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.