That Night At St. Mark’s: Sharon Niederman on Patti Smith

That Night at St. Mark’s
by Sharon Niederman

I was never a Patti Smith fan; however, she changed my life. Until I read her new memoir, Just Kids, I never realized how much.
How did I find out about those poetry readings at St. Mark’s Church? Perhaps I read about the Poetry Project in the Village Voice, perhaps someone mentioned them to me in passing, perhaps I noticed a random poster stapled to a lamp post. However it happened, that little piece of the zeitgeist stuck to me, until, after work one gloomy Tuesday evening, I removed my pantyhose, pulled on my jeans, and walked alone from my apartment at 11 Waverley Place to the East Village.
Shyly, I entered and took a seat near the back. A golden light and heart-thumping excitement filled the space. Lovely Anne Waldman emceed the event, while Gregory Corso emitted wisecracks that resounded, well . . . like farts. Allen Ginsberg was there, and he said warm things, and Sam Shepard, professionally ironic . .  and how many others? People who could write! People who told the truth so loud and clear that others listened. People whose thoughts, whose souls the world had decided were worth paying attention to.
The bony, dark-haired girl took the stage. When she opened her mouth, she sent an irresistible shock through the crowd, a burst of energy that rapped my heart with the unheard of. In a style like Dylan (only the closest, not the most accurate comparison) with a voice deeper and less gruff, she let loose, moving her body and singing the language as it had not been sung before or since.
She was performing something primal yet ancient beyond comprehension. She wasn’t male, she wasn’t female, she wasn’t writer and she wasn’t musician, she wasn’t a child and she wasn’t a grown-up. She was her, and what we were hearing was a voice like none other, a voice that ultimately defined an age. This was it. Completely un-imitatable, though many have tried.
Someone released a clutch of helium balloons, a surprise of colors, and there was applause, but no gesture could have provided sufficient response. I don’t remember a thing she said, but it didn’t  matter.
I continued attending readings at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project until I left New York almost two years later, but it wasn’t until I landed in Boulder that I began to get the courage to try and write and not until many years later, did I begin to stand up in front of the crowd and read.
In Boulder, we hung out at Tom’s Tavern and had spaghetti and poker at Kathy and Charlie George’s, and Sunday morning readings with Jack Collum, Jayne Anne Phillips, Marc Campbell, and so many others.  Sometimes we hiked instead.
Soon came the others. . . Anne and Allen and Gregory and Gerard, and our warm homegrown scene became the Kerouac School of Disembodied Verse.
But Patti stayed in New York.


You can read more of Sharon Niederman at “Embracing the North”

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About Miriam Sagan

I'm blogging about poetry, land art, haiku, women artists, road trips, and Baba Yaga at Miriam's Well ( The well is ALWAYS looking to publish poetry on our themes, sudden fiction, and guest bloggers and musers.

6 thoughts on “That Night At St. Mark’s: Sharon Niederman on Patti Smith

  1. These wonderful comments on Patti Smith bring me back to my memory, a few years earlier, of hearing Joan Baez sing in a dark smokey nightclub in Cambridge. She was unknown, hardly even a name–just another boy-girl (but they were so unusual then) with dark hair and dark clothes, perched on a tall stool, playing a guitar and singing. I felt that she was strange in a way I hadn’t encountered, so unlike my college friends–girls who still wore girdles and stockings, even to class–that I didn’t know how to define or even describe her: maybe waif? But she was not forlorn, merely melancholy, and not the kind of melancholy that seemed to be calling for some boy to save her. Bone melancholy, blood melancholy. That I would recognize, later, as our common bond….
    The songs she sang–I only heard a few before my group of friends had enough and left–held hints of the Appalachian folk songs I’d heard as a child growing up in Kentucky, but I didn’t recognize them until a while later I listened to her first record on my little portable phonograph in my room behind the kitchen in the off-campus house. Then, I knew what she was singing, and that and the melacholy I recognized fused, and I began to memorize her songs, the ones I didbn’t already know: “False Sir John a’wooing came of lady young and fair…” “The cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird, she sings as she flies…”I never tried to learn to play an instrument, but with close friends, or when I was alone, I would sing her songs which had become ours….
    Many years later when I was writing a play about the folksinger John jacob Niles, I found her songs again, sometimes changed, but with the same thread of melancholy running through them.
    I never saw Joan perform again but she remains for me the mysterious, only partly understood symbol of the gate that was opening for all of us.

    • Sallie,
      I love that “bone melancholy, blood melancholy.. beautiful descriptions! I grew up with Joan singing in my house. My Mom had all her records, so I remember that haunting voice.
      Thanks, Meg Tuite

  2. That was beautiful Sharon. Thank you for sharing that memory of your first night with this group and than the transition into that world! How exciting it all sounded! I’ve never seen Patti live, but have more of a feeling for what that would be like after reading your description. I totally enjoyed reading this.
    Thanks again, Meg Tuite

  3. To Sallie: beautiful memory–perhaps a generation removed but the impact was the same of course…and Sharon, who knew? St. Mark’s Poetry Project??? We are all one, que no? Baile, hermanas!

  4. So good when writing begets writing. Seeing how we are, here on the screen, each dipping into our inkwell, fingers moving as the hand that held the quill.

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