I was recently asked a question regarding the story of a person’s life that gave me serious pause for thought about the reasons for writing biographies in general. The question was, what is there about this person’s story that people will be able to identify with? After I had answered the question regarding the person under discussion to the best of my ability, it led me into thinking about why it is people would want to read about another person’s life in the first place. If you’ve walked into a book store recently you can’t have helped noticing non-fiction sections are awash with books about the lives of so-called celebrities. Rock stars, reality TV stars, movie stars, wives and husbands of movie stars and so on stare back at you from display tables and book shelves asking you to shell out your hard earned bucks to…. to what?
Some of them are obviously extensions of the type of coverage you’d expect from the celebrity gossip columns and television shows that pass for journalism or entertainment reporting these days. Collections of photos and filled with the titillating tid-bits aimed at perpetuating whatever myth has grown up around the subject matter. There are also the “My life with so and so” type, which are a version of the tell all book that involves ex-wives, husbands, butlers and pool-boys attempting to cash in on their relationship with the subject by telling the world how they were abused, under-tipped or what was involved in a post-pool party clean up. A little further up, or lower — depending on your point of view — the food chain are the more in depth tomes tracing their subject’s life from infancy to death based on interviews with such credible sources as friends of a friend of the guy who drove the ice cream truck through their neighbourhood. Unsubstantiated should be blazoned across the cover of these books rather than the ubiquitous “Unauthorized” as the pages are filled with “he (or she) said” followed by “he said” of quotes that can be neither proven or discredited as the author has gone to great pains to protect his or her sources’ anonymity.
Candy floss books like those are for people looking to get the same fix of outrage and envy they receive from reading about “celebrity scandals” in their magazine of choice. Anybody who already buys a tabloid devoted to the antics of “Teen Moms” aren’t going to be the most discerning or demanding of audiences and will be more than satisfied with anything that gives them more of the same, but in a fancier package. However, what about biographies about the non-celebrity; the world leaders, the history makers, the great scientist, and the brilliant artist? What are we looking for when we pick up a biography of someone like Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking or Pablo Picasso? These are people who have left an indelible stamp on history and I think its natural there will be curiosity as to what made them who they were and how it came about. How is it this person became so much more than the person sitting next to them in school? Was it because they were simply smarter, did they catch some sort of lucky break or were they driven by some burning desire or ambition that propelled them to the pinnacles they obtained? I also think we want more than the “what” of a person’s life and career in reading a biography — we want to gain a deeper understanding of who they are.
We’ve seen their lives from the outside, but people are more than a collection of actions. It also seems the greater a person’s accomplishments, the more interesting and complex they are, and some clue as to who that might be is something we’re all naturally curious about. Maybe it’s just because we hope to find something of ourselves in the pages of their story and in the process some way of personally identifying with them and feeding that small part of ourselves where dreams live with “if they can do it why can’t I”? Naturally each individual is going to have different variations on the above motivating their curiosity about the subject of a biography, and depending on who and what the person is known for, there’s no saying it will have to be the same reason each time.
When I picked up the new biography of poet/musician Patti Smith, Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story, by Dave Thompson being published by the Chicago Review Press on August 2 2011, I was already fairly familiar with what her life and career have consisted of and was interested in seeing if the author would be able to provide any more insights into who she was. For while it’s true Smith recently published her own in-depth autobiography, Just Kids, it was primarily concerned with her early life in New York City and her relationship with her dear friend Robert Mapplethorpe. The other major piece of biographical material available is the 10 year in-the-making documentary by Stephen Sebring, Patti Smith: Dream Of Life, which, although it contains extensive footage of Smith and is remarkably moving in places, I found left me wanting to know more about her.
