Patti Smith by Victor Bockris

Living the Outrageous Lie* (Part 1)

Patti Smith by Victor Bockris, 1998 UK Edition, Published by Fourth Estate

”The literary outpout of the short-lived punk movement has been largely ignored. No one came close to Patti Smith at the time in terms of her recognition as a writer.”-Victor Bockris

By Tobe Damit

I have already reviewed Just Kids and M Train before here on LAN, so I thought that by now I had a pretty accurate and complete picture of Patti Smith: Poet, punk prophet, feminist icon, rock writer; a punk-rock star mixing her distinct voice and poetry with rock and roll music.  I was so wrong. ”Just Kids” gives you an unforgettable complete picture of her childhood and early days, highlighting her relationship with now famous photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the “Chelsea Hotel” days, while ”M Train” picks up years later with a more disheveled, haunting narrative. However, after reading Victor Bockris 1998 UK edition of Patti Smith’s bio published by Fourth Estate, which places her at the centre of the New York underground that included, amongst many others, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Blondie, Jim Carroll and William Burroughs, you finally get a very intimate, in-depth, exhaustive portrait of the poet who gave us Horses. Victor Bockris’s biography investigates the private world behind the celebrity. Patti is one of the most direct, conspicuous link, between the Beats and the early New York punk movement,  as stunning a writer than a punk-rock singer-songwriter.

Early poetry reading, St. Mark’s Church, NYC, ca 1971. Click on it!

Bockris goes through Patti’s life, starting with her childhood and strict religious upbringing in South Jersey and her earliest influences, her escape to New York where the Andy Warhol’s Factory was in full swing by 1967, her meeting with Mapplethorpe and the crowd that was hanging out at Max’s Kansas City, her staying at the Chelsea Hotel where she would meet her most precious literary mentors as well as her rock’n’roll heroes. Bockris’ dynamic narrative alternates with wisely chosen interview excerpts or quotes, the primary source of information being provided by Patti herself throughout the many interviews she has given during her career. The first interview done by Bockris in 1972, on the occasion of the publication of her first book  ”Seventh Heaven”,provides a paradigm for all the Patti Smith interviews that were to come, illustrating how she has always been able to take the most mundane question and weave her answer into a piece of spoken poetry.” Of course, to the readers’ pleasure, this memorable interview is duly generously provided in its entirety in the Sources Notes.  Furthermore, that section of the book gives you a very clear overview on the extent and the quality of the research and the references used throughout the whole book. The people quoted, those who conducted interviews with the author as well as the sources themselves (books, magazines, newspapers, underground fanzines, etc.) – anyone pertaining to Patti and the people she knew, as well as her cultural surroundings, are there.

If you check out the complete works of our esteemed chronicler of the New York Underground, Patti Smith clearly constitutes a very important link between Beats, hippies and punks as well as between poetry and live musical performance. Making Patty the hinge as well as the source of many things to come on a musical, literary and social level. One could say that the first part of her life was somehow a tribute to those whom she considered to be her heroes. ”I’ve spent half to three-quarters of my life sucking from other people and now I’d like to give some’‘ Patti says in that same 1972 first interview with Bockris mentioned earlier.

Here with William Burroughs at his home, Franklin St, NYC, 1975. ©Photo by Kate Simon.

The Chelsea Hotel was a heady place to be in the late sixties and the early seventies; Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Miller, Arthur Clark, Jim Carroll, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and of course William Burroughs amongst many others were hanging out at the Chelsea and all of them had a big influence on Patti. People from the Warhol’s Factory were also still very active and everything was set for the changing of guard to happen on a reading that took place at St Mark’s Church on February 10th, 1971, before a very unconventional, eclectic crowd. An event hosted by Gerard Malanga, who, ”despite recently having been dismissed from the Warhol’s Factory for the second time in two years, was still looked upon as and looked like, a bona fide Warhol Superstar.”

