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Patti Smith : An Unauthorized Biography Hardcover – September 14, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (September 14, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684823632
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684823638
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,091,261 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 12, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I confess that when I first browsed through this book over a year ago, I really didn't like it. It seemed like quite a hostile work, and I put down a lot of the apparent bias to Bockris also being Deborah Harry's biographer and the Smith-Harry relationship, such as it ever was, being one of oil and water. However. On rereading, this book doesn't look as bad as all that. Smith won't enjoy reading it, but it certainly does not trash her--the clips and quotes from her most demented phases are kept to a minimum and the balance of what people have to say about her to this biographer is respectful, if somewhat baffled. There is a great deal of overlap between this treatment of Smith and Patricia Morrissey's far more detailed and professional biography of Robert Mapplethorpe, the Diego Rivera to Smith's Frida Kahlo. If one reads it as a supplement to that book, rounding out the picture of Smith as professional acquaintances and non-intimate friends saw her, the result is reasonably consistent. This in itself is an achievement. Bockris does not exactly get inside Smith's head, but that may be an impossibility for anyone other than Smith; she comes across as a powerful but fragmented personality. And this may be the mark of the born performer, the man or the woman with a sixth sense for their effect on others but little cohesive sense of self in private, giving them the talent for battening onto any symbols that project (and supply) their personal subjectivity, and fueling the combination of selflessness and narcissism that allows a person to take the blows on the path to fame.Read more ›
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By David Orbach on April 2, 2000
Format: Hardcover
What a piece of garbage! Bockris and Bayley do here for Patti what Kitty Kelley did for Sinatra. Just about every occurence is Smith's life and work is judged by these two as careerist and manipulative, so unfortunately, this book is in no way the fair or balanced account that Smith fans had hoped for.
These two are even shameless enough to admit that the bulk of information provided by the book comes from interviews that Patti did with other people throughout her career. My guess is that one would come away much more informed by searching out the originals and seeing what Patti had to say in the proper context.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By ihasch on November 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover
From reading some of the comments, I was anticipating a viscious attack on Patti Smith. Yet when I read the book this is not what I found. To be sure the book is critical of Smith at times. Yet so was Patricia Morrisroe's book about Mapplethorpe. So was Please Kill Me, the oral history of the US punk scene, where Patti Smith came across like the Courtney Love of the 1970s. In fact, all three accounts are quite consistent.

The fact is that unless people are expecting a whitewash or a hagiography, a biography has to take into account both the good and the bad when discussing a subject. That a person is described in similar ways in multiple accounts makes it very difficult to dismiss these accounts as mere hatchet jobs.

What all three accounts reveal is not so much a bad person, just someone with very human personality flaws. While this may not be acceptable to those who want to see Smith in purely heroic terms or as some sort of artistic archetype, it would be dishonest to simply ignore a person's actual personality and behavior. Patti Smith was a talented, captivating performer, something Bockris makes clear repeatedly. She had an admirable drive to achieve and her own artistic vision. But on the flip side, her drive to make it sometimes careened into overweening ambition, and the same personality traits that fueled her desire to be an artist also fueled pretension and a seeming loss of perspective. In her early efforts to achieve recognition-desperately trying to be noticed at Max's Kansas City; talking her way into the Chelsea Hotel-you can see both a laudable power of will but also perhaps an excessive need for fame. And how should the dizzying gallery of lovers she collected be described?
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By J. S. Halloran on December 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Patti Smith has a life story so interesting and compelling that even an account this pedestrian and unispired is interesting at times. But that is because of the story of Patti Smith, rather than the writing here, which is barely above the level of the average People magazine article.

The author failed to conduct a single interview with Smith for the book. His entire "research" consists of reading other people's work- other articles and books. Hence nothing is new here and nothing feels particularly incisive or accurate.

The author prefers to list famous people who attended a performance, rather than offer any insight into what made that performance (the art itself) interesting or meaningful. He spends lots of time with catty references and lukewarm sexual gossip, and no time analizing what makes Smith's writing and performance so compelling year after year.

There is also an ongoing series of refernces to Patti being "mean" to Debbie Harry, like the two are jealous high school cheerleaders rather than important women in rock. These refernces are utterly pointless.

At the end of the book is the one interview the author ever did with Smith, in 1972 at her first poetry being published. Reading it entertaining, because you realize the author used every single word in the book itself, desperately trying to spread this pr puff piece long enough to make it seem as if he knows Smith and her world. Pathetic.

This effort is particularly galling because Patti Smith herself did so much (and does so much today) to stretch boundaries, to make new connections, to reinvent her chosen art forms. How unflattering a contrast then, to have this "biography" be so utterly dull witted and pedantic. A National Enquirer article would be more insightful.
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