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"We're not seeing all of her”: New book explores the variety of punk rock icon Patti Smith

Cover of Caryn Rose's book "Why Patti Smith Matters"
University of Texas
University of Texas
Cover of Caryn Rose's book "Why Patti Smith Matters"

Caryn Rose said she felt that previous stories on Patti Smith were incomplete, despite the punk rock legend’s fame.

“People focus on Horses,” Rose said of the iconic 1975 album featuring Smith’s most famous song, “Gloria.” “Then, they get the rest of the story wrong. Their take on her absence from active work in the music business was through a lens that just couldn't consider any other possibilities. And then, when she came back, people just ignore those records and ignore that work.”

These gaps in the story motivated Rose to write Why Patti Smith Matters as part of a series for the University of Texas Imprint, called Music Matters. The book explores everything from Smith’s early albums to her later novels, and seeks to contextualize her influence on youth culture at the time. Being the first book about Smith written by a woman, Rose was able to add her experience as a female fan.

As a teenager in 1976, Rose saw Smith on Saturday Night Live and said she was amazed to see a woman dressed in a shirt and tie, leading a band on national television.

“I don't know what I was expecting, but it floored me,” Rose said. “She was like one of those toys you would wind up and then let go and watch it spin. At the end of the song, for the last chorus, she was breathing hard, but she was smiling. She knew she'd done good.”

In 1980, Smith married MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and moved to Detroit to raise a family. Rose said she experienced a strong connection with the sometimes Michigander, who she felt brazenly accepted her inability to fit into the “normal world." But while the boldness of Smith intrigued Rose, it was off-putting to others.

“I did not completely understand that being a fan of this band, a band that no one else had written on their blue canvas three ring notebook except me, meant that I was now guilty by association,” Rose wrote. “I was already ‘different.' I didn't drink, smoke or take drugs. Boys did not know I was alive. I liked to read and was always either juggling a stack of books or trying to hide behind one so I wouldn't be noticed.”

Listening to Smith and sporting the band’s name on her school supplies made Rose the subject of ridicule and animosity. She said she was teased at school, pushed into lockers, and laughed at. The town she lived in was only 45 minutes from New York City where Smith played regularly. But the message was clear,” Rose said. “People like her, people like you who like her, are not welcome here. As though I hadn't figured that out already.”

Now, 46 years later, Rose said she wanted to bring the full scope of Smith’s work to the wider world.

“It's not her job to make sure her work is noted and commemorated and commented on,” Rose said. “That's my job.”

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Asher Wertheimer is a junior at Olivet College studying Journalism and Mass Communication.
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