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
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power