Ali Smith and Pat Place (Bush Tetras) Survived

The artists talk New York through the years, being a woman in music, and more.

Pat Place is an artist and musician, and the founding guitarist for the legendary no wave band Bush Tetras; Ali Smith is a photographer, musician, and author of the recently released memoir The Ballad of Speedball Baby. To celebrate the book, the two got on a Zoom call to catch up about New York ghosts, being a woman in music through the decades, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Pat Place: Congratulations on your book. 

Ali Smith: Thank you. Congratulations on your album!

Pat: I ordered a copy, and I can’t wait to read it. It brought up a lot of thoughts for me, too, because we were doing parallels — except that I was doing it in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, which was a little different than the ‘90s. But what you were going through sounds like what I went through, just being on the road and crazy, insane stuff going on. 

Ali: You toured ‘70s and ‘80s, and now you’re touring now. That’s a kind of amazing point of view. Are you able to compare it? Are there differences that you’re noticing, or improvements for the ladies on the road or anything? 

Pat: Yeah, a little bit. I mean, there’s so many more women in music than there used to be. So I think it’s gotten a lot better. And it’s easier now — you know, back then, it was steeped in drugs and alcohol and just any kind of insanity. I had to pull myself out of that. By the ‘90s, I was in a completely different head than I was back then. Now, of course, we’re all mature adults — or, supposedly mature adults. I don’t know if that ever really happened. But I think we know how to take care of ourselves and handle ourselves a little bit better. I try to get good food, try to sleep. 

Ali: What a concept. 

Pat: [Laughs.] Yeah. It was actually way more fun than I thought it was going to be, because I hadn’t been on a tour like that in a long time. I thought it was going to be a grind, but it was doable, and it was fun. 

Ali: What are the lengths of the tours now? Are you sort of like, “Two weeks and I’m out,” instead of two months or whatever?

Pat: Well, that’s what I would say now. That one was three-and-a-half weeks, which was a little bit longer than I’d like it to be. Two weeks is good. It’s enough.

Ali: Yeah. [Laughs.] Like, “I’ve done this. Let me do something else for a while.” So, let me just say, one connection [I have] to you is through Dee Pop, who played with Matt Verta-Ray — who was our guitarist in Speedball Baby — in Black Flies, which was a great band. I have to check in with you about this story, because it may be apocryphal. Dee said that in Bush Tetras, if a member bought a piece of clothing that the other people in the band didn’t like, they would attack that person and wrestle it off of them and throw it out the moving car window, and that would be the end of it. Is he making a myth out of a molehill? 

Pat: [Laughs.] Um, probably. But there was probably some version of that going on. I mean, to be honest — Bush Tetras went from late ‘79 to ‘83, pretty non-stop, and so a lot of it I don’t remember. 

Ali: [Laughs.] That’s fair enough. 

Pat: And Dee always had a better memory. But he also kind of liked to enhance… augment… whatever descriptive word. 

Ali: I’ve heard of this tendency, yes. 

Pat: Yeah, yeah. But there was definitely a lot of craziness going on, for sure. Sounds very similar to what you guys were going through in the ‘90s. 

Ali: Yeah, I mean, there still weren’t that many women in bands, or at the police station at 3 AM.

But the ones that were, were going through it just like everybody else. We had a studio on Ridge Street that was built into Matt’s apartment. At that time, there was no such thing as calling a noise complaint on somebody on the Lower East Side and the cops showing up to care. So we just created 24 hours a day, and everybody came through and played whatever instrument was there, or watched a movie or whatever. I think you had something similar on 1st and 1st. Is that true? Like a space where you could just germinate every idea?

Pat: Yeah, that is true. I mean, after having several crazy spaces. But we finally got our own place. It was a storefront on 1st and 1st — I think it’s now a cafe — and that was in the early ‘80s. It was pretty rough over there. It had a riot gate. We spent tons of time in there. That’s where we went every day if we weren’t gigging or touring. We were just playing constantly. And doing other things to keep us going. [Laughs.] If you know what I mean. 

Ali: I have an idea. I wonder… I’m not going to be like, “Things were better in our day!” But something that I do think about is the immediate feedback loop of putting stuff out there and getting a response constantly, and what that does to the process that we were doing — like, “Here’s an idea, here’s an idea,” just sort of farting out stuff and feeling your way through what somebody would have told you a million times was a terrible idea. I know it’s got to be a difference in terms of what you as an artist then come up with. 

