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

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
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