Smoldering Patti Smith Burns Through Bland Bio

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

Patti Smith wallows in language. She chants. Rants. She loops incantations. The act of writing makes her kooky. “When I’m home writing on a typewriter,” she said, “I go crazy. I move like a monkey. I’ve wet myself, I’ve come in my pants writing … I masturbate–14 times in a row.” How many times did Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley masturbate (separately or together) when they wrote this biography of Ms. Smith? As Mr. Bockris typed, “The way Patti recounts it, her childhood was really just a waiting period before she hit the big time,” did he wiggle like a monkey? Did Ms. Bayley, reading over his shoulder, wet herself? Ms. Smith boasts about coming 12 times per day. “I can have a lot of brain travel through masturbation,” she said. “That’s where I get a lot [of] my mental images.”

What are those mental images? Surely a kaleidoscope of hip or peculiar archetypes. Mr. Bockris and Ms. Bayley document how a teenage Patti Smith–a Jehovah’s Witness misfit–first appropriated the magic of icons Jeanne Moreau and Joan of Arc to escape South Jersey and, eventually, to perch upon the highest pinnacle of New York hipsterdom.

In her writing, Ms. Smith often invokes the power of female icons: “Most of my poems are written to women because women are most inspiring. Who are most artists? Men. Who do they get inspired by? Women.” Mr. Bockris and Ms. Bayley tell of Ms. Smith steamrolling male creativity into pancakes during the late 60′s and early 70′s. She was so powerful that after her affair with Robert Mapplethorpe, he went queer: “He collapsed, crying out dramatically that if Patti left him, he would become gay!” In 1969, Andy Warhol was so taken by Ms. Smith’s role in the off-Broadway play Island, he came to almost every performance–yet she resisted becoming just another Factory freak. Instead, she burned through more men and eventually ended up as the adulterous lover of Sam Shepard in 1970, the two writing the play Cowboy Mouth “on the same typewriter–like a battle.” A few years later, when she first saw Television perform at CBGB, she told the band’s manager, Terry Ork, she wanted the guitarist, Tom Verlaine: “He has such a Egon Schiele look,” she said. “You gotta get that boy for me.” Mr. Ork obliged. She devoured poor Tom like candy and by 1974 had conquered the CBGB scene herself.

Mr. Bockris and Ms. Bayley have some inkling of the passionate depth of Ms. Smith’s music. They quote Lee Black Childers saying, “I would sit open-mouthed on these rickety chairs in this club that stank and was in a dangerous neighborhood because Patti was doing astounding things–with cadence and rhythm and image. She was telling us rock ‘n’ roll in a different way, and we were astonished that all of New York wasn’t already clamoring at her feet.”

I remember seeing her do a set that segued from Smokey Robinson’s “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” to her own insane Wilhelm Reich-returns-to-his-son-in-a-flying-saucer song, “Birdland”–both numbers sung in a slow Billie Holiday tempo. Ms. Smith yapped as if she’d just invented the idea of singing poetry. Who the hell is Bob Dylan ?

And speaking of Mr. Dylan–Mr. Bockris and Ms. Bayley suggest that he tried to appropriate this female upstart’s poetic energy for his Rolling Thunder Revue, but she turned the bard down cold. “I thought [the offer] was real sweet of him,” Ms. Smith said, “but … we’re not chemically suited to be around each other–both of us have so much electrical energy we need some kind of calming factor. It’s like if you have an electric chair, you need somebody to electrocute, you don’t bring in another electric chair.”

Even though the book is dashed together and Ms. Smith’s story has been told before (in Patricia Morrisroe’s Mapplethorpe: A Biography and in Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk , and in a competent earlier Patti Smith biography by Nick Johnstone), reading the first two-thirds of Mr. Bockris and Ms. Bayley’s version is vaguely beach-book pleasurable. The biography takes a moral nose dive, however, when the authors report on their subject’s Rimbaud-like rejection of poetry and success in 1980. Rather than go run guns in Ethiopia like Rimbaud, Ms. Smith ran Pampers and Tide in a middle-class backwater north of Detroit after marrying Fred (Sonic) Smith, former guitarist of the almost legendary rock group MC5.

The “party line” on the Smith-Smith marriage (as told in Nick Johnstone’s biography) is that Patti joyfully morphed from Bob Dylan’s metaphorical kid sister into June Cleaver. Mr. Bockris and Ms. Bayley don’t buy it. The two biographers dig up a few sources like James Wolcott to state there was a “spooky vibe about Fred and Patti’s relationship.” Yet none of this alleged spookiness is observed firsthand. And Fred died of heart failure in 1994, so he’s not around to defend himself. A responsible biography needs more proof of domestic violence than Mr. Wolcott’s assertion that the Smith ménage gave him the willies.

Ms. Bayley is mostly known as a photographer of the punk era. Mr. Bockris has written a number of “internationally acclaimed stone classics”–authorized biographies of Warhol, Keith Richards and William Burroughs. But Warhol et al. cooperated with Mr. Bockris; Ms. Smith did not. And Mr. Bockris and Ms. Bayley punish her mightily for this.

After the death of her husband, and after the death less than two months later of her brother Todd, Ms. Smith took up with a boy named Oliver Ray who is not much older than her eldest son. Mr. Bockris and Ms. Bayley depict Ms. Smith as a woman who allowed her genius to be destroyed by male tyranny and who then ended up as a hag vampire, preying on youth. Weighing Ms. Smith’s return to the stage in 1995, they speculate: “Was Fred’s death the event that set Patti free, and her brother Todd’s the catalyst that spurred her return, as the death of William Burroughs’ wife had freed him to write?”

Stop. Stop. Stop. Patti Smith did not literally or figuratively fire a bullet into anyone’s skull the way Burroughs did. The comparison is clumsy. Wrong. I once believed that if you’re a rock star, you get the Victor Bockris you deserve, but Ms. Smith deserves better. I once heard her say, “Having a book is an honor, a privilege.” This concept cannot ever have occurred to Mr. Bockris and Ms. Bayley. At the end of their work, they found no honor in Ms. Smith’s story, no privilege in telling it.

Even worse, their language will make no one move like a monkey. Or come in their pants. So we’ll just wait. Someday there will be a dynamite biography of Ms. Smith.