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Book Review: The Words and Music of Patti Smith

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Rock and roll knows no limits—that’s why it’s survived despite the changing whims of social mores. It’s a stentorian spirit, sometimes laying low while culture tests its will with namby-pamby versions of its soul. It’s clever in its strategies,though, allowing the forces of the lowest common denominator to think they’ve tamed it, homogenized it, bloated it beyond recognition. It worked with Elvis, didn’t it?

The thing that is Rock and Roll pays it no mind—its minions are legion, and they all want to be a part of the Mother Organism—for every one who falls victim to the mainstream, at least a thousand are gathered in garages to renew the primordial spirit from whence Rock drew its first breath, kicking and screaming to heaven and hell that it would not be denied. It may be compromised and commercialized by the business, and alternately vilified and sanctified by the critics, but its three chord structure is a fortress that’s ultimately impervious. It’s a universe unto itself, a self-contained society that reinvents itself as it goes along.

Patti Smith is more than a minion of Rock—she’s a high priestess whose dedication to the beast has, for more than thirty years, had a profound influence on its evolution. In the book The Words and Music of Patti Smith, author Joe Tarr attempts to dissect Smith’s career by examining every track she ever recorded in microcosmic detail. At 119 pages (168, if you count the supplemental bibliography, footnotes and index), Tarr has written the longest record review in the history of humankind. I don’t mean that as a compliment, either.

While Tarr may mean to offer a critical retrospective of Smith’s works, he relies heavily on reviews that were published at the time to validate his point. He looks at the reviews of the time the albums were released to paint a picture of Smith that’s politically correct, but offers little insight into the artist herself. He’s more concerned with pigeonholing Smith as a fan who became an icon than focusing on the boldness with which she pursued her career. In the process, he obsesses on “Rock ‘N’ Roll Nigger” for several pages, citing the N-word word itself as a basis to dismiss the song, and completely ignoring the real meaning of the lyrics, especially the “outside of society” part.

As a biography, The Words and Music of Patti Smith doesn’t offer any new insights into the artist’s life. It’s all been documented before, much of it quoted here. It quickly becomes apparent that Tarr is relying on old news to write a book, interjecting retrospective (and somewhat biased) personal viewpoints wherever the fancy strikes him. As criticism, it doesn’t fare much better.

Granted, Tarr painstakingly looks at every song on each of Smith’s albums, too much so, in fact. He precedes every breakdown with the amateurish, and conceited, “this song is about…” intro. It’s been a hackneyed tool of amateur critics since Rock allowed journalism into its sphere, and it’s usually followed by a series of personal prejudices to illustrate the critic’s viewpoint. Rock music—indeed, all music, is impressionistic, and its meaning changes, for the listener and performer, with each new performance. Here’s an example:
Patti Smith - Because The Night - kewego
Patti Smith – Because The Night – kewego

To be fair, Tarr’s book offers an introduction of Patti Smith’s work, and her continuing influence, to an audience who may only have heard of her in the press, but are unfamiliar with her actual music. For those who have followed her career, The Words and Music of Patti Smith comes across as a lopsided account of her career from someone a generation removed from the New York scene that spawned punk.

More than any other woman, and more than most men, for that matter, Patti Smith has embodied the primal spirit of rock. Without her, there would be no Chrissie Hynde or Joan Jett. And without her, and the whole CBGB scene of the late seventies, there probably wouldn’t have been a Sex Pistols or Clash. She embraced the androgyny that her male counterparts had hinted at from the earliest days of Elvis, and forged a new path for every skinny wannabe rock star. She’s never shied away from politics or social issues, and she rocked them even when it was unfashionable.

That thing that is Rock and Roll would breathe much heavier without her presence. And that same entity can only shake its head in amusement when guys like Joe Tarr intellectualize her ad nauseum. The only way to appreciate Patti Smith is to listen to her albums. Sure. She slips every now and then, but she always regains her footing.

While The Words and Music of Patti Smith tries to offer a solid portrait of Patti Smith, it slips frequently, and never quite regains its footing.

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