Pat: Yeah, big time. Because then — and probably it was the same for you in the ‘90s — you’re really in the middle of it. And we were in Manhattan, which can’t happen anymore unless you’re a super wealthy band, which wouldn’t be doing what we were doing. I mean, I know that exists out some places in Brooklyn and Queens still, which is cool. But we were part of — I hate using this word, but — the “zeitgeist” of downtown. And so I feel like we were living it and then just spitting it out through the music. Most of the lyrics from the early days are kind of about the streets of New York and the club scene, everything that was going on. 

Ali: Well, it’s like a tumble dryer, right? It’s just constant motion and assault on your eyeballs and your ear balls and all the holes in your head and your mind. And then what you do with that can look any which way. But it’s just that immediacy and constant information. I mean, I’m born and raised in New York. You’re from Chicago originally? 

Pat: Yeah. 

Ali: And did you also end up at Skidmore College in the summer? 

Pat: I did. By some fluke, I got out of university and finished at a summer program at Skidmore. That’s how I met some kids who said, “Come on down, stay with us!” And I did, and I never left. That was ‘75. You were probably still home watching TV with your mom in ‘75. 

Ali: I was pretty close to seeing Wendy O. Williams on Fridays, but it was a couple more years. That was a real gob-smacking moment. But that’s true, I was drinking Pink Champale with my mom at home watching late night TV. That was kind of amazing, that whole era of subversive TV, right? I mean, there’s still interesting entertainment in every field, but it’s all so codified. It’s figured out so quickly now. Like, “Where’s it going to stream? Where can we sell it?” I’m sure there’s something going that I don’t know about because I’m not 20, but it is so sewn up. People know how to commercialize things now. Whereas, even Elvis Costello or the B-52s were so bonkers that it was illuminating to many of us drunk 11 year olds. [Laughs.]

Pat: [Laughs.] Yeah, and MTV was probably just starting then, too. 

Ali: Yeah, I think it was tiny bit later. Somewhere in there, for sure.

Pat: I mean, they didn’t really do too much underground stuff, but I think we made the “Too Many Creeps” video because everyone was making videos all of a sudden. 

Ali: Yeah, that’s right. And did you do the whole album with Maggie Estep? I know you’re in “Hey, Baby.”

Pat: Yes, yes, I was on the whole record with her. I got sober in ‘86, and that band was all people who I met in my sober life, which was kind of cool. It was different doing it in that way. But yeah, we made the whole record and we did did a few tours with Maggie. We did an MTV tour and we toured with Hole — we did about 15 dates with them.

Ali: Yeah, I got to know Maggie. I loved that album, and I found her magnetic and compelling and all the stuff. Once I ran out on the street from my bartending job at Sophie’s on 5th St., and I was like, “Hey, hey, I love your work!” And she was kind of, like, icked out. As I said it, it was like, Put it back in your mouth, put it back in your mouth, because she’s very uncomfortable. But then I got to know her and I photographed her for my book, Laws of the Bandit Queens. I just adored her and was horribly saddened at her loss. But “Hey Baby” was quite a quite a moment, wasn’t it? 

Pat: Yeah, and “The Stupid Jerk I’m Obsessed With” — that was fun stuff. That’s cool that you knew her. That was quite a shocking loss. So you’ve been writing books — are you still playing music?

Ali: Ish. I’ve moved to England after a lifetime living in Manhattan. My husband’s from England — all the reasons that you might expect I wanted to leave New York and America piled up, and we had the opportunity to. I was going crazy and I needed to change my situation. I’d been there in the same streets, knowing the same people in similar dynamics through the years in the music scene, and I felt like I’d kind of found my place and couldn’t outgrow my place. Do you know what I mean? New collaborations were always put in the context of music I always thought I was supposed to be making, or who I thought would like that music. I just wanted to a cleanse my palate. I also didn’t want the anxiety that came along with it for me. You know, I still get super anxious leading up to playing and I didn’t want it anymore. I wanted to just be happy playing music. So here, I actually do have some collaborations going on, and I ended up writing a song for the audiobook of The Ballad of Speedball Baby. In the back of my mind were those machinations like, Who will like it? Will the right people like it? People that like my old band, will they care? And in the end, I felt untethered from that. I felt like I’d snipped a cord and I felt freer.

