Rock biographies aren’t required to mirror their subjects’ musical voices. But when writing about an icon as poetic as Patti Smith, the attempt would be appreciated. Veteran music journalist Dave Thompson doesn’t bother; instead, Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story is a dry, lifeless account of a woman who is anything but. It doesn’t help that the book withers in the shadow of Smith’s own 2010 National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids. To its credit, Thompson’s workmanlike history manages to move along at a brisk, unencumbered clip. Too bad Smith’s work and career deserve the opposite: context, consideration, and weight.
In his preface, Thompson drops hints that the text to follow may be less than stellar. First he recounts the time Patti Smith stood him up for an interview when he was a 19-year-old fanzine editor—a pattern that apparently persisted, since Smith wasn’t interviewed for Dancing Barefoot. Instead, Thompson relies on old sources for Smith quotes, and even then, he’s stingy with them. Contrary to his insistence that Smith’s own words “guide the book,” Thompson spackles the gaps with vague conjecture and an over-reliance on others’ journalism. Just as disingenuous is his biographical stance: Mocking previous Smith biographers, Thompson’s preface declares, “I have steered clear of Patti’s private life,” although that’s patently false. He simply dives into her personal life in a shallow, cursory way, leaving the telling details of Smith’s many high-profile relationships feeling estranged from her narrative.
At the very least, Thompson seems authoritative, as long as readers don’t look too closely. Befitting a writer whose 2008 book, I Hate New Music: A Classic Rock Manifesto, rejects most things recorded after 1980, he gets a nagging handful of factoids wrong. And when Smith’s artistic output slows amid her ’80s hiatus, Thompson lets six years of her life fly by in the span of a page rather than taking the opportunity to digest and reflect. Smith’s gradual reemergence as a recording artist and performer in the ’90s and beyond is rendered as a laundry list of concerts, studio sessions, and TV appearances, and Thompson does little to convincingly navigate the truths, half-truths, and full-on apocrypha of Smith’s decades-long trail of self-mythology. The book is at direct odds with its subject’s stately, lengthy career: It feels rushed and underdone.