Tuesday Book: Rimbaud as a rock'n'roll widow

PATTI SMITH BY VICTOR BOCKRIS FOURTH ESTATE, pounds 16.99

GOODNESS KNOWS what it was like seeing Patti Smith sing in the Seventies, when she was at her peak. During her comeback tour in 1996, when she was a 50-year-old widow performing again after 15 years of domesticity in the suburbs of Detroit, greatness poured from the stage. There she was: the rock'n'roll field marshal, shaman of the New York avant-garde and scatty mum all rolled into one. She looked a bit like everybody - Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, even a touch of Angela Carter - as well as her stunning younger self.

When she shook off her jacket to reveal her famously skinny arms, the sexual charge passing through the crowd took your breath away. Parodically milking this reaction, she tugged off her whiffy-looking socks during "Dancing Barefoot" and twirled them round her head like a teasing hippie stripper.

In the middle of Prince's "When Doves Cry", she soared off on one of those so-called stream-of-consciousness monologues, riffing on the repeated "Why?" of the chorus and babbling on about "Why is there no end to infinity? Why is there no nothing?" (or something like that, anyway). Then, without any change of gear, she swerved back into the scripted melody of the song - "Why do we scream at each other?" - from the outer limits of stellar gabble. It was the coolest thing.

Everybody has always agreed on La Smith's stunning stage presence. From her first appearances, declaiming her junk poetry in New York in the early Seventies, audiences were mesmerised by the Rimbaud-quoting artist. Augmented by the art-house guitar sound of her band, the performances of the New Jersey diva at CBGBs were already semi-legendary by the time her first album, Horses, was released. It was hailed - immediately and rightly - as a masterpiece.

That was in 1975. For the next four years, Patti and her group took Europe and America by the scruff of the storm. Then she jacked it all in and, until his death in 1994, settled down to a life of wife-and-mummyhood with Fred "Sonic" Smith in Detroit.

The story of Patti's life and loves - most notoriously, Robert Mapplethorpe (who took the iconic Horses photo) and Sam Shepard - until she made it big as part of New York's proto-punk underground is already pretty well known. One hoped that Victor Bockris might shed some light on the Detroit years; but the extent of the couple's seclusion was such that, besides Fred's descent into alcoholic passivity, little is forthcoming. There were rumours of drugs and domestic violence, apparently, but even these suggestions are swiftly erased by a tautological disclaimer ("the rumours were only speculation").

Bockris's life of Andy Warhol was an important and serious book, but the signs of future decline were already present there. When Andy referred to Victor as a "brilliant young writer", he intended this in the quaintly Warholian sense that Bockris was "always tape recording and taking pictures".

This time around, it is not a tape recorder - let alone a typewriter - that keeps Bockris's hands busy, but scissors and glue as he splices together lengthy tracts from the cuttings library. This has its own value.

Smith has always given great interview and it is fun to have her spaced- out ramblings preserved in hard covers: "The Joan of Arc poem is almost total rhythm masturbation but it puts Joan of Arc in a new light, it puts her forth as a virgin with a hot pussy who realises that she's gonna get knocked off before she has a chance to come," and so on.

Better Patti's funny, off-the-cuff genius than the banality of a biographer who, after wondering why she gave it all up for Fred, concludes that "Such is the power of love". Prospective parents, meanwhile, will be glad to learn that "raising a child is both physically and mentally demanding, requiring, above all, patience".

Bockris's ineptitude as a writer is not without its pleasures, however, as when we learn that "apart from the fact that he was dying, [Mapplethorpe] could not have been happier or looked better". Such is the power of prose. When he reports Smith's "close relationship with a pet fish called Curley", Bockris is so imbecilic that he sounds almost as funny as his subject (who, incidentally, always knew that she had "got good punch lines... good jokes").

That declaration was from her first published interview, in 1972, with the young tape-recordist Victor Bockris. It is reprinted here as an appendix. Otherwise, Patti Smith wisely appears to have had little to do with this slapdash piece of hackery.

Geoff Dyer

Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
television
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower