Room With Two Views
Between Christmas and New Year’s in 1973, legendary protest singer Phil Ochs played seven shows at Max’s Kansas City, a small, trendy hotspot in New York City’s East Village. At the time, I had just turned 19, and was a huge Ochs fan. I was introduced to Ochs by my cousin, Michael, who had Ochs’s sister as his elementary school teacher in Rockaway Beach, a section of Queens. As teens, Michael and I covered many of Ochs' songs on guitar. More than 40 years later, we still ocassionally play them.
Warming up Ochs that night was a newcomer named Patti Smith. Ochs sang rapid-fire, sarcastic protest songs on an acoustic guitar; Smith shouted poetry behind her band, with lots of loud distortion behind her. Two acts on the same bill couldn’t have been more stylistcally different.
Fast forward 37 years later to my interview with Lenny Kaye, my primary source for my Court Tavern story and The Patti Smith Group guitarist. I knew that Kaye had made a huge impact in his own rite as a musician and rock music writer, but I didn’t know much about he and Patti's history. During the conversation, I mentioned attending the Max’s Kansas City show in 1973, and his surprise and excitement came through the phone. “That was the first set of shows we performed as a band together,” he said. “We were really really raw. I can’t believe you were there!”
Patti’s debut album, “Horses,” was released in 1975. She would go on to be known as “The Godmother of Punk” and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I would see Ochs again on April 17, 1974 at Avery Fisher Hall. It was clear he had been drinking. Two years later, he hung himself in his sister’s basement in Rockaway, a tragic but not completely surprising loss of one of the most iconic folksingers of his generation.
But this circliing back connection to more than 30 years before certainly confirmed what seemed like an appropriate cliché: Sometimes life is, indeed, stranger than fiction.
Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye