If anyone in rock & roll has lived a life that divides neatly into chapters, it's godmother of punk Patti Smith. In her own words, a "gawky and homely... real nervous and sickly" little girl, she nevertheless grew up with a commanding sense of destiny. A bout with scarlet fever when she was 7 years old brought on hallucinations, which fired her already varicolored imagination. Raised a Jehovah's Witness, she broke with the faith in part because it didn't accommodate an aesthetic that embraced everyone from John Coltrane to Maria Callas, from Louisa May Alcott to Jean-Paul Sartre. Venturing to New York, she found acceptance first as a poet and then as a rock singer, drawing upon rock icons (Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, and Jim Morrison among them) to create a riveting unisexual persona all her own.
From there, we witness Smith's inevitable rise and fall (in her case it's literal--she was nearly killed when she tumbled offstage during a 1977 performance). Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley do an admirable job of tying the disparate phases of Smith's life into a cohesive whole, contrasting the '70s punk priestess in full flower with the curiously subservient suburban Detroit housewife she became following her 1980 marriage to hard-drinking former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith and the middle-aged survivor who returned to the studio and stage in the 1990s. Smith kept company with some of the pillars of late-20th-century pop culture--Robert Mapplethorpe was her roommate, Sam Shepard was her lover, and William Burroughs was one of her many champions. But what's most striking is how she's been able to simultaneously borrow and build upon the work of the artists in her universe, growing in stature while elevating all that stirred her passion. --Steven Stolder
From Publishers Weekly
Sometimes called the godmother of punk, Patti Smith is one of rock 'n' roll's great stories of self-creation. Growing up as an androgynous misfit in Philadelphia and New Jersey, Smith developed a hero-worshipping fascination with the "genius lifestyles" of famous artists from Arthur Rimbaud to Mick Jagger. In the gritty ferment of 1970s New York, she turned her hero-worship into genuine artistic innovation, inventing a provocative and influential amalgam of incantatory poetry, performance art and rock, radically redefining roles open to women in the male-dominated rock scene. Bockris (Transformer: The Lou Reed Story) and Bayley's detailed, uneven biography decks Smith's life story with anecdotes and comments from both the famous and the lesser known among her many colorful acquaintances. William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and her quondam lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, turn up, as does Bockris's own 1972 interview with Smith (her first). In fact, Bockris seems to have taken this interview as the final word on her character and potential. It can be hard to get a clear picture of later developments in Smith's life: her constant concern with her image, her years as a housewife in Detroit after marrying ex-MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith and her return to rock prominence following his death in 1994. The biography scrupulously cites negative as well as favorable reviews and comments on Smith and her work, covering (for example) the 1978 controversy over her use of the word "nigger." Like most writers on punk and performance poetry, Bockris and Bayley seem to prefer the young tough of Patti Smith in the 1970s. While informative and intelligent, this will hardly stand as the definitive account of one of rock's grande dames. (Sept.)
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