Wild horses 

Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography
By Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley
Simon & Schuster
$25, 336 pp.

Rock, like sculpture, is the solid body
of a dream,
is an equation of will and vision.
I haven’t fucked much w/the past
but i’ve fucked
plenty w/the future.

Patti Smith – the quintessential, inimitable rock icon – steps up to the microphone, pale and gaunt in her characteristic haircut, like some postmodern Juliette Gréco of the Lower East Side, ready to test her acerbic words and gritty voice. It is February 10, 1971, at St. Mark’s Church in New York City. She is opening for Gerard Malanga, the golden darling of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Le tout New York is there: trash, talent, press, hangers-on, poets and fashion models.

Accompanied on electric guitar by Lenny Kaye – who has remained her collaborator for three decades – Patti rips through her set with murderous fury and an astonishing stage presence. Taking sustenance from her mythic pantheon – the visionary child-poet Arthur Rimbaud, Jesus, Joan of Arc, James Dean, Jackson Pollock and the writer maudit of French literature, Jean Genet, among others – she delivers a stunning performance which she dedicates with malicious intent to crime.

The freedom to be intense … to defy
Social order and break the slow
kill monotony
of censorship.

We are far away from the niceties of a poetry reading, no matter how avant-garde. This is a new genre: undomesticated, electric and sexy. The full house, Allen Ginsberg and Jim Carroll included, has just witnessed the baptism of a new star. The rest is history, as they say, a history that Bockris and Bayley document in this unauthorized biography by relying on the quasi-endless series of interviews that Patti Smith has granted in her long career as a leading rock artist.

This material is infinitely compelling for anyone who has followed the "changing of the cultural guard where rockers would replace writers." It provides a fascinating account of the punk scene which Patti Smith forged from the early days at CBGB’s, to her disappearing act in Detroit, to her recent resurfacing after the death of her beloved husband and soul mate, Fred "Sonic" Smith.

Those who have suffered understand.

Was she lovers with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe when they shared an apartment in Brooklyn, or were they just roommates? Did she go out with Allen Lanier, formerly of Blue Oyster Cult, while pursuing Tom Verlaine of Television fame? Is it true that "Piss Factory," her launching single, was based on a stint at a toy shop in South Jersey? Did she hate Debbie Harry’s guts? Could it be that during her self-imposed exile in Detroit, she and Fred succumbed to junk? Did he have the dubious honor of transforming the most indomitable punk queen-mouth of hell in rock history into a subservient mother and wife, waiting for hubby to take her on a drive into the country? Did he beat the shit out of her?

Picking thru the ruins w/a stick.

Bockris and Bayley, inevitably, delve into the noxious, hungry piranha pit, feeding our seemingly endless appetite for the private chapters of rock ’n’ roll’s sacred monsters. They do it in a prose which is serviceable, informative and always eager to take the backseat to their illustrious subject – although early on I was occasionally put off by stylistically awkward or downright lame sentences ("... help her focus her vision of herself, thereby facilitating her development as an artist" or "... seized on her college years as an opportunity to learn as much as she could on her own about all the magnificent artists and writers"). But let’s be charitable lest we end up on someone’s shit list.

She perfumes her hair w/the attar
of battle.

A cursory look at the table of contents arranged chronologically: Horses, Radio Ethiopia, Resurrection, Gone Again – to pick a few among the 16 present – will undoubtedly send readers to their stereo to crank up their favorite song. Almost a quarter century after its initial release, I can still blast "Gloria" and feel the rush as I dance around the room in sync with Patti’s raucous, delirious voice, lifting, shaking, insinuating itself under my skin with that sharp yet deeply sensual tongue.

My girl, all grown up and still rocking against tyranny and narrow hearts, and for that fucking feeling which seizes you when your soul says yes, that’s it, you’ve got it now! We never stopped listening.

Chris Tysh writes about poetry and fiction for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com

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