Flyer for poetry reading at St Mark Church hosted by Gerard Malanga (Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections Cornell University)

Bockris vividly recalls: ”Patti appeared promptly at 8 p.m. accompanied in the background by the lanky figure of Lenny Kaye. The audience gasped with astonishment. She was a figure of the future standing before them, looking like something like many of them had never seen. The raw, rasping, heavily New Jersey accent with which she addressed the crowd gave Patti’s reading its edge that night. The content of her work leant heavily towards the sexual, mixing up male and female without concern. She also revealed a sharp sense of timing by alternating the works she read on her own with the ones she read with Lenny’s backing, and by keeping the set to a tight twenty-minute (…)She had the confidence to machine-gun her poems at the sophisticated if slightly stunned crowd. Patti ‘took’ St Marks that night. Malanga, whose reading was a superb and passionate rendition of some of his best work, was still the centre of attention at Max’s later on, but Lenny Kaye recognized that the changing of guard started on that very evening. And within a year the rockers would have taken over Max’s and other cultural outposts from the artists and poets…”

Patti, 1976, Vanity Fair. ©Photo Lynn Goldsmith,

Patti Smith then willingly takes on the part of being a rock star without really leaving poetry behind, rather fusing performance, acting, poetry and punk rock, hence becoming a role-model for the first women in rock. Punk by nature, she was amongst the first ones to play the infamous CBGB OMFUG, headlining for the band Television, Tom Verlaine. Richard Lloyd and Richard Hell (later replaced by Fred ”Sonic” Smith, formerly from the Detroit band rock legend, the MC5,  who later would form Sonic’s Rendezvous Band with Scott Morgan, Gary Rasmussen and Scott Ashton, formerly of The Stooges). At age 31, Fred Smith married Patti and they raised two children together, as well as collaborating musically.

Patti Smith guesting with Fred “Sonic” Smith’s Sonic’s Rendezvous Band at the New Miami in Detroit, Michigan, 1980. ©Photo Sue Rynksi.

Bockris then proceeds to describe, with what could have been the sequel to ”Just Kids”, every relevant detail of Patti’s relation and marriage to the MC5 guitarist, Fred ”Sonic” Smith”. Together the Smiths had a son, Jackson (born 1982) and a daughter, Jesse (born 1987). He was the inspiration for her song “Frederick”, a single from her 1979 album WaveUnfortunately the only album he produced with Patti Smith, Dream of Life (1988) had a very poor reception. You see in these chapters a whole different aspect of Patti, who had by then almost become a stay at home mum if it wasn’t for her amazing capacity to absorb from other writers and artists in general, as well as always making poetry out of everyone and everything that surrounded her, in one way or another. Bockris has a very objective, non-judgmental point of view on that part of her life and it’s very fortunate because a lot of people and the medias have been quite narrow-minded towards some choices she made back then on the way she wanted to lead her life. I have to admit that for my part I don’t think anyone should have the right to judge anyone else for their life choices, whether they are celebrities or not.

Jackson, Patti, and Jesse at home. St. Clair Shores, Michigan, 1996.©Photo Annie Leibovitz

The death of Patti’s beloved husband on November 4th 1994 obviously was a huge loss.  Patti Smith speaks of how Fred Smith encouraged her writing, crediting his influence on a number of the songs she released after his death, as well as the prose works she created during their time together in Michigan. Her 1996 album Gone Again features several songs inspired by, co-written by, or in tribute to, her late husband. In Bockris’ bio you will have a very in-depth look on how Patti managed to make a well-deserved comeback and is now viewed for who she is. Her life has been made of ups and downs but I always found that it’s in defeat that you see a real winner, for they always manage to come back. Mohammad Ali was one of Patti’s inspirational model and poet. He had found his very own unique way to be a poet in life and to make his life a work of art, being a parental figure his kids could look up too, a loyal husband and grateful son, living his life as he dreamed he should be living it – exactly like Patti. ”By 1996 she had metamorphosed from an entertainer into that position Richard Hell had prophesied in his 1974 essay on ‘celebrity as an art form’ . Such a character is a living piece of American history, a walking icon, like Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Kennedy and, in her small world, Patti Smith.” 

