Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Bohemian Babe

A new biography can't keep up with Patti Smith.

By John Floyd

OCTOBER 11, 1999: 

Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography by Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley, (Simon & Schuster), 336 pp., $25

In just about every way you can imagine, Patti Smith is the quintessential Bohemian rock-and-roll artist: passionate and pretentious; driven by both creative lust and massive ego; full of bravado and brilliance, bullshit and bluster; determined not only to fit into a hipster scene, but also to redefine it and rebuild it -- around herself, naturally. And for a few years in the mid-Seventies, she pulled it off masterfully, helping not only to berth the punk-rock community in New York City but also to fuse poetry and rock-and-roll in a way that even Bob Dylan had never quite managed. Alternately an ambitious self-promoter and a wildly gifted wordsmith, she distilled her not-so-disparate batch of influences -- Rimbaud and Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones among them -- into a groundbreaking sound that redefined the possibilities of what women could do in the boy's club of the pop-music industry.

Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography is an occasionally insightful, ultimately disappointing chronicle of Smith's trailblazing career, from her early work as a scruffy underground poet to her heyday in the Seventies, her retreat to domesticity throughout most of the next decade, and her 1988 return to recording and performing. Co-authored by poet/author Victor Bockris and photographer Roberta Bayley, Patti Smith is more a frustrating pastiche of articles and interviews than the kind of in-depth oral history Bockris compiled (with Gerard Malanga) in 1983's masterful Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story. Although Bockris is a long-time contemporary of Smith's -- his Telegraph Books published her first collection of poetry, Seventh Heaven, in 1972 -- she was not interviewed for this book and no explanation is offered as to her refusal to give it the okay.

Too bad she didn't; for despite what the inside flap touts as a "stunning profile" of a "cultural icon," Patti Smith offers very little you can't find in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's outstanding Please Kill Me and, to a lesser extent, Jon Savage's England's Dreaming and Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids. In other words, if you're a fan, this is a story you've heard before.

Still, it's a great story, one that remains interesting despite the lifeless prose of Bockris and Bayley. Patricia Lee Smith was born in 1946 in Chicago, the first child of working-class parents Beverly and Grant Smith. The family lived for a while in Philadelphia before settling down in Pittman, New Jersey. She was mercilessly teased throughout her school years for her slight frame and less-than-teen-queen looks, yet never succumbed to self-pity: "I wasn't very attractive, I wasn't very verbal, I wasn't very smart in school. I wasn't anything that showed the world that I was something, but I had this tremendous hope all the time. I had this tremendous spirit that kept me going no matter how fucked up I was."

A voracious reader drawn to everything from fairy tales to Little Women, the young Smith was also attracted to the lavish paintings of El Greco and the jazz records her mother would spin at the house. In high school she grappled with her blossoming sexuality and her misfit status, finding solace in the works of Picasso, Modigliani, and Jean-Paul Sartre. After graduation in 1964, she discovered Bob Dylan and the doomed poet Arthur Rimbaud, and attended art college in Philadelphia. Three years later, she moved to New York City, indulging in the myriad distractions of Bohemia and forging relationships -- romantic and otherwise -- with Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard, Bobby Neuwirth, William Burroughs, and Tom Verlaine, among other Manhattan hotshots.

While there she wrote poetry and record reviews for Creem, collaborated with Shepard on the play Cowboy Mouth, and did the occasional reading. After pairing up with rock critic/guitarist Lenny Kaye, her largely autobiographical expulsions began to transcend mere poetry, becoming instead cathartic rock-and-roll exorcisms. Following the duo's pivotal appearance at the St. Mark's Poetry Project in 1971 -- a description of which provides Patti Smith's excellent foreword -- Kaye and Smith added pianist Richard Sohl to the lineup and began performing at CBGB's, the sleazy Bowery nightclub where Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine's group Television had established residency and which would soon become a punk-rock mecca.

Bockris and Bayley do a decent job of covering Smith's early years at CBGB's, painting a portrait of a driven, quixotically egomaniacal artiste with a talent for aligning herself with anyone who could further her career, be it Todd Rundgren, Tom Verlaine, or Blue Oyster Cult's pianist Allen Lanier. There's a subtlely sneering tone to their writing, though, that suggests Smith was simply screwing her way into the echelon of celebrity, which is utter rot: Her first single, "Hey Joe (Version)"/"Piss Factory," funded by Mapplethorpe and released in 1974, was a two-sided slice of rage and rebellion that would have cemented her place in rock history no matter whom she slept with. It also laid the groundwork for her excellent 1975 debut album, Horses. On both, Smith toasted her influences, and mined rock-and-roll's past -- from Them's "Gloria" and Chris Kenner's "Land of 1,000 Dances" to Jimi Hendrix's version of "Hey Joe" -- to chronicle her obsessions with sex, religion, rebellion, and hero worship and create a pair of benchmark examples of poetry as rock-and-roll, and rock-and-roll as poetry.

Sadly, as Patti Smith makes clear, the poetic diva would never make good on the potential of those early releases, and her life would be marred by isolation, tragedy, and loss. The Patti Smith Group's second album, 1976's Radio Ethiopia, was a bombastic failure, and she spent much of the next year in the hospital after tumbling offstage during a concert in Tampa. She cracked the Top 40 in 1978 with Easter and the hit single "Because the Night," a rewritten outtake from a Bruce Springsteen album. The success, though, was shortlived: She released the terribly tedious Wave in 1979, then broke up the Patti Smith Group and, in 1980, married MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, retiring from music to raise their two children in Detroit.

After settling in the Motor City, the Smiths cut off practically all ties with the outside world, and Bockris and Bayley hint that Patti was abused both psychologically and physically by her alcoholic husband. Nonetheless, the Smiths were able to patch together an album -- 1988's Dream of Life -- that was neither a triumphant return nor a frustrating bomb. Rather, it presented a Patti Smith who had fully embraced religion, and celebrated the joys of love and family and, on the semihit "People Have the Power," revealed a compassion for humanity that was almost jarring in comparison with her often-scabrous work in the Seventies.

Eight years passed before Smith recorded again, by which time she had suffered the deaths of her husband, her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, her brother Todd, and her former pianist Richard Sohl. The resulting album, Gone Again, was a fittingly dour essay on death, pain, and loss, just as Patti Smith concludes on a dour, almost pissy, note, with the implication that Smith was milking these deaths for publicity. Which is nonsense: Throughout her career, through the poems and the songs, Patti Smith's art was her life, little of which is done much justice in this half-baked excuse for a biography.

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