Friday, April 13, 2012

Staff Pick - Dancing Barefoot: the Patti Smith story by Dave Thompson

A year after Patti Smith published her award-winning Just Kids (M), her elegant and engaging story of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives in New York in the 1960's and 1970's, comes Dave Thompson's Dancing Barefoot: the Patti Smith story (M).

Thompson's biography begins with her early childhood in Chicago and New Jersey and continues into present day. Smith's childhood appears to have been secure though not affluent. From her early days she was a leader, an original thinker, and was moved by poetry, music and Buddhism. An early and unexpected pregnancy gave her the push she needed to leave her home town and seek out a creative life in New York. Bravery or innocence or both set her on a determined course which would introduce her to other like-minded people such as Mapplethorpe, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and Janis Joplin. The 1970's found her as part of the Patti Smith Group, leaders in the punk rock scene, touring Europe and the US and performing frequently at CBGB with Blondie and The Ramones. After a decade of writing, recording and performing, Smith decides to marry boyfriend Fred "Sonic" Smith and to pursue an anonymous private life. After a contented decade of domesticity, raising children and continuing to write, Smith faces a series of deaths in her life, including her husband. The nineties and beyond found Smith emerging once again as a performer and finding a new audience with her writing.

Thompson has written a well-researched and respectful biography. He is obviously an admiring fan and, though it is never his intention to muck rake, he does not ignore criticism or less flattering portrayals. Dancing Barefoot is an engaging read and is especially strong in its depiction of the music scene in New York in the 1970's. Although he says that he is using Patti Smith's words to tell her story, he doesn't actually interview her, relying instead on previously published interviews. As a result the book lacks a degree of emotion and should be read along with Smith's Just Kids to give some perspective and background to her memoir.

The poet Arthur Rimbaud influenced young Patti Smith and Edmund White wrote about him in 2008 in Rimbaud: the double life of a rebel (M). "Poet and prodigy Arthur Rimbaud led a life that was startlingly short, but just as dramatically eventful and accomplished. Even today, over a century after his death in 1891, his visionary poetry has continued to influence everyone from Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan to Patti Smith. His long poem A Season in Hell (1873) and his collection Illuminations (1886) are essential to the modern canon, marked by a hallucinatory and hypnotic style that defined the Symbolist movement in poetry. Having sworn off writing at the age of twenty-one, Rimbaud drifted around the world from scheme to scheme, ultimately dying from an infection contracted while running guns in Africa. He was thirty-seven." publisher

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