‘From the Sublime to the Ridiculous’: Alumna on What it’s Like Working with Punk Rock Legend Patti Smith

  • Patti Smith and Andi Ostrowe sitting together on the subway train.

    The Instagram photo: Alumna Andi Ostrowe (right) with Patti Smith. Photo courtesy of Patti Smith.

  • Andi Ostrowe sits outside a building, surrounded by several men.

    Andi Ostrowe during her work in the Peace Corps, Ethiopia, 1975. Ostrowe had to leave her post abruptly because of political upheaval. Photo courtesy of Andi Ostrowe.

  • Teenage Andi Ostrowe sits on the grass with her dog beside her

    A Valley teen: Andi Ostrowe, age 18, with her dog, Yauna. Ostrowe says this photo was taken in North Hollywood Park, on Tujunga Avenue. Photo courtesy of Andi Ostrowe.

  • Snapshot: Andi Ostrowe (left) with Patti Smith in Portland, Oregon in 1979. Photo courtesy of Andi Ostrowe.

Patti Smith, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, National Book Award winner and the oft-described “punk rock poet laureate,” is a prolific InstagrammerPosts include photos of her travels, tour stops, children and, recently, a CSUN alumna who has worked with her for over 40 years.

“This is with my dear pal and fellow worker, Andi Ostrowe, happily riding the subway together as we have since 1976.”

Ostrowe, musician and longtime personal assistant to Patti Smith, graduated from CSUN in 1973 with a degree in English.

Ostrowe graciously agreed to an interview about her time at CSUN. The interview took place via Zoom from her dining room table in New York, where she said she was surrounded by boxes of books– various editions of Smith’s works. She was occasionally joined by her very friendly Senegal Parrot, Dobie. The hour-long conversation covered a lot of ground from her college years and beyond; including her growing interest as a teen and young adult in world affairs— encouraged by actor and activist Jane Fonda (Ostrowe babysat Fonda’s oldest child, Vanessa Vadim), her return to New York, and the message she sent to Patti Smith that began their 47-year partnership.

“It’s an honor to be able to participate in somebody… that’s so iconic, you know?” Ostrowe said. “I mean, in the beginning, we didn’t think about that.”

It is easy to see what draws Ostrowe and Smith together — both are musicians, both love classic literature and are very engaged in the world around them. Both are fiercely themselves.

From New York to the Valley: “Gaining a more global sense of the world”

Ostrowe, whose family had moved to California from New York when she was 10 years old, graduated from Birmingham High School in Van Nuys a semester early. She started right away at then-San Fernando Valley State College in January 1970. She said she originally wanted to major in music.

“But then, you had to pass a piano proficiency test, which I couldn’t because I was interested in writing (lyrics and music),” Ostrowe said. “So I switched to English.”

The late 1960s and early ’70s were a tumultuous time around the world and on campus. During those years, Valley State was the site of massive demonstrationswhich ultimately led to the creation of the Chicana/o Studies Department and what is now known as the Africana Studies Department and the expansion of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP).

Ostrowe was very interested in the news of the day, namely the Vietnam War and the political upheavals at the time. This interest in international affairs prompted her to take a number of cultural geography classes.

“Because I was also interested in anthropology…  she said. “That’s really how I [gained] a more global sense of the world.”

A Safari and The Peace Corps: “I fell in love with Ethiopia”

Ostrowe decided to sign up for the Peace Corps and she requested to go to Thailand. But then, she saw a flyer on campus for an African safari sponsored by the Department of Economics and led by CSUN professor James Esmay. Ostrowe’s father gave her the trip as a graduation gift — and the excursion that wound through Europe, Egypt, then East Africa changed Ostrowe’s path. 

“I fell in love with Ethiopia and changed my country [with the Peace Corps],” she said.

Ostrowe worked as a teacher in a very remote town. “It had no electricity, it didn’t have any paved roads. It didn’t have running water,” she said.

She had to leave her post abruptly during political upheavals that resulted in Emperor Haile Selassie being deposed. 
Meeting Patti: “I sent a little note”

She returned to Los Angeles for a time, then moved to New York, where she was invited to go to a Patti Smith concert in Central Park in 1976. Smith had just released the album “Horses,” a critically acclaimed album that the New York Times said captured the feeling of her club performances “marvelously.” The rock album was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2009: It’s a list of sound recordings that are part of “the nation’s recorded sound legacy.”
“I went to Central Park and the ‘Horses’ album had already come out, and she said she was going into the studio next week to record her next album called “Radio Ethiopia,” Ostrowe said. “So I sent a little note to the recording studio [saying] I just came back from there, and I have pictures, and she called me on the phone,” she explained.

Smith invited her to the studio and the two hit it off. Ostrowe returned several times to attend sessions. She did some lettering for the back of the album and provided photos. Ostrowe said she’s done “everything” in the decades she’s worked for Smith, starting as a guitar tech.

“You know, it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s such a big spectrum of stuff,” she said. ” It’s everything from depositing the checks to paying the bills, the insurance stuff, the cat food, the laundry.” 

“Something Just Pulls You Into the Future” 

The two stayed in touch after Smith married guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and moved to Michigan to raise her family during the 1980s. Ostrowe returned to Los Angeles during that time, where she took up music again and released a single. She also started a business doing bookkeeping for artists.

Smith and Ostrowe reunited back in New York after the death of Smith’s husband in 1994 and picked up their work together.

“Sometimes in life, something just pulls you along into the future, and now it’s, you know, [47] years later and here we are still doing it,” Ostrowe said.

These days, Ostrowe has taken up making pottery in her spare time. When asked about retirement, she made it clear, it’s not gonna happen.

“It depends on whose body bag arrives first,” she quipped. “I’m 70 years old. I’m not gonna be looking for a new job.”  

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