I have learned to love Patti Smith first through her books, then through her music; but now Victor Bockris has allowed me to acknowledge her lifestyle and thinking of her as a work of art as well. She has paid many tributes to various writers, musicians, actors, poets and painters that she held in high esteem. It now seems only appropriate that we now in turn pay tribute to Patti Smith, who is all that. In his biography ”Patti Smith” Bockris has done just that as well as giving a voice to all those who were worthy to pay her homage.

I have learned to love Patti Smith first through her books, than through her music but now Victor Bockris has allowed me to acknowledge her lifestyle and thinking as work of art as well. She has paid many tributes to various writers, musicians, actors, poets and painters that she held high in her esteem. It now seems only appropriate that we now in turn pay tribute to Patti Smith who is all that. In his biography ”Patti Smith” Bockris has done just that as well as giving a voice to all those who were worthy to pay her homage.

Patti performing for a New Year’s Eve concert at CBGB’s, 1977-78

Allow me to leave you with one last quote, cherry picked from the bio, describing Patti Smith performing at CBGB’s, written by Charles Shaar Murray for the New Musical Express: ”She can generate more intensity with a single movement of one hand than most rock performers can produce in an entire set. She’s an odd little waif figure in a grubby black suit and black satin shirt, so skinny that her clothes hang baggily all over her, with chopped-off black hair and  a face like Keith Richards’ kid sister would have if she’d gotten as wasted by age seventeen as Keith is now. She stands there machine-gunning out her lines, singing a bit and talking a bit, in total control, riding it and steering it with a twist of a shoulder here, a flick of the wrist there — scaled-down bird-like movements that carry an almost unbelievable degree of power, an instinctive grasp of the principles of mime that teach that the quality and timing of her gesture are infinitely more important than its size. Her closing tour de force, an inspired juxtaposing of ‘Land of 1,000 Dances’ with a rock poem about a kid getting beaten up in a locker room, was undoubtedly the most gripping performance that I’ve seen by a white act since the last time I saw The Who”.

©All quotes from Victor Bockris biography ”Patti Smith”, 1998 UK Edition, Published by Fourth Estate

*For those who are curious and wandering wtf is this ”Outrageous Lie” thing, read The Outrageous Lie Part II, Q and A with author Victor Bockris on Loud Alien Noize!

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31 thoughts on “Patti Smith by Victor Bockris

    1. Amen to that!! I will explore a little deeper in my Q and A with the autor.. For sure there was so many things to say that I kinda kept some for the second part.. I haven’t even talked about the ”Outrageous Lie” mentionned concept in the title!!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. The interesting thing about the generation of artists who emerged after WW2 was that so many of them came from working class backgrounds. Prior to this people in the arts came from the academic upper middle class.

      There are extraordinary exceptions but developing the mind was primarily a pursuit of the leisure class.

      Patti Smith was the daughter of a waitress and John Lennon was a lout from Liverpool.

      They were the children of a generation reacted to fascism by increasing access to public education with an emphasis on a general understanding of the liberal arts.

      They were also the beneficiaries of federally sponsored efforts to promote class mobility.

      The overall prosperity of the post war era
      and the evolution of mass media produced an expansion of the educated class to include people who might have been brilliant but unknown illiterates a few decades earlier.

