Beyond ‘Just Kids’: A Pocket Guide to Patti Smith’s Non-Fiction

New York Times readers this morning might have noted with interest the byline on the paper’s review of Haruki Murakami’s new book — the piece was written by none other than Patti Smith. Still, this is perhaps not as surprising as it might first appear, because Smith hasn’t been averse to issuing an opinion over the years, and she’s written non-fiction throughout her career — most notably in the 1970s, when she contributed regularly to Creem, the 1970s’ answer to Tiny Mix Tapes. Her style is something of an acquired taste — the verbose, breathless literacy of her poetry and lyrics doesn’t work quite as well when it’s talking about why a Todd Rundgren record is “blasphemy even the gods smile on.” Still, her writings have covered a fascinating range of subject matter. If you’re interested in delving further into her criticism, there’s an essential reading list awaiting you after the jump.

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MUSIC CRITICISM

“Todd Rundgren: Runt,” from Rolling Stone, 1971
A review from the August 1971 issue of Rolling Stone. It would turn out to be the only time Smith contributed to the Wenner empire.

Most Patti turn of phrase: The Patti-ness is largely toned down here, although she still manages to slip in this sentence: “Like Mozart, Todd Rundgren never wanted to be born; his mother labored hard to put him here and he’s fought hard to singe his musical autograph in the progressive pages of rock & roll.”

“Todd’s Electric Exploitation: Rock and Roll for the Skull,” from Creem, 1973
Rundgren again, this time a review of Rock and Roll for the Skull. Patti liked Todd. She also liked the editorial freedom that Creem seems to have afforded her purple prose.

Most Patti turn of phrase: “Side one is double dose. It takes the bull by the brain. Another point to be examined. He’s always been eclectic. Why didn’t he care? The evidence is here. Something very magical is happening. The man is magi chef. His influences are homogenizings. Like a coat of many colors. May be someone else’s paintbox but the coat is all his.”

“Masked Bawl,” from Creem, 1974
Smith takes on largely forgettable 1974 Bob Dylan album Planet Waves. She doesn’t like it much. She does like the cover art, though.

Most Patti turn of phrase: “He articulated every unuttered cry. He played with such urgency. As if he had a stilted lifeline. As if he had a pain in the nerves. Him in his plaid jumpsuit. It hit me then. How a guitar rests so completely on a man’s cock.”

“The Velvet Underground: 1969 Live,” from Creem, 1974
A review of the VU’s 1969 album, which these days is largely remembered a) as being billed as “The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed” and b) for having an arse on the cover. It’s a good record, though. Patti thinks so, too.

Most Patti turn of phrase: “That’s why I love this record so much. It goes beyond risk and hovers like an electric moth. There is no question no apologizing there is just a trust a bond with time and god their relentlessly relaxed method of getting it on and over the land of strain. Like Rimbaud we rebel baptism but you know man needs water he needs to get clean keep washing over like a Moslem.”

“American Prayer (Scream of the Butterfly),” from Creem, 1979
A review of Jim Morrison’s An American Prayer, presented as an extended prose poem. Uh oh.

Most Patti turn of phrase: The whole damn thing, really. Here’s the opening few sentences: “The man, a changeling, journeys across the radiant waste of the American west. there is a quake, a crack. he sprawls. he laughs. he sticks his prick into the jagged warp and spews his seed of trust and disgust thru the hard red vein of the desert. he does not emerge. he cannot rise. his cock is caught in the mouth of the wilderness.”