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Patti Smith Takes Us Vinyl Shopping

Perusing classic records with the punk legend

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No matter where she turns in New York City’s cluttered Subterranean Records, Patti Smith’s reflection stares back at her—from an old 12-inch tacked to the wall to an oversize Horses poster hanging on the ceiling. Even so, the Friday afternoon crowd tries to play it cool as the 53-year-old punk legend—hard to miss in her black boots, jacket, and dangling silver cross—makes her way through the store’s arsenal of vintage vinyl. She pauses to reflect on the ’70s punk decor (lingering on a mounted MC5 sleeve, featuring her late husband, Fred ”Sonic” Smith) and discuss her music-shopping habits. ”I have a tendency to buy the same records I love over and over again,” says Smith, who released her eighth album, Gung Ho, in March. ”I’ve bought seven copies of [Jimi Hendrix’s] Electric Ladyland.”

The Hendrix catalog covered, Smith burrows through the jazz archives. ”I’m going to have to buy some of your John Coltrane,” Smith cautions a bemused employee before opting for My Favorite Things (1961), Impressions (1963), and Stellar Regions (1967). ”People say records changed their lives, and he forever shifted the way I listened to music,” she says. ”I feel honor-bound to get these, as a piece of history.”

Still, the wax devotee acknowledges there may be such a thing as too much history, so she meanders over to a rack of CDs. ”Maybe I’ll try to find something modern. I have to leave myself open to be reeducated.”

Education is overrated: She’s back in vinyl, wondering how I feel about My Bloody Valentine. ”They’re one of my favorite bands,” says Smith of the Irish quartet known for its lush, wash-of-guitar sound. ”But I’ve never had the experience—or thrill—of buying their albums.” Their ethereal 1991 effort Loveless wins out.

Soon the famously fanatical Stones enthusiast is digging into a tightly packed row of vintage Rolling Stones records: Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Let It Bleed…. ”I love them all!” she exclaims. ”Brian Jones really excelled on this album”—she’s gingerly holding 1967’s Between the Buttons—”he almost looks posthumous on the cover. [The Stones] helped articulate the spiritual and political state of our culture. They spoke to us.”

Guess the Beatles did, too. Smith flags down an employee to request George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (no go) and John Lennon’s 1970 John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (score). ”He was so public with his love for Yoko Ono. He didn’t care if it hurt his image. Plus,” she adds, indicating the back cover, ”we get to see John as a little boy.”

Her shopping spree over, Smith carries her booty to the counter (six albums; total cost—$101.69) and marvels at the haul: ”That’s as many records as I’ve bought in a long time.” Anything left for next time? ”I would have bought an R.E.M. album, but Michael [Stipe] gives them all to me!”