A Patti Smith Moment in Texas

Frank Wagner of south Texas is an occasional contributor to this publication. Today he writes about meeting the singer-songwriter Patti Smith after a 1978 performance in south Texas. Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1978 but she’s also a poet and author. In 2010, she won the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids. (Check back tomorrow for a review of her newest book).  

As for Smith’s music, her first album appeared in 1975, so the interaction with Frank came early in her career. As for how that meeting went, read on to find out . . . 

Meeting Patti Smith in Texas, c. 1978

By Frank Wagner

It’s strange perhaps that when your world falls apart, when you are devastated and think you’ve got no place to go, it is the very time you get a treasure delivered to your doorstep.

I went off to college in the fall, really late summer, of 1973, still infused with plenty of 1960s idealism about changing and rearranging the world.  We knew the world back then. An insanely corrupt president at a time of extreme world tensions, oil embargoes, and always war. By the time I graduated from what was then Southwest Texas State (now Texas State) in San Marcos, in December of 1977, I felt I was the last one standing for the peace, love, and understanding times just ten years earlier.

On the other hand, I was flat broke and I did not have the courage of my new-found hero, Jack Kerouac, to hit the road and head out to San Francisco to write. Instead, I thought I’d do what I wanted to do as a kid and make a name for myself. Then, once known, I would write and get published.

That the economy was down in the dumps actually helped. Much to the disgust and disappointment of my dad, I couldn’t get a decent job, maybe at a law firm, or selling stocks. I went full bore for the career my dad never wanted me to go to: a radio disc jockey. A rock and roll radio disc jockey. Through a long series of incidents, I ended up with a part-time job at my hometown’s AOR (album-oriented rock) station, C101. For those in south Texas, this station is a legend for its legal ID at the top of the hour: “The time is 1:01 at C101, KNCN, Sinton, Taft, Corpus Christi.”  Always intoned with a deep, resonate, very hip sounding voice. “We just heard from the Doors, the latest from Queen, those Fat Bottom Girls, and there is something from a new artist, Ricky Lee Jones.” Again, sounding hip, well almost as if I was just a little bit stoned.

Here I was, the part-time midnight DJ, for THE STATION, the really cool, really hip radio station, in MY HOMETOWN.  It would be like say, for this blog, a kid growing up in Boston, and his first job was to play centerfield for the Red Sox, or power forward for the Celtics. That’s the way I felt about being the midnight jock for Corpus Christi’s C101.

The pay was almost nothing, but there were perks, something I learned about as I took over. I got into to every rock concert in town. I had only been on the job for a few weeks, really only working weekends, when the program director, Debbie Lee Miller, told me that Sunday night, before I went into the midnight shift, I  should go to the old Ritz Theater downtown and see Patti Smith.

The Ritz was once the premier movie house in Corpus Christi. In the days before multiplexes, it was the place that the big blockbusters would play first.  I saw Dr.  Zhivago, The Sound of Music, The Longest Day, and even Dr. Strangelove there. Times changed, and the Ritz closed down as a movie theater. For a few years its overdone ornate fixtures went without repair. Now it had been  renovated for a concert venue, and that’s where Patti Smith was playing that summer Sunday night. Plenty of work had been done on the theater, and its grandiose presence was fully restored.

 

Patti Smith, well, I didn’t know about. I had seen her perform and interviewed on television. She had stringy black hair back then, and almost was unaware of her surroundings. She sounded more than a little bit stoned. I did think that it would be performers like her who would resurrect my beloved ‘60s. No Beatles this time around.  We had Patti Smith, who always spoke in a slow deadpan voice, about how rock and roll was “kinda like Christianity.”

Debbie told me all I had to do was go to the box office, tell them that I was Frank from C101, and I’d get in, and even get backstage after the show. “Wow!” I thought.  “Now I know, I’m a star.”

Not really. I was on from midnight to six mostly Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The guy in the little box office did not work for the theater, now concert hall. He was from New Jersey and had never heard of C101. He certainly never heard of the station’s new weekend midnight disc jockey.  He didn’t know of anybody from C101, Debbie Lee, Bobby Reyes, Fazio, Mando.  “Sorry, we don’t have a pass list.  Not for you, anyway.”

