On the Road with Patti Smith and Bob Dylan

A backstage diary
By AL GIORDANO  |  March 7, 2012

This article originally appeared in a January 1996 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

Friday, November 23, South Jersey.

It's Thanksgiving at the Smith home, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. (Patti's folks, Jehovah's Witnesses , wait until Friday to celebrate Thanksgiving.) Patti meets me at the door with her father, Grant, who seems amused by the parade of family and friends marching through his little split-level home today.

There's her boy, Jack, 13, wearing a wool cap over his stringy mane. He's 5-8 already, about as tall as his mom, and starting to look a lot like his late father, Fred Sonic Smith. "This is my sister, Linda, who I told you about, the one with the teeth like yours," Patti says, gesturing toward my chipped incisors. "Linda's the reason I tell ya, `Don't ever fix your teeth.' " (In her poem "Babelogue," Patti identifies herself with those who "worship the flaw, the mole on the belly of the whore.") Their mom, Beverly, is bringing plates of ham and turkey out to the buffet table, with the potato salad she made at four this morning.

"You're gonna get me tickets to see Bob Dylan , right dear?" Beverly calls out, hands on her hips. "I wanna see Bob!"

"Can ya believe it, Ma? I'm gonna play with Bob!" Patti says, giggling and doing a jig like a football player's dance in the end zone. As a teenager, she hopped on the bus every Saturday for weeks to ride to the record store in Philly, where she waited for Dylan's Blonde on Blonde to arrive. One day the album jacket showed up, without the vinyl. Patti and the store clerk spent the whole afternoon staring at it breathlessly. Next month, she'll be sharing a stage with him. I can see: Dylan means to Patti what Patti means to me.

Patti Smith on stage. (Photo by Patti Hudson)

But there is sadness, too. The last time Patti saw her brother, Todd Pollard Smith, was in this house a year ago. Her husband, Fred, had died of heart failure three weeks before. Toddy, who had been her road manager in the '70s, took her for a drive, played her a tape of his favorite song, her 1978 "Rock N Roll Nigger," and told her it was time to start performing again. He spoke of moving with Patti to a farm in Connecticut, and helping her raise the kids. But a few days later, on December 4, 1994, Todd died suddenly when his own legendary heart gave out.

It's no wonder that Patti's been writing lyrics these days like, "It's been a hard time and when it rains it rains on me/the sky just opens and when it rains it pours/I walk alone assaulted it seems by tears from heaven/and darlin' I can't help thinking those tears are yours. . . ."

Beverly, enthusiastic about the Dylan tour, laments, "I only wish Todd could see it." She lets me smoke at her kitchen table, and regales me with tales of her tribe. "The first time I heard that song, `Rock N Roll Nigger,' I knew it was gonna be big. Didn't I, dear?"

"Yes, Ma," replies Patti, her Jersey dialect kicking in, hands in her back jeans pockets. "You said it would be a hit."

"And you know how I knew it was gonna be a hit?" she asks. "Because you could clean to it."

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    It's Thanksgiving at the Smith home, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
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