tue 21/05/2024

Patti Smith: A Book of Days review - adding to Insta's debris | reviews, news & interviews

Patti Smith: A Book of Days review - adding to Insta's debris

Patti Smith: A Book of Days review - adding to Insta's debris

The punk legend's archive of selfies, birthday greetings, and apothegms

Patti Smith, godmother of American punk© Steven Sebring

On April Fool’s Day, in 1978, the godmother of American punk, Patti Smith, jumped offstage at the Rainbow Theatre in London halfway through a version of “The Kids Are Alright” and started dancing in the crowd. Her vertiginous feat was also a leap of the imagination, a typical punk act that seemed to collapse the distance between performer and audience.

The kids were definitely all right with this sudden unexpected proximity to their idol – and I can say that because I was one of them. Indeed I remember being struck by the way her guitarist and collaborator Lenny Kaye seamlessly picked up the vocals as Smith moshed in the darkness. I was also struck by one of her flailing arms, but that’s another story.

She didn’t play The Who classic the following night. It was replaced on the setlist by a controversial song from her recent album, Easter. “Rock n Roll N****r” was another definitively punk statement but it jolted the audience in a more problematic way. For decades Smith has defended her clumsy use of the racist slur, saying she wanted to reclaim the word for people on the margins of society. Yet the song inevitably drew condemnation and last month, according to Rolling Stone magazine, it was removed from streaming services.

Smith has often flirted with condemnation. Her literary role models include Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud and other poètes maudits – the word means “condemned” – of the French Symbolist movement. “People say ‘beware!’ but I don't care,” she sings on her 1975 debut album Horses. “The words are just rules and regulations to me.” In a 2012 song “April Fool”, inspired by Gogol’s birthday, she again portrays herself as a rule-breaker and outlaw, almost the “superfluous” figure of 19th century Russian literature. “Come, we’ll break all the rules,” she enjoins.

In her new book, A Book of Days, which is a collection of 366 captioned images, one for each day of a leap year, Smith picks up the theme. The entry for 1st April reads: “Today is the birthday of Nikolai Gogol, the great Russian-Ukrainian writer, who once wrote, ‘A word aptly uttered or written cannot be cut away with an axe.’” The book is full of similar quotes and aphorisms taken from her favourite writers and artists, and not all of them are particularly meaningful. The best pages, however, dip into her own archive of black-and-white polaroids capturing landscapes, objets and friends, such as Allen Ginsberg (3rd June), William Burroughs (5th February and 31st October), the other Verlaine (alias Tom Miller, frontman of New York punk band Television, 20th December) and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the co-subject of her award-winning 2010 memoir Just Kids (1st September). Once polaroid film was discontinued in 2019, she started taking photos with her phone, posting the images on her Instagram site (@thisispattismith) which now has more than a million followers.

Cover: A Book of Days by Patti Smith That phone and her social media platform have enabled her, she says, “to unite with the exploding collage of our culture”, perhaps a little too much, because celebrity is the glue, the Insta collagen, that holds A Book of Days together, and the cumulative effect of all the selfies, birthday greetings and apothegms is hardly explosive. Smith plays by Timeline rules in sharing her pictures, posts and experiences. On 1st January, for instance, there is a photograph of her as she stands on the shore, looking out at the ocean, with the caption: “A new year is unfolding, the unknown before us, brimming with possibilities.” Two days later, we get a picture library photo of Greta Thunberg, with the caption “Nature knows and smiles upon her on her birthday.” On 3rd February, Smith posts a photograph of her Abyssinian cat Cairo (“a sweet little thing the colour of the pyramids, with a loyal and peaceful disposition”) curled up on a rug emblazoned with the peace symbol.

At other times the raw emotion and beauty of A Book of Days is unavoidable. In her tributes (1st March, 14th September) to her late husband and soulmate Fred Sonic Smith, the MC5 guitarist, who died at 45, and to other untimely lost romantics: a photo of John Keats’s bed (3rd August) at Wentworth Place on Hampstead Heath, which “seems to contain the luminous dust of his consumptive nights”, or of Rimbaud’s house in the Ardennes (22nd October), of which Smith now finds herself the owner. It was a gift from the poet’s family in recognition perhaps of the famous lines on Horses, "Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud – and do the Watusi." Two days later, Smith celebrates the birthday of the Irish literary critic Enid Starkie who inexplicably failed to mention the Watusi in her 1938 study of Rimbaud's life in Africa. She also marks the day, in 1873 (16th August), when Rimbaud finished A Season in Hell while recovering in the Ardennes from a gunshot wound inflicted by his jealous lover Verlaine. Now, there’s a punk’s statement for you.

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