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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.

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.”

LITERARY CRITICISM

“Où est Baudelaire?,” from Creem, 1977
A short piece about Baudelaire. Well, sort of about Baudelaire. In any case, it benefits from brevity and from offering some rather fascinating insight into Smith’s own thoughts on criticism.

Most Patti turn of phrase: “Critic does not mean criticize. It means to open the eyes. To be the translator of the demon of creation… transforming the seed into a substance soluble and palatable so that the people may eat. In the past it has been the critic, one who could see for miles. The unfailing vision of Baudelaire. The critic who trumpeted the space and light of the future. The whirling noise that saturated the jail house walls with the rock of right.”

“Pain and Ink,” from Details, 1993
A review of Genet, Edmund White’s biography of Jean Genet — a subject close to Smith’s heart, and on whom she writes with passion and insight.

Most Patti turn of phrase: ” His exquisite beauty, his affirmation of betrayal, crime, and homosexuality filled the guts of Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac. It helped spawn Jackson Pollock, John Coltrane, and eventually rock ‘n’ roll.”

“Deep Chords,” from the New York Times, 2014

And finally, Smith’s take on the new Murakami. Her style has mellowed somewhat over the years (as also demonstrated in this beautiful obituary for Lou Reed), and it illustrates the virtue of restraint — when she does wax lyrical, it has a whole lot more impact that it did in the 1970s. Writing is hard.

Most Patti turn of phrase: “The writer sits at his desk and makes us a story. A story not knowing where it is going, not knowing itself to be magic. Closure is an illusion, the winking of the eye of a storm. Nothing is completely resolved in life, nothing is perfect. The important thing is to keep living because only by living can you see what happens next.”

OTHER NON-FICTION

“Ain’t It Strange?,” from the New York Times, 2007
A short meditation on her career, just prior to her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Most Patti turn of phrase: “Rock ’n’ roll… was a fusion of intimacies. Repression bloomed into rapture like raging weeds shooting through cracks in the cement. Our music provided a sense of communal activism. Our artists provoked our ascension into awareness as we ran amok in a frenzied state of grace.”

“How Patti Smith Found Her Calling,” from Oprah magazine, 2010
Patti writes for, um, Oprah, discussing how she ended up on stage and how she gave it all up for marriage. It’s short and somewhat superficial, but interesting nonetheless.

Most Patti turn of phrase: “We make mistakes, we move from our course, we falter, flounder, and may suffer remorse, rebellion, or a sense of defeat. We seem to lose our way. But no matter! If we keep our little flame alive, our first feeling of enthusiasm of who we are, without the influence or intervention of others, we will prevail. And like Pinocchio, despite all his transgressions, find the courage to reunite with our little flame and be rewarded. And the reward is this: We become ourselves.”