Pat: Totally.

Ali: What about you? Where are you at with that? You’re playing with Bush Tetras and touring, and coming up is that John Waters-hosted festival, right? 

Pat: Yeah, we’re doing Mosswood in July. You know, I didn’t really think I’d be doing this at this point in my life, but it seemed to be we had a little a little thing. I mean, when Dee died, Cynthia [Sley] and I both thought it was over. But we had started a few songs with Dee, and it was during COVID and Cynthia, and I just kept writing. Anyway, after he died, Steve [Shelley] became available and we went in the studio, and we really loved playing with him. So we thought, “Let’s just finish these songs.” We wrote some other songs just with him. So that’s how that all came about. We weren’t really expecting that. 

But going back to your point about wanting to meet other people’s expectations — you can’t. You just gotta do what you do, right? We’ve been in and out of being a band over 45 years, I think, and when we recorded two albums in the ‘90s, people were like, “Oh, they sound really different.” Well, yeah. [Laughs.] 

Ali: [Laughs.] How dare you grow! How dare you change!

Pat: We got that with this one, too, although this one was received pretty well. But yeah, you grow, you change, you want to do something different. I think as an artist, you have to follow that and not worry about trying to please your audience. Of course it’s great if people like it… 

Ali: Yeah, yeah. And the more you go through creation you’re just like, I’m going to try and zero in on who I actually am and what makes me happy or satisfied or what I do best. I feel like the energy that I used to bring to music, I’m now bringing to photography and writing. I believe in immediacy and honesty, and I’ll be the first one to raise my hand in my book to say I was an idiot. And if I’m talking about trauma, I’m not going to sit in shame about anything that’s ever happened to me. I’m OK with that, you know? So it’s nice to be OK with these things now. But I do feel like that gives you a certain power with creativity, and also that same energy that we brought from the punk scene and the DIY ethos of like, “Just do it, just do the work. Try to create something in this moment.” That can come in any way, and I think at this point, that’s coming in those more sort of private ways for me. And that’s alright.

Pat: That’s great. I mean, I revert back to that when there’s no music going on for me. I go back to my visual art. It always leads me back there. 

Ali: I get the impression people talk to you about your guitar playing style a lot. Two of my dear friends who are considered really influential guitarists, Kid Congo and Matt Verta-Ray, both cite you as an inspiration. Do you see it that way? Do you have a big feeling about being called an influence to influential guitarists? Or are you just sort of like, “That’s what I do. It’s just the way I hear things.” 

Pat: Well, there’s a lot to that question, but it’s a good one. For me, I didn’t know how to play guitar, so I had to make it up. And I did it by just jamming. Initially it was with James Chance and the Contortions, and I just played slide. And then when we started the Bush Tetras, I had slide, but I was the only guitarist so I was making up chords — literally making things up, that ended up being some weird seventh jazz chords, a lot of them. I’m not that technical about it. But, you know, guys from the time they’re eight years old playing guitar in their bedrooms to records; that’s not how I play guitar. So it’s from a different angle, and I think probably that gives it a certain unique quality. It’s very nice that these guys say that. Sometimes I honestly think they’re just saying it because I’m a girl. [Laughs.] 

Ali: Well, having known Matt for 30 years, I know he means it. But I hear you 100%. 

Pat: Yeah, no, I get it, and I really appreciate it. It’s nice to know. It’s hard for me to think of myself that way. As Steve Shelley would say, “Well, what do you mean? You’re Pat Place!” I’m like, “What does that mean? That that means nothing to me.” You know how it is. You’re not walking around thinking, I am this person. You’re walking around like you are a person and you’re doing what you’re doing. You’re not thinking of it as your identity. I mean, maybe some people do, but I don’t. 

Ali: [Laughs.] I think it would be problematic if you were. 

Pat: Yeah, right. But it’s nice to know. And that’s the other thing — during COVID, I should have really learned how to play. I mentioned that to Steve, and he was like, “No!”

Ali: [Laughs.] That’s very funny. I remember a dynamic of touring was — I mean, maybe it was different because there were several women in your band, but for me, I was the only woman in the band. Most of the men that would come see us either wanted their band to play with our band, or they somehow wanted to access Matt to talk about pedals, or they wanted to, like, seduce me, because I was the only woman available. It was like, you’re literally higher than them right on stage and you’ve got the spotlight and you’re part of the thing that’s compelling to them, so then when you get off stage, all of a sudden they have to flip the dynamic. They had to get you back down to a manageable level. I mean, I didn’t really participate that much. I usually cut it off pretty quickly. But when you’re on tour, after a while, you’re kind of lonely sometimes and you want to just have something happening. Did you ever have that kind of feeling with people?