Thompson was exhaustive in his research for Dancing Barefoot and it’s not lacking in facts and information. Not only did he conduct extensive interviews with those who knew Patti at various points in her life, he seems to have read nearly everything ever written about her in both the press and other people’s writings. However, even more promising, as far as I was concerned, was his mentioning in the introduction of how he tried to turn to her words and writings whenever possible for information. While the majority of the latter turned out to be interviews she had given at various points in her career, it also included her poetry, lyrics and even Just Kids and whatever other autobiographical writings he was able to access. Thompson also had the benefit of having been there himself when her career took off during the heydays of punk rock in the mid 1970s. (In fact, portions of this book previously appeared in one of his earlier works, London’s Burning: True Adventures on the Front Line of Punk 1976-1977) which should have enabled him to bring his own emotional memories of the time to bear upon the subject.
Dancing Barefoot traces Smith’s life and career from pretty much her birth right to 2010. While a great deal of this was covered in Smith’s Just Kids, Thompson switches the focus away from her relationship with Mapplethorpe, although as that was such a formative part of who she is he can’t ignore it, and focuses instead on those aspects of her life more directly related to her career. While there is still quite a bit of overlap between the two books, his emphasis on how her career was being shaped by those events distinguishes his work from hers. We also hear from those who knew Smith and Mapplethorpe during this time, and their observations at least offer a different perspective on things Smith described in her book. While at times it feels somewhat strange to read these third person accounts it does help to explain how Smith was able to begin establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with in the artistic community of New York City in the late ’60s early ’70s.
There are also details, like Smith’s fascination with Jim Morrison of the Doors, which she had barely touched on in her own book, that Thompson recounts. With descriptions of things like Smith standing at Morrison’s grave in Paris for two hours in the pouring rain hoping to receive some sort of communion from beyond, Thompson makes a case for Morrison’s combination of rock and roll and poetry as one of the bigger influences on her career. While he never comes right out and says it in so many words, the fact that Thompson keeps bringing up Morrison time and time again in relationship to Smith’s work is an indication of the importance he places on it — and his ability to cite her own references to the late rock and roll singer gives the suggestion credence. Personally I never thought that much of Morrison, so my own personal prejudices made it difficult to accept that Smith’s work would have been inspired by someone whose work was, what I’d consider, far inferior to hers, but he does present a very convincing case in support of the theory.
Thompson’s meticulous research pays off for the reader in his recounting of Smith’s near fatal accident during a performance in Tampa Bay, Florida when, while dancing on stage, she tripped over a monitor and fell over the edge to the concrete below, damaging vertebrae in her neck. While rumours have circulated as to the cause of the accident, the truth was as the opening act on the tour her group was forced to work around the headlining group’s gear and the monitor was not where she thought it would be. I’d never even heard of this incident, it’s not mentioned in either her book or the movie, so was shocked to discover how serious it had been. For a while after the accident there was not only doubt as to whether she would ever perform again, but if she would ever walk again. Smith was part of the reason the fall was downplayed so much, as she was never aware of how serious the problem was. Unused to pain medication she would cheerfully answer “fine” to people’s queries as to how she was feeling. So unless you were actually in the hospital room to see her immobilized, you’d not have known the risk she was at.
While these and other facts are interesting, and Thompson has done a fine job in organizing and relating them in a neat chronological package, I came to the end of the book not feeling like I had come to know the person behind the facts any better then I had before I started. Perhaps that’s because I’d read Smith’s own book, own a copy of Sebring’s movie and its accompanying book and have watched a number of interviews with her where she has discussed both herself and her career and was already familiar with her. Maybe my expectations outstripped what is possible to accomplish within the format of a biography, but still I felt there has to be more to someone’s life than the mere recitation of what happened to them and when.
Thompson’s background in journalism shows in his unwillingness to stray too far from laying out facts and very rarely expand upon them in an effort to give us more of a sense of who Patti Smith is. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not his fault, it’s, at least as far as I’m concerned, one of the inherent flaws in the biographical genre. They reduce flesh and blood people down to facts and in the process remove the passion in their lives which made them so fascinating in the first place. You’ll learn all about Patti Smith and her career by reading Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story but you won’t know her any better after reading it then before you opened it.