Why Patti Smith Matters by Caryn Rose

University of Texas Press’ Music Matters book series goes deep in to the legacy and impact of the artists we love. Solange, Marianne Faithfull, and the Ramones have all been featured and on May 31, readers will have the opportunity to learn more about the art and influence of the Godmother of Punk herself with Caryn Rose’s new book Why Patti Smith Matters.

Rose is a longtime music journalist with work appearing everywhere from Pitchfork to the Guardian. She is also the author of Gas, Food, Wifi: On The Road in the American Southwest, Raise Your Hand: Adventures of an American Springsteen Fan in Europe, and more. While Rose’s resume is impressive, it’s her analytical approach to research, along with her undying fandom, that make her the perfect person to unpack Smith’s music and poetry in an engaging work that is a scholarly page-turner.

“I’m lucky in that I didn’t have to start from the beginning because her [Smith’s] work has been something I have consumed since the mid-seventies. I am one of those people who still listens to her records. I go see her shows,” said Rose by phone earlier this month.

In the nineties – the early days of the internet – Rose had already started her journey on the path towards this book, creating websites and mailing lists to connect with music fans in a brave new way. Throughout her life as a Patti Smith fan, Rose continued to be inspired not only by Smith’s work, but also by her work ethic.

“This is the story that hasn’t been told and needs to be told,” said Rose noting her intention to build upon the stories found in Smith’s own memoirs. “Just Kids went to a certain point – she left before it got interesting – and M Train and Year of the Monkey are more fantastical, but they’re later. I think I cover that in talking about her work and her process.”

Rose finds Smith’s life fascinating, but she isn’t so much interested in gossip about relationships or drama, rather she’s drawn to learning about personal details in the context of the work.

“Nobody glorifies showing up every day and doing the work,” Rose said. “She just shows up and does the work. I talk about how she did that boot camp at CBGB which basically let them tour without touring. To just get on stage every night in front of an audience and play together and work out a set and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Building your live dynamic.”

Caryn Rose
‘Why Patti Smith Matters’ author, Caryn Rose

Throughout Why Patti Smith Matters, Rose takes readers on Smith’s journey in a way that makes you feel like you were there while also highlighting the importance of Smith’s influence in so many spaces today. In one of the most riveting portions of the book, Rose goes deep into the creation of Horses – Smith’s 1975 debut album – expertly weaving in-and-out of the historical context of each track and Smith’s own innovations and references giving readers a new perspective on the iconic album.

Rose explained that ever since she first fell in love with music, her curiosity always led her to learn more.

“I was doing it when I was 12 and I discovered the Beatles. It’s not just that the Beatles mention Bob Dylan so you go listen to Bob Dylan. It’s why do they mention Bob Dylan? How does he influence them,” she said explaining her process. “Patti Smith talks about poetry that influenced her music. Where else can I see this influence? How is she pushing this influence into the culture? What is her remix of it, for lack of a better term?”

To answer these questions, Rose drew from her own personal experiences – listening to Smith’s albums and seeing her perform pivotal shows – and Smith’s own published books as well as notebooks and artifacts from her career. She also interviewed experts such as Smith’s friend, “Because the Night” collaborator Bruce Springsteen.

“He was incredibly gracious and was willing to answer any question I put to him even if all he could say was, ‘I don’t remember that that happened,’” said Rose. “One of the questions was, there was a show at the Bottom Line where he just strapped on a guitar and was on stage all night. If you listen to the show, the songs sounded pretty well-formed to me. So I asked, ‘Did you rehearse these? Were these planned?’”

Believe it or not, this is the very first book about Smith written by a woman, which may be why it feels like such a fresh approach to unpacking the career of a very well-known artist.

“The book I keep talking about that has been just a game-changer for me in recognizing the difference when we’re not writing through the male gaze is Holly George-Warren’s book on Janis Joplin which just completely reclaimed Janis for me. It just sort of showed the importance of other voices,” said Rose. “I have to acknowledge that yes there is a female point of view here, but I think also what I do well is I can do the 30,000 foot view and I can also go right into the smallest detail. I’m not a trained spotter but accuracy matters, correctness matters, doing your own research matters.”

Why Patti Smith Matters is certainly well-researched and full of unique insight that further explores Smith’s influences and her own influence on popular culture. One of the things that makes the book stand-out is the inclusion of moments of Rose’s own personal journey and how her love of Smith, especially in the live setting, continues to evolve to this day.

Rose said, “I’m there anyway so I can talk about it. I’m there anyway so I can write about it. And I’m also there to be the person who is watching and chronically it. Because even if it’s not important now, it will be important someday.”

Why Patti Smith Matters comes out on May 31 via University of Texas Press. Click here for more information on Caryn Rose and pre-order the book at Utpress.utexas.edu/books.

Laurie Fanelli is a Chicago-based writer and photographer who specializes in live entertainment coverage. She is at home at major music festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and, of course, Lollapalooza and...