Rock & Roll Books
Any Old Way You Choose It
By Kate X Messer, Fri., Dec. 31, 1999
Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biographyby Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley
Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $25
Patti Smith Complete: Lyrics, Notes and Reflectionsby Patti Smith
Anchor Books, 264 pp., $25 (paper)
For too many gawky kids and deliberate outsiders in the mid- to late Seventies, Patti Smith was both communion wafer and Messiah. I count myself among the many in my g-g-generation (like Courtney Love) who still attest that "Patti Smith saved my life." (Although Kurt probably said that too, and see where it got him). So to say that the two books centered around the life of rock & roll's poet/priestess have been hotly anticipated would be an understatement on par with saying, "She influenced a lot of people."
Patti's minions -- which include some similarly influential rock icons, such as the aforementioned Love and Cobain, R.E.M., U2, the Smiths, Sonic Youth, and PJ Harvey -- are but one side of the mirror. The other side is populated by Patti's influences of equal depth -- French poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, American Beats like Ginsberg and Burroughs, and rock heroes like Keith Richards and Little Richard. If you visualize a web, with a gorgeously gawky, ambisexual spider at its center and all of its influences radiating out like strands of sticky silk, you can relate to how those of us in Patti's army see our field marshal -- at the center of the known universe. So both books are up for some tough scrutiny -- well, at least one of them is.
Victor Bockris is certainly a brave man to release a tell-all about Patti, but as the biographer of the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, and Smith's Horses producer John Cale, who better to take on the tough task of tracking down and humanizing the elusive and, for a time, reclusive, Patti?
Bockris' and co-author Roberta Bayley's strongest suit is archiving and unearthing rock arcana. As Bockris has proven with difficult literary projects in the past, he is best at gathering this information and combining it into a semi-cohesive story. Where he falters is in filling the potholes with curious assumptions, stunning leaps of logic, and presumptive stabs at mindreading. Sentences like, "When she wasn't doing chores and errands of suburban life, Patti's favorite place in the house was the music room" confound in both their poor wording and lack of context. Sadly, there are a number of these head-scratching passages. Bockris takes a risk in implying, for example, that Patti resented Blondie's Debbie Harry. With little context for those who weren't there, this assertion lacks bite. No real concrete evidence is given, and there's no real discussion as to why it would be assumed that these very different women should be best pals. Who cares? Did this really alter Patti's life?
The same sort of creepy kid gloves are to be found in his recollection of Patti's "early retirement" from rock & roll -- the years spent raising children with her husband/mentor Fred "Sonic" Smith. Bockris seems to have a lot of opinions about this period, especially surrounding Fred's alcoholism and possible domestic violence, but never actually comes out with them. Fine, but hammering home the idea that Patti was some docile lamb of a wife who cowed in the shadow of her man serves only to refute her carefully guarded image of brazen independence. Again, who cares? Fans who "know" Patti know that Sonic was her idol. Anyone who's ever been in a couple understands coupledom's inherent potential for co-dependency. Bockris takes these ideas nowhere. Fortunately, to its credit, Unauthorized (often) wisely defers to other writers with well-selected quotes: "Indeed, James Grauerholz pointed out that in "disappearing,' Patti had died a rock 'n' roll death without actually having to die: she had preserved her legend while continuing on with her life."
Where the book also shines is in painting the canvas of the 1970s New York punk rock mise en scene: "Originally called Hilly's on the Bowery, the bar catered to a motley group of Bowery denizens including the biker crowd. -- CBGB's initial clientele was composed of professional, full-time drinkers who often waited in line outside the place as early as eight in the morning to get a choice seat at the bar."
Bockris' ability to efficiently and effectively convey so much with so little makes his ventures onto the rickety scaffold of pop psychoanalysis all the more dubious. And while his strength is in painting clarity, his dry prose managed to keep this reader at a distance. For a depiction of a life set (for the most part) in the colorful NYC punk explosion, the book lacks the power to take you there. I felt dropped off at the curb, grasping for meaning.
This missing power is exactly what Smith's Complete possesses -- the power to take the reader there, to transport the reader outside of him or herself, into seas of possibilities. Potential -- real, imagined, and realized -- is at the crux of Smith's everything: "The flow of language that seemed infinite -- seemed to dry up. How then to communicate? To reinvent words? Disassociate them. Redefine them. Fuck the slang scrawled across our practice room walls. I went up to 48th Street and got me an electric guitar."
Patti's prose is never separate from her poetry. There's no dry accounting of rock-life clichés here. Encoded within is the real story of her life, at least according to her -- facts and data are certainly added and omitted at the whim of the book's subject. When Patti says about her Dream of Life LP, "One afternoon while performing KP duties, I was interrupted by Fred with these words, "People Have the Power. Write it.' After scraping out the pots and pans, I set about my studies in preparation for writing the lyrics," the message neither suffers nor benefits from a juxtaposition with some clever quote from someone else. This book is 100% Patti and not to be taken literally.
Ideally, these two rock documents can be taken together in balance: Bockris and Bayley with their judgments, archival talents, and dry distance, and Patti with her life, elegance, and wit. Both contain a fine collection of photos, with the clearer design focus paid by Smith; Complete's layout of photos -- some familiar, some never before seen -- make the book a must-have. But without some distance, Complete is incomplete, and while I'm not quite sure that it's any less so with Victor Bockris' input, it's a start.