PATTI SMITH: An Unauthorized Biography
By Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley
Simon & Schuster
336 pages, $25
Readers of this biography of poet-rock 'n' roller Patti Smith can expect to learn less about her art than they can the fine art of networking.
Though Victor Bockris is well-known as a New York City poet and critic, he's also the biographer of Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and Keith Richard. Here, it's the biographer who triumphs as he uses his own experiences with Smith, interviews with her associates and others' magazine stories and book references to piece together -- with co-writer Roberta Bayley -- a chronology of Smith's life-thus-far.
There are few revelations about Smith's work. She's an artist who's best experienced through her work, anyway, with her poetry and music verging on performance art. Her own personality is such a part of her work that it's difficult to imagine anybody else reciting her poetry or singing her more extreme songs.
So instead, the reader gets a who's who of New York's downtown arts scene in the 1970s, and how it affected Smith's career.
There's Robert Mapplethorpe, who lived with Smith before he came out and before he became a cause celebre for his photographs of male nudes. There's playwright Sam Shepard, who also lived with Smith before he hit it big as an actor. And Jim Carroll, the teen junkie and literary auteur who also had a relationship with Smith. And Blue Oyster Cult guitarist Alan Lanier. And Warhol and William Burroughs weave in and out of the story, as acquaintances, of course, not lovers.
One of the conclusions is that while Smith was talented and driven, her rise to fame was accompanied by some mighty big helping hands. And according to Bockris and Bayley, Smith frequently did bite the hand that fed her, blowing off fellow poet Gerard Malanga, for example, after he went out of his way to help her career several times.
The book also reveals that Smith's retirement from rock 'n' roll to raise her family with Fred wasn't quite as pastoral as she made it appear in later interviews. Patti was deferential to her husband to a degree that shocked many of her friends and fans, the writers say, and her absence from the music scene from 1980 until after his death in 1994 reflected his drinking and increasing inability to record or tour more than anything else.
Bockris and Bayley, who is best-known in her own right for her photos of the late '70s New York punk scene, are a little overreliant on a couple of their sources for most of their criticisms of Patti.
Wayne Kramer, one of Fred's former partners in the MC5, is particularly venomous in his criticisms of Patti and Fred as the pair withdrew from their old friends and bandmates into a big house house near Detroit. But he was one of the ones shut out.
Likewise, Deerfrance, cq a New York scenester, has some fairly scathing things to say about Patti, but some of it comes off as the gossip of someone just waiting to be asked his opinion of everything about someone more successful.
Regardless of the veracity of their criticisms, though, the Patti Smith who emerges from the book isn't particularly engaging emotionally. For that, readers will have to seek out Smith's own poetry or recordings.