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Caryn Rose digs into the work in “Why Patti Smith Matters”

A black-and-white photo shows author Caryn Rose posing outdoors, looking off toward the side of the frame.
Photo by Cybelle Codish.

The veteran music journalist will speak on July 10 at A Room of One’s Own.

In some ways, it would seem that Patti Smith would defy a simple description. Punk rock icon. Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. Poet. Author.

That there are so many to choose from actually makes it easy to get immersed in Smith’s world, a point made eminently clear in a new book Why Patti Smith Matters, by veteran rock journalist Caryn Rose. 

“She’s a worker. That’s what this book is about,” Rose says. “There is a lot of work, and it’s an outstanding body of work, and it all deserves a spotlight.”

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Rose will be in Madison on Sunday, July 10 to talk about her work—the book—and the work of Smith at A Room of One’s Own. She’ll discuss Why Patti Smith Matters with filmmaker and musician Wendy Schneider.

The worker theme is not a unique analysis—it’s one Smith has used to describe herself.

“She makes it very clear that nothing happens without work,” Rose says. “The concerts are called ‘jobs.’ Nobody ever wants to say that people arrive somewhere because they worked hard. It’s time we recognize and salute that.”

The book is part of the Music Matters series, now housed at the University of Texas Press, which explores the meaning and impact of various performers. Others in the series include Karen Carpenter, Solange, Marianne Faithfull, Labelle, Bushwick Bill, and the Ramones.

Rose’s book is a worthy exploration, and likely a revelatory one to even longtime Smith fans for the sheer volume of work there is. If you check Spotify, the first three songs you get for Smith are her biggest chart hit, 1978’s “Because The Night,” co-written with Bruce Springsteen, the oft-covered “Dancing Barefoot,” and the anthemic “People Have the Power.” That’s a worthy career for most people, but for Smith, it’s just a drop in the bucket. 

The standard narrative about Smith is that she’s the godmother of punk who made the seminal album Horses in 1975, followed it up with a few more albums until she moved to Michigan to get married and raise a family. She all but disappeared but returned to public life after the death of her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, and then wrote a book that got a big award (Just Kids, which won the National Book Award in 2010). 

But Rose also explores Smith’s visual art, the experience of seeing her live, her writing, her music in the 1990s and 2000s, and her relationship with and to other artists. 

Rose doesn’t just fill in the gaps. She puts all of that in the context of a broader canvas of an artist’s life. 

“There are so many layers to it,” Rose says. “[Rock journalist] Lisa Robinson said it best: Americans don’t understand people turning their back on fame. She was working. She just wasn’t publishing it or producing it. She wasn’t calling the people in New York and saying, ‘Hey I did a thing.'”

Smith has been a somewhat regular performer in Madison, dating back to a show at the Orpheum in 1976. But it has been a while; at her last Madison show in 2007, she told the crowd at the Barrymore about her walk around the Square and then educated them about Hans Christian Heg, whose statue ended up in Lake Mendota during the 2020 protests

Rose is the first woman to write a biography of Smith, and it’s a point of pride for Rose to get Smith’s career and music away from the criticism and gaze of the primarily male rock press. It’s an attitude with which Rose is all too familiar as a rock journalist.

“I’m 58 years old and men still see me with a notebook at a show, practically pat me on the head and say, ‘Oh, are you taking down the set list?'” she says. “And I think, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?'”

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She has seen that attitude time and time again with coverage of Smith, and it infuriates her still.

“I have a file but I didn’t end up using it in the book, it’s just called ‘Boobs,'” Rose says. “And in it, I tracked every quote from every music journalist in the 1970s who had to tell us his opinion on her breasts. They were too small. They were too big. She hid them. She flaunted them. That’s why this is important to me.”

The book is analysis, criticism, and memoir; it’s not a book of talking heads, explaining why they love Smith. There was one big exception, though: Rose spoke with Smith’s fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen to get the definitive answer on how he and Smith wrote “Because the Night.” (Rose is a longtime contributor to the Springsteen-centered Backstreets magazine.)  

The Music Matters series takes the approach that the writer is part of the story, so Rose weaves together Smith’s story with her own story of being a fan and Smith’s impact on her. Rose was 12 when she saw Smith on Saturday Night Live in its first season in 1976, a performance that opened Rose’s mind to what might be possible by seeing a woman who wasn’t dolled up, was full of piss and vinegar, and fronting an otherwise all-male band. 

She’s been a fan ever since, but Why Patti Smith Matters is no puff piece. Rose is clear-eyed about Smith’s career and doesn’t hold back on criticism (particularly as Smith continues to perform the song Rose refers to as “Rock N Roll N—-r”).

“I appreciated the challenge,” Rose said of the first-person approach. “It felt luxurious to let myself in the book as much as I did, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to honor my journey and my time with the art over the years.”

As for why Smith matters? It’s about who influenced her to create her art and who she then influenced to create their own. It’s about the attitude as much as the music, and most of all, it’s about the work.

“There has been no equivalent,” Rose said. “And there never will be.”

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