Pat: When I was in the Contortions, especially near the end after Adele Bertei quit the band, I was the only girl, so I know what that’s like. But that was kind of short lived. I think it was different having Laura [Kennedy] and Cynthia in the band with me. We had a unity. I kind of stayed out of the aftermath — I would play the gig, and because I’m gay it would be more like, maybe some women would come around. But Cynthia got some really wickedly nasty things said to her. Like, “I know you’re really a guy! You’re one of the ugliest women I’ve ever seen!” She’d say, “Well, you just paid $20 to see us, so…” [Laughs.] They kind of can’t deal with you being up there, although they want to see it. There’s so much more sexism and misogyny in the business than I really ever wanted to admit, and I see it in hindsight. I think at the time, I was really pushing it aside. There was a musical community and camaraderie that I think I always felt on the outside of, being a girl. We were the highest paid club act in ‘81, ‘82, when places like Peppermint Lounge, Danceteria, Mudd Club, all those places started popping up; we were doing really well, and I think some of these guys in bands were kind of jealous, so they would say nasty things, and we’d hear it back. But, honestly, we were so busy that I didn’t have a lot of time to feed into that. It was like, “OK, fine. I gotta be at rehearsal in an hour.” 

Ali: Just do the work, get on with it. Yeah.

Pat: I think it still exists, but not so much. There are so many more female musicians, and women making music in different ways.

Ali: Yeah. I mean, when I look back at it, I feel similarly. Maybe it was just in my circles, but I had to keep on defending my use of the word “feminist.” To me, it was a no brainer; that was always just what I considered myself. But there was a lot of defending that word, even amongst a lot of women that were living the life — entitled to sex, entitled to whatever they wanted to do, autonomy, and all that. So I felt like that had been successfully demonized and co-opted against us. And then in the music scene, that idea of scarcity — “Oh, we’ve already got a woman on the label,” or “we’ve already got a woman in the band.” So you protect yourself. You know, everybody hates the game, but you don’t want to lose. I wish I’d had more alliances and been able to discard a lot of that misogyny for better relationships with women in the music scene, but I look back and there wasn’t really a conversation for that. There wasn’t what there is now, where we understand that misogyny is the enemy and patriarchy is bad and needs to be smashed. 

So even in our subcultures, all the brainwashing was still there. I remember being at CBs at a hardcore show — there was a skinhead in the front, and he pushed these two women out of the way, pulled his shirt off and said, “No breeders in the front! The front is for men only!” I was not just angry, but so wildly disappointed. Like, I thought we’d all agreed that we’re  against all the square world’s isms and bullshit. And here we are, you know? 

Pat: Yeah, absolutely. Even going to the club and doing a sound check — I’m sure you got some eye rolls from some of the sound men. I know I did. In the ‘90s, that was kind of when the riot grrrl thing started, so there were those bands. 

Ali: I mean, riot grrrl wasn’t in my scene. It was more West Coast. I felt like there were pockets of female groups that were pushing back. I think that comes along with that scarcity idea, though, that it becomes pockets. I wish I could have felt like I could have bridged the gap more for myself. For some reason, I just felt like, I just want to play music. I don’t want to be having to align with a group in order to make things OK. I was super grateful they were existing, but I didn’t feel like it was my personality. I feel like I could have probably been a bit nicer and warmer to those movements in retrospect. 

Pat: Yes, a lot of it is in retrospect, because when you’re in it, you’re just doing it and you don’t have a ton of time to think about, Wait a minute. What’s going on here? 

Ali: It took me 30 years to look back and figure out what the hell I was doing and why. [Laughs.]

Pat: How was the process of writing the book? Did you take notes? How do you remember?