I still held to some stereotypes of the ‘60s. I thought a guy with a tie-dye shirt, torn and faded jeans, and shaggy hair would sympathize with a guy like me, also attired with an old t-shirt, faded jeans,  and shaggy hair. He held as firm as any old guard ticket-master. He didn’t know me, he’d never heard of me, and he wasn’t going to let me in.

“I’m Frank, Frank Wagner, with C101, you know the album rock station, that’s the one. I work with Debbie Lee and Fazio. I’m one of them.”  The man in the box office stood firm and was not hearing of it.  I was feeling more and more awkward.

My answer for any type of situation like this was call somebody. This was 1978. Cell phones were unheard of. Even having a phone in your car was a novelty reserved for the very rich. I begged the box office man to call the station and see. Box office man rolled his eyes but made the call. I sensed that he was really in a quandary. He didn’t want to offend a real jock who might want to play some of Patti’s records.

In fact, I already had. “Because the Night” was becoming a big hit for her, and several more obscure songs on the album got some airplay.  I loved to shock people by playing: “Jesus Died for Somebody’s Sins but not Mine.”

He got a ring on the station’s phone, but the call was not needed. At that moment Debbie Lee showed up and she had a list in her hand.

“Luke?”  She questioned the box office guy.

“Yeah.” He replied.

“I’m Debbie Lee.” She said in a sultry voice so family to the afternoon listeners of C101. “I’m with C101, the sponsors. This is our guest list.”

“So, you know this dude?” Box Office Luke asked her.

“His name should be there.”

He looked at the paper she had handed him. Under the neatly typed names of the rest of the staff, my name was scribbled at the bottom.

“So, you’re the guy at the bottom.”

“Didn’t expect you to come so early.” Debbie said.  “There’s no need.  Come anytime before the show and you’ll get in. It’s no problem.”

Debbie Lee Miller was short with a near shapeless body topped with dark brown hair cut in a page-boy style. On the radio she sounded downright sexy, enticingly announcing the latest records with a breathy, Marilyn Monroe-styled voice. Everyone was always surprised when they met her.  One thing I knew. This was not uncommon behavior for her. She was always there when I needed her. I doubt I would have spent 36 years in radio and television had she not been my first mentor.

Sure enough, I was among the first in the newly renovated concert hall. I liked being there, this arena reminded of the hundred or so movies I had seen there. The interior of the Ritz still had the same overdone artwork that theaters built during the golden age of Hollywood. It was made to look like a grand opera house including balcony boxes on each side of the stage. Both boxes were decorated in the excessive gingerbread style, intricate railings. The pink walls featured fanciful abstract paintings on them. The paintings seem to be a large thorny bush with a red heart in the middle. I never did figure this out. I sat in the third row and watched as the theater/concert hall slowly filled.

After what seemed to be an eternity, the lights dimmed on the capacity crowd.  They had waited a long while and had not learned that rock concerts always start long past the time stated on the tickets.

But there she was, Patti Smith. Black hair, stringy and yet to be addressed by any sort of a comb.  Tight black pants and a buttoned-down white shirt. Her singing was characteristically loud and barely melodic, aggressive. She’s no Joni Mitchell. There was not a  moment in which she seemed to want to be warm and friendly toward her admirers. This was the beginning of the New Wave or Punk Era. For the first time I saw girls with hair dyed black and purple, with streaks of orange and pink. I saw nose rings, rings on lips. These were Patti’s people. Her followers.

She was almost fighting her audience. She wrestled with her microphone and danced with the mike stand. At one point, after just a few songs someone threw something on the stage. She found the offender and shouted: “Get him out of here!” And, yes, in a moment, some members of her crew wrestled the young man out of the concert hall.

At the end of the song she paused. “Let’s get something straight,” she said angrily. “I’m giving you my heart and soul.  Sharing myself and being with you. You are here to be a part of this experience, it’s a communal thing like Christianity. Any more of that kind of shit and all this is over.”  She paused again. Then came the first notes of “Because the Night.” She did not hear the expected appreciation.

“Ok, now, this is our big hit.”  The crowd yelled its approval.  I was a regular concert goer. Most all of the performers, from Springsteen, BB King, Triumph, to Black Oak Arkansas, even the Doobie Brothers, all wanted the crowd to love them. Patti Smith didn’t seem to care. I thought about this as she sang her last encore and went backstage. The lights at the Ritz were back up, the girls with purple hair with orange and pink streaks had left with their boyfriends sporting diaper pins and rings in their noses. Me, I was an old-style hippie, shoulder-length hair and t-shirt and faded jeans. I had felt out of place in a lot of places, but this time I was the one feeling kind of square, old-fashioned.

