Wednesday Book: The beauty of a radical rock chick

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The Independent Culture


A GIRLFRIEND and I saw Patti Smith perform live a couple of years ago. We emerged from the gig in a state of some exhilaration and gratitude. "I just wish," my friend said, "that I could see something like that about once a month, just to be reminded of what really good looks like."

Patti Smith appeared in the mid-Seventies, out of nowhere. Her impact was incredible. She was a shameless poet, but not obscure or flowery. Her writing and performing combined slanginess with Biblical intensity. She was a rock'n'roller, but without monotony, and embodied machismo while being unmistakably female.

She challenged the notion that rock music was just for lunks and broke through the timid conformity required of most female pop stars or rock chicks at the time. She did beauty and truth, without apology. She was radical in a way that could not be defined by issue-driven politics or by feminism.

Sandra Bernhard once remarked that Patti Smith was so ahead of her time, she could afford to take a decade or more off. And in the Eighties, Smith disappeared - a timely decision, maybe, as the decade was not hospitable to her passion or sincerity. A song with the simplicity of "People have the Power" fell on very barren ground, then. Now she's back, it is surprising how much of what she does, and she did, is unsullied by the passage of time. Her work is a wondrous mixture of the carnal, the animal and the cerebral.

Patti Smith Complete includes her lyrics, some previously unreleased photos charting her sartorial evolution - more varied than you'd think - and short essays and notes that exceed soundbite, but don't outstay their welcome. Smith is probably as aware of her iconic status as, say, Picasso was of his influence on modern art.

Her confidence is uncompromising in one early statement about "what I hold sacred as an artist... The right to create without apology, from a stance beyond gender or social definition, but not beyond the responsibility to create something of worth". It's not really surprising that her first ambition was to be a missionary.

She acknowledges well-worn influences such as Jim Morrison and Rimbaud. Woolly old Allen Ginsberg gets quoted, as usual. But there are also some nice surprises: one or her earliest poetic influences was Muhammad Ali. She also loved Maria Callas - "how she seemed to draw from every fibre to create a whisper" - and Audrey Hepburn, who worked with the victims of war.

There's a quick ramble on Jean Genet, an anti-censorship piece she published in The Yipstar Times (it really was called that) and an account of being chased by screaming girls in Florence. She recalls her first performance with Lenny Kaye: "It seemed to have a negative effect. I took that as a positive sign."

In later years her life has been marked by grief and death. "Gone Again" and "Peace & Noise" chart these events and her responses, in stunning evocations of the power of the human spirit to overcome. Smith has a rare knack of being very personal, without being self-obsessed. Her spirituality is now apparently lodged with Tibetan Buddhism.

Yet her later works have such a strong gravitational tow they transcend belief systems. Patti Smith Complete ends on a cliffhanger, "Notes for the Future". Smith is a member of a valiant tribe of artists who still believe that art can make a difference.

It's arguable whether the form of this book fully satisfies the claim of its title. Some of the song lyrics - like "Land", "Free Money" and "Fireflies" - look a bit lonely and repetitive on the page without her voice and the music, but I'm not sure how much this impression has to do with familiarity with the records. Others - like "Poppies", "We Three" and "Piss Factory" - stand their ground just as writing. A larger number - "Kimberley", "Redondo Beach", "Birdland" - are so sure-footed that you can hear her voice and the music as you read.

The words of "Space Monkey", on the other hand, are completely incomprehensible. You notice this kind of thing less if it comes to you first as a song. Performance poetry, especially Patti Smith's, is often driven as much on rhythm as on sense, and there's nothing wrong with that.

A complete Patti Smith would consist of the book, plus a video with interviews and lots of performance footage. While we're waiting for that, Patti Smith Complete is as handsome as its subject.

The reviewer is writing `Britart' for the book publishers, Serpent's Tail