Ali: Well, first I vomited onto the page, and then I vomited again. It took ages, because I was learning how to write a long form narrative. I hadn’t done that before — I’ve only done photo books that have writing with them, and done some written articles. So this was a different animal, and I didn’t know how to wrestle it into shape. But I put out all the most dramatic stories. Then I started thinking, Oh, my god, I think this happened. But that’s really crazy. Did that happen? So I went to my journals — I used to keep lots of journals on the road — and turns out, I wasn’t making it all up. And I interviewed people who were there. Sometimes I got it a little off, or the details I had to tweak. But it was a lot of rewriting and rewriting and checking my journals. And I’m a photographer, so I was always taking pictures, so it was like two sources of fact checking. It was sort of like being a detective, figuring out who was really there, and blah, blah, blah. But I did it over and over and over again. 

I had a version that my former agent took around to publishing houses, and they were like, “Great writing. But, you know, she’s not famous. Who gives a shit? I can’t sell this.” It was like, “Maybe you should take your hands off my book, because you’re an unimaginative asshole.” This culture that is sycophantic about celebrities, when it’s in your face and it’s like, “We like it, but we don’t care, because you’re nobody” — one person actually said, “She’s nobody” — it’s so sad that it boils down to that. So that was super disappointing. But I kept working with it. And then my stepdaughter said, “Why don’t you write it in the present tense?” And I was like, “I hate you so much right now, because you’re absolutely right.” [Laughs.] I had done it already, like, seven times, and I had to do it again. So I wrote the whole thing over in the present tense, and it gave it an immediacy. We’re walking through a tour; we’re walking through the streets of the Lower East Side that don’t exist anymore. I saw Cynthia in that “Bird on a Wire” video, and the look on her face when she goes in front of John Varvatos made me laugh so hard.

Pat: Yeah, the differences are crazy. 

Ali: Are you still living in New York? 

Pat: Yeah. I still have my apartment here — rent stabilized, thank you. But we have a little teeny place outside of the city that I spend a lot of time at. More in nature, which feeds me a little bit more than the city does at this point in my life. It’s a little simpler. 

Ali: Doesn’t the city still feed you? 

Pat: I have to make an effort. I have to dig. I still like to go look at art, and there’s certainly a lot of interesting music stuff that comes through here all the time. But it’s so different and it’s so much more crowded. What we had in the ‘80s and ‘90s just does not exist. It can’t, because it’s too expensive here. It’s funny, yesterday was kind of mild and I rode my bike up to the Guitar Center on 14th Street. I was just looking around thinking, Oh, that spot. I have memories on every corner. 

Ali: Yeah, I know that feeling. Matt used to tell me this 20 years ago, because he’s a little bit older than me, “It’s when you start getting those layers of memories, like, Oh, that place was this, but before that it, was this.” I really was having that so deeply in the last couple of years, where I felt like I was walking amongst ghosts. Just sort of phantoms in the peripheral vision all the time, which was really distracting to me. I couldn’t escape it. 

Pat: It’s disturbing. We have a song called “Ghosts of People,” and it’s to do with people that are gone, but also places that are gone, like the streets of New York. But then you don’t want to be one of those older people, “It was better in my day!”

Ali: [Laughs.] Totally. That’s why I got the fuck out. 

Pat: They know it was, because there’s so much interest in it. It’s amazing how much interest is in that time period of New York. 

Ali: Yeah, I know. Have you read St. Marks Is Dead by Ada Calhoun?

Pat: No.

Ali: She sort of documents the history of St. Marks for the last 400 years. But basically what the gist is, and what the cyclical nature of it is, is that every generation on that seminal block thinks, “Oh, it was great in my day, but…” Since, like, 200 years ago, they’ve been saying, “Yeah, you should have been here this year, but now it’s dead. It’s over.” It keeps going. We all do it. But also, there’s truth to it — some eras are more exciting. It was pivotal when we were doing our thing on on the street. It won’t be recreated in Manhattan, that I can see, but I’m sure it’s going on somewhere else. And good for them. It can be anywhere. It’s just that energy, right? That’s an exciting thing to be a part of. I feel really fortunate that we did it and that we survived it. 

Pat: Well, yeah. Surviving it was big.

The vibrant style Ali Smith has brought to her writing and photography — featured regularly in the New York Times, The Guardian, and other publications internationally — was forged in New York’s underground music scene where she played bass in the seminal punk/blues/avant-garde band Speedball Baby. After touring worldwide and recording nine albums, Ali released two books of photography about women’s lives, Laws of the Bandit Queens and Momma Love: How the Mother Half Lives. With a passion for telling women’s stories, Ali’s memoir, The Ballad of Speedball Baby, is her literary debut.