I lost sight of Debbie Lee after the concert started. I didn’t see any of the C101 jocks around through the performance, either. Then I saw a line on the steps to the stage. Debbie Lee, Mando, Fazio and Bobby were all there.  Debbie Lee waved for me to come to them.

“They’re having us backstage,” she told me. “This is the kind of thing you’re expected to do.”

Now I was getting the “big shot” feeling again, mindful that I had been fooled before. A few years earlier, the summer after high school, I went to a Seals and Crofts concert and was amazed that they invited everyone to meet them after their show. It turned out they always did this. They wanted to evangelize the Baha’i Faith. It was not a gathering of screaming groupies and crazed fans. Just a nice talk about a religion whose ideals no decent person could possibly take issue with.

This was different of course. I was one of a select few allowed to go backstage, and Patti Smith was not talking to everybody. She was talking, but no one was sure to whom. She seemed intent on uttering words directed at no one. She was sitting alone in the middle of the dressing room in a folding chair. She stared straight ahead, making eye contact with no one.

Patti Smith was not warm or engaging.  She never indicated she was glad to see us nor did she thank us for attending her show. She was possessed of a personality that shocked, maybe intimidated. She kept her stare straight ahead.

I was there with Debbie Lee, Mando, Bobby, and Fazio, all of whom had done this many times. All had been backstage after a concert, listened to a tired rock star speak, trying to sound profound. I wasn’t used to this and was downright giddy. I had the biggest, broadest smile on my face while trying not to sound stupid.

Listening to her talk, it occurred to me that she was continuing her show without the music.  Straight, deadpan talk about the communal nature of rock and roll music. Again, she compared rock music to a genuine experience of Christianity. I was there, and forty plus years later I remember. I doubt she would have remembered my presence forty seconds after she got up from the folding chair and left my presence. She simply got up and disappeared.

I had a long drive out to the station. Our studios were way out, about twenty miles from town,  at the edge of a large field of sorghum. I could spot the tower and its flashing red lights once I got over the high bridge over the Corpus Christi Harbor. The near-midnight drive took almost forty minutes.

This studio was always kept cold to protect the transmitter. Even though it was late June in south Texas, I needed a sweater.  Donal, a sailor from the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, was there, finishing up the Jazz Show he hosted every Sunday night. I would take over at midnight. I would put on a show from midnight to four and then play a couple of hours of public affairs programs. I encountered a problem I never thought I’d have to deal with: trying to find four hours-worth of music to play. I couldn’t play an artist I had already played. I couldn’t play an artist that had been played in the last two hours. I couldn’t play a song that had been played in the last three days.  And, for midnight to six, none of the heavy metal.

It must have been right after two when I got a rare phone call. It was Box Office Luke. He said he wanted to apologize for the trouble he caused me when I was trying to get into the concert. It seemed to me though that he wanted me to be grateful for allowing me in. He suggested, to make amends, to play a request for him. I believe he wanted to hear David Bowie’s “Fame.” Then he kept talking, telling me that Patti was really on her game that night and I had seen one of her better performances.

“I heard you started off with playing something from Patti.” I looked at my music log. I had played “Godspeed.” He hung up and I played a David Bowie song. I don’t know what I played, but I made certain it was not the song he requested. When the public affairs programs began, I went to the production room with her latest album, Easter. I played the whole thing, including the most shocking tune of all “Rock n” Roll Ni**er”—I would never be allowed to play that one on the air.

Charlie Palmer, the morning drive jock, came in right before six. I put the album back in the records shelf. By now, the sun was coming up over the bay.

One Response to A Patti Smith Moment in Texas

  1. Dave Daniel says:

    This is a crisply detailed bit of backstage musical memoir. Sorghum fields & Box Office Luke and all the rest. Not surprised at PS’s remote demeanor; some of the same rap laid at Dylan’s door. I never have understood artists that want your love but don’t want to give any back. Still…

    My go at the Texas music scene was 1969 as a soldier at Ft. Head; we’d slip down to Austin from Kileen weekends to the Pink Lizard and Vulcan Gas Company and some of the other joints which, not too long prior, had hosted the likes of young Joplin. My first acid trip was there, liquid crystal slide show and all. Thanks for the time trip.

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