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    3. They are sort of the grandons and grandaughters of DADA un a way, Giving back the power to create art to the masses and rebelling against the ”arts establishements”. Maybe I might not use the correct terms but I hope you get what I mean. Warhol was also from a very poor family and was a huge contributor to this ”movement”. It’s sad that a lot of people don’t get the implications and the statements he made by painting those campbell soup cans and stuff. He never admitted that it had any kind of agenda but I’m sure he was conscious of the impact he was having,

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    4. I’m curious to see where this is going to head on from now on… What will be the next big thing..If such a thing is still possible. Sometimes it seems like we are in a cultural black hole AND that there are no such thing as one big thing anymore but lots of tiny trends, all based on something revamped from the past… The big thing in painting has been Pop Surrealism for quite a while if I am not mistaken… Not saying I know the Truth but rather thinking out loud…

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    5. There’s alot going on. I think that digital media completely levels access to higher learning for anyone who is motivated. That’s the thing about access. More people are motivated to use their minds than not and I’m beginning to see news ways of making art emerge.

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    6. That’s just the form. What about the content? The driving idea behind it? But yes, I see what you mean of course. What I’m trying to say is that …hmm.. We are still one T-Shirt away from a revolution… It’s just not happening… I don’t see it happening… Yet…

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    7. Yes!! I totally agree with you on that part!! A whole new era filled with means to do art in ways that weren’t even considered before are now available to almost everyone!!! Some of them are utterly fascinating!! I saw one recently with which you can just draw in 3d just in thin air!!! I was flabbergastered!! I do think Street Art has also gained a lot of popularity and that is kool…. Speaking of that I think Banksy is one of the artist that is the closest one to creating some kind of revolution and opening new avenues, not with the media but rather via the message and they are in a certain way linked as well… I know people are like yeah yeah Banksy ok… But I do think the guy is close to opening new avenues and in some ways, creating a revolution… I really understood you were talking about the medium.

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    8. You read my mind… It seems that the music world doesn’t have the same problems the visual arts domain has! Writing the second part of The Outrageous Lie now so I will check out those clips a little later!! Sorry but I will check them out for sure. I promise! I just don’t want to loose my train of thoughts too much!

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    1. I really really loved the colors in the clip you sent me!! It’s like painting in movements…. Simply amazing!! I watched it a couple of times and yes the genderfuck is kool!! It’s funny cuz I am reading a goth graphic novels that uses this genderfuck too!! Burroughs was the first one to openly talk about guys with female bodies and vice versa… Kool to see it in movement. Kool to see our society more and more open minded too!! About Stuyvesant I noticed that blend of musical styles but I’m soo into everything that is punk related… I have to be more open minded myself I guess!! Thanks for sharing my friend!! It was a delight to watch the 2 versions of this clip!

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    2. It echoes 70’s Gay Liberation. Genderfuck was used as a political statement regarding gender roles in street theater. The most famous genderfuck was the Order of the Sister’s of Perpetual Indulgence. The beauty of the Order was anyone could join it. ‘Sister’s’ would pop up everywhere in the most outrageous Nun’s habits. In the 80’s after the AIDS epidemic broke they raised money for non-profit groups that took care of the sick and dying.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sisters_of_Perpetual_Indulgence

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    3. How Kool!! I didn’t know about that! I jusr sensed that it meant something along the lines that it’s ”fucking” with the gender toles and looks but I didn’t know all this!! Thanks! I love to know about this kinda stuff!

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    1. This one really answers all the questions one could have about her as well as providing the best interviews given by her through the years to the authors or others!! I enoyed this book right from the intro until the last word!!! Just Kid is also one of my all time favorite book and its written by Patti herself And its a best seller so yeah… I have written a review on it as well as on Patti’s other best seller M Train… Happy reading my friend!

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    2. Oh, it’s kind-of a bio. Have you not seen those 33 1/3 books? Published by Bloomsbury, it’s a little book 100 to 200 pages on an album but about the artist and etc. Different authors select albums to write about, sometimes it’s hit and miss but they have done over 100 albums in the series now and I was just saying Patti Smith’s Horses album was pretty good read, it’s by a guy called Philip Shaw. Check it out and see what you think, here a link for all the books: http://bloomsbury.com/uk/series/33-13/

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