeannie washed her hands before dinner, I noticed the remarkably eclectic composition of the crowd of ticket holders milling around in the lounge. They ranged from pierced and tattooed twenty-somethings; to bearded, middleaged Upper West Side intellectuals; to quite elderly and smartly dressed persons; to all manner of others who could not be so easily stereotyped.

Another man, standing nearby, must have been noticing this, too; because when the woman he had been waiting for emerged from the ladies room, in a foreign accent I could not readily identify, he asked the question, still unanswered, that prompted me to write this piece: “Who, in God’s name, is Patti Smith?”

* * *

- Ed McCormack