THE READING ROOM: Details and Dedication Make the Argument for ‘Why Patti Smith Matters’
Patti Smith performs in Australia in 2017 (photo by Steve Ford)
As longtime music journalist Caryn Rose points out in the preface to her little gem of a book, Why Patti Smith Matters (Texas), the list of Smith’s contributions to art, photography, poetry, and rock and roll is so extensive that just her poetry and her influences on a generation of musicians alone would suffice to show why she matters. The genius of Rose’s book is that she weaves personal reflection into biography and critical analysis into a colorful portrait of an artist who defines herself first and foremost as a worker. “This is a book about Patti Smith’s work,” Rose writes, “because it is her work that matters, and because of that work and the value she places on her labor within the creative process.”
Why Patti Smith Matters unfolds in roughly chronological fashion, tracing Smith’s life from her birth in Chicago on Dec. 30, 1946, and her family’s move to Philly and then to South Jersey. We get glimpses of Smith’s biography here —taking care of her three younger siblings while her parents worked; taking refuge in the books and music that filled the Smith house; her “sickliness” as a child. Smith contracted scarlet fever, and she suffered from high fevers and hallucinations that she later credited with giving her a second sight. She also “had chronic insomnia and would stare out the window looking for spaceships and fairies while having long conversations with God.” Rose relates her own experiences with insomnia and the ways that Smith’s music affected her: “As a fellow insomnia sufferer, I would sit up late in my teenage years, headphones on, listening to her and others of the new guard, plotting my own escape, trusting that I would also, some day, find my people.”
Smith arrived in New York City in 1967, looking for work and searching for a community. Through a series of coincidences, she met Robert Mapplethorpe, and “the two discovered they were both seekers, kindred souls united in their pursuit of Art,” Rose writes. “Thus began a creative alliance, romantic partnership, and devoted friendship that Smith would later chronicle in beautiful, evocative detail in Just Kids.” The two moved into the Hotel Chelsea, the haven for bohemians on West 23rd Street and famously home to Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, John Cale, Sid Vicious, as well to Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso. Smith often “escorted a tipsy Burroughs out to a taxi,” and the fashion designer Bruce Rudow introduced Smith to her first manager, Jane Friedman.
In February 1971, Smith stepped onto the platform in front of St. Mark’s Church as part of the Poetry Project’s weekly readings. As Rose points out, Smith declared she would never be boring when she read her poems; she brought with her that day Lenny Kaye — a music critic, record store clerk, and most importantly, an electric guitarist — to accompany her. Smith “was here to make her own rules,” Rose writes, “including bringing an electric guitar to the Poetry Project, something that was anathema in the same way as Dylan bringing a rock and roll band to back him at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.”
By 1975, after working as a poet and rock musician, Smith signed a contract with Clive Davis at Arista Records, recording her first album, Horses. Rose’s passionate analyses of Smith’s work animate Why Patti Smith Matters and succeed in leading us to listen to Smith again for nuances in her songwriting or music. “Horses as a body of work remains perfect,” Rose writes. “Any end-to-end listen even forty years later can still inspire awe. Some pieces of music are so utterly transformative that the opening salvo will forever remain a call to arms … the piano intro that pulls you into ‘Gloria,’ the opening track of Horses, is firmly on that list.”
Rose continues: “Patti’s ‘Gloria’ is kin to [Van] Morrison’s. It is related by passion and attitude and a similar mysticism that swirls around the stories. But it is also very much not the same song. The original is seedy and dark; the reworked ‘Gloria’ is ecstatic. The former is a pop single lasting two and a half minutes; the latter is a six-minute journey.”
For Rose, “Patti Smith was and still is a hero, a goddess, a field marshal, a saint. She was also just an awkward, skinny kid from South Jersey … For those of us who felt more comfortable around books than people, Smith made literature and reading not just desirable, but also implicit … Patti Smith taught us how to kick the doors in, and she continues to teach us how to live with integrity, to keep our name clean, to take chances, to keep the memories of our loved ones alive, to continue after they’re gone, even when we think we cannot, and how to persevere through it all. And most importantly, she taught us to do the work, to just keep doing the work.”
Rose’s readings unfurl with insight and the ardor of a fan, and Why Patti Smith Matters serves as an ideal introduction to Smith’s music and books. For Smith’s fans, Rose’s wisdom and insight accompanies them as they listen again to Smith’s music, read her poetry or memoirs, or look at her photographs.