A real good time with Patti Smith

Ed. Note: The following is an outtake from MacDonell’s book “Punk Elegies: True Tales of Death Trip Kids, Wrongful Sex, and Trial by Angel Dust,” which releases in April and is now available for pre-order.

Before my punk rock story, long, long ago in January of 1976, I fell in love with Patti Smith on the Sunset Strip.

I was still a kid, not old enough to legally purchase liquor in California. I’d shown up at the Roxy Theatre drunk and self-conscious, wearing a three quarter-length brown-leather car coat, with wide lapels. It was a cold night, and it was the only coat I owned. I wanted it to be black with tight lapels.

We were at the Roxy to see Patti Smith’s first show in L.A, as far as I knew. I’d read about her poetry rock in Creem and some fanzine, maybe “Back Door Man.” LA radio had turned to crap, and I wanted to believe in Patti Smith. Then the “Horses” album came out, and I did believe.

She was as skinny as I was, and our hair looked the same. But my skin was fucked up, and I didn’t project confidence like she did.

I entered the Roxy with my girlfriend. We’d driven in with this adult from Boston who very much against his will had been nicknamed Ratso. I didn’t like the music playing in the club, and I felt that we were being scrutinized. My girlfriend’s parents were both from Mexico. Her brothers were lowriders. She grew up on honor culture and the Ronettes and the Vandellas and the Crystals.

What Ratso and I had in common is that neither one of us would stand up straight. Grease caked his jeans and work boots and canvas jacket and his hair.

We knew we were not sophisticated. We were not from Beverly Hills or the music industry. I suspected the Roxy people would sneer at us given the chance.

Where I came from, I’d been attacked physically. I knew what a person looked like when that person was about to lash out. I tried for that look in the Roxy. I held the pose for two laps around the club, looking for a place where my friends and I could sit or slouch and I could relax my guard and fuel my anticipation.

There was one open table, in front of center stage. It suited me fine, except the RESERVED sign was meant for someone not us.

My aplomb was fading. The show was about to start. I would be caught standing like a lame in a brown coat.

Anxiety drove me to throw the RESERVED sign under the table. We took our seats and lit cigarettes.

A waitress came over right away. She was older, mid-twenties, worldly. I showed her a handful of stray cash, all singles. “Is this enough to buy two black Russians for each of us?”

“Not funny,” she said. “You need to split.”

Ratso had gone sub-verbal. He was sniggering, not with me, at me. The girlfriend, Tommie, had smuggled in a bottle. She had a thick black fan of hair like a Frida Kahlo mane. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. In her family, they used the word tough to mean “cool.” Like, “Those shoes are so tough. Where can I steal some?”

We poured drinks from Tommie’s bottle while waiting for our drinks.

A ring of wide full-grown men popped up very close around me and looked down. They didn’t seem angry or amused. A heavy hand landed on Ratso’s shoulder and knocked him out of his chair. Someone said, “Move out, asshole.”

Moving out would have been my choice, except the bouncers had attracted attention. I couldn’t abandon the reserved table now without stepping into a pile of humiliation, with witnesses. “I wish you’d asked me in a nicer way,” I said. I really meant it.

Two sets of hands clamped onto my shoulders and arms; so I struggled. I set my heels. These grown men pulled and tugged, and I concentrated on not spilling my drink.

I was wiry then and intoxicated beyond pain. I did some improvised contortionist trick and slipped free of the scrum, a wasted kid Houdini.

Two bouncers stood holding my empty brown-leather coat, as if it were something they’d never seen before. The real magic is that my drink was still in my hand. Nothing had spilled. A ham hock forearm clamped across my neck. There was no breaking that grip. I went deadweight limp, raised my legs and kicked out hard at anybody bigger than me within range.

Patrons near the melee started clapping. A moment later, the whole audience was applauding.

They’re happy to see me being choked out, I thought. I wrapped a leg around the chair I’d been sitting in and dragged it after me.

It’s true; I was being an asshole. Anyone cool would have been ashamed and left peacefully. The men pulled my shirt up over my head, and I was half naked. I wanted to stop, but I didn’t want to face the embarrassment of surrender.

The background music muted out, and a lady’s voice knifed through the club.

“Hey!” shouted the voice over the P.A. “Hey, you! Cut it out!”

My stomach took a dive. Even the P.A. was against me. Furious and stung, I squirmed and looked back. This slight dark-haired woman in a T-shirt and jeans stood at the front of the stage, looking my way. Her name was Patti Smith.

“Leave him alone,” she said into the microphone. “I mean it. Fucking let him go.”

The bouncers dropped me and backed away. Someone big threw my brown coat at me, and I caught leather across my face.

My friends and I settled into our table and our dignity.

The slight woman at the microphone counted to four and began to sing: “We’re gonna have a real good time together….”

Pre-order MacDonell’s “Punk Elegies: True Tales of Death Trip Kids, Wrongful Sex, and Trial by Angel Dust” here.