The Day Patti Smith Blessed My Guitar

Mary Help of Christians, 1917-2012

Mary Help of Christians, 1917-2012

Sometime in the mid-nineties, I decided I wanted to play the guitar. I'd been playing with the first version of Mary Lee's Corvette for a while, usually an acoustic trio with Andy York and Joe Chiofalo. We played on St. Mark's Place at Sine a lot, a place on Avenue A called "Life is Art," The Cottonwood Cafe on Bleecker Street, and the Mercury Lounge. At some point I just wanted to play along more. I’d been enjoying playing the tambourine—especially when I used a paintbrush instead of my hand—but it was time to branch out. Plus Andy was about to go out on tour with the Coug. So I needed to up my game, become a bit more self-reliant.

Me and my 1963 Epiphone Caballero

Me and my 1963 Epiphone Caballero

I was living in the East Village then. There was an annual guitar show at the corner of 12th Street and Avenue A in the basement of a church called Mary Help of Christians. So off I marched one spring day with Eric Ambel, my expert guitar-player husband, to find my first guitar. 

The guitar show was a wonderful event, that kind of wonderful where a group of people is joined together in a perfect place made just for them, perfect because they're all interested in/love the same thing and want to explore it, talk about it, buy it, sell it, show it off. We roamed the aisles that day, talking to fellow aficionados, running into virtually all of our NYC musician friends, trying out various acoustic guitars. Then we found it: a 1963 Epiphone Caballero, made in Kalamazoo—a beautiful, welcoming parlour guitar from my very own home state. I fell in love immediately. I thought it liked me too. We paid cash ($250?), put it in its case and roamed those aisles again for the talk about it/show it off phase. 

We ran into Lenny Kaye who we'd both known for a while. He'd been very supportive of my music—he'd even played songs from my first record when he was guest DJ on WFMU—and who happened to be right there beside him but Patti Smith. (For the rare reader who might not know, he's Patti Smith's longtime guitar player.) Lenny introduced us, I trust we said "Hello, nice to meet you," and that was that. We roamed around a bit longer and I was ready to go but Eric stayed. I walked up from the basement of the church and out onto 12th Street, eastward toward Avenue A, in the direction of my apartment way over there between Avenue C and D. As I neared the corner of 12th and A, there stood Patti Smith, alone, glowing in the afternoon sun, talking on a pay phone on the corner. As I walked passed her, our eyes connected, she smiled at me and spoke: "Good luck with that guitar." 

Imagine that. I don't know quite how to describe what that felt like, but I took those words in, flung them around my neck and shoulders like the biggest, baddest, most beautiful scarf ever. Handmade just for me. Patti Smith had just blessed my guitar. She blessed me. I was in the beginning stages of writing and recording what would end up being a string of quite personal records. Songs and recordings I only grow more proud of with time. I thanked her on my next album. I felt like she was part of it.

The Caballero and I make our film debut in the movie “ Happy Hour ,” starring Anthony LaPaglia and Eric Stoltz, written and directed by  Mike Bencivenga . That’s me and Anthony, “acting.”

The Caballero and I make our film debut in the movie “Happy Hour,” starring Anthony LaPaglia and Eric Stoltz, written and directed by Mike Bencivenga. That’s me and Anthony, “acting.”

I met her once again, several years later and many years ago, backstage at the Bottom Line where we were both singing in the Glen Burtnik Xmas Xtravaganza. I didn't tell her my story. I can't believe she would have remembered. There were no such things as selfies yet, so I don't have a picture. There were no witnesses. I can't prove it happened—except, of course, that I still have that scarf.

She’s tiptoed back into my life again, contributing her “Dog Dream” poem to my book, with the crazy plus of having written an introduction to the poem. So there is original Patti Smith writing in my first book. What a life! The music definitely got me here.

So thank you Patti Smith. Thank you Eric Ambel. Thank you guitar show. Thank you everyone.

Scene from the movie “Happy Hour” featuring my song “Lonely World.”


Please follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It's a pretty exclusive club.