Saturday, March 12, 2011

Patti Smith: Just Kids

Recently I saw Patti Smith interviewed on Charlie Rose for the hour, discussing her new prose memoir of her early years spent in New York with her close friend and fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe. I knew I would eventually have to read this book. Yesterday I found the new paperback edition (with added material) at the local bookstore, and have already read over half the book. I find it impossible to put down.

This isn't going to be an in-depth review, since I am still reading the book. It's going to be an enthusiastic, somewhat rambling review.

Back when Smith's seminal album Horses came out, complete with Mapplethorpe portrait of Smith on the cover, I was still in music school. I was still revolving around the issues of being a composer who loved the avant-garde but who knew that once music school was over I'd have to get a "real job." My impression of Smith's loud, poetic music performance was that it was art-punk, a lot more poetic than the usual angry shouting punk rock, and yet still somewhat offputting and hard to love. Smith has always been a confrontational, prickly, difficult artist; her more rabid fans treat her as a saint, but others find her more controversial. Her confrontational style is reflected in her performances on the album. My next-door neighbor in the boarding-house I lived in at the time was fond of playing Horses over and over, so I got quite familiar with some of the songs, even a little irritated. I wasn't a big fan of Smith, or of punk in general, at the time. That came later.

Years later, I can say I've come to appreciate Smith's work a lot more. I really admire Horses now. I've played in a number of post-punk bands myself by now, and I like the music a lot more. And Smith herself has proved to be a survivor, one of the few artists to survive the late 60s and early 70s era of American cultural and artistic explosive foment. A lot of those important, seminal artists imploded or self-destructed. Patti Smith knew many of them, closely or peripherally, described in many vignettes in her memoir.

Just Kids is a memoir of an artist before she got to be famous, when she was still hungry and working hard and relatively unknown. The book is really a double memoir, both of Patti Smith and of Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith promised Mapplethorpe on his deathbed that she would eventually write this book. In an interview, Smith says:

I promised Robert the day before he died that I would write it. And since I was the only one who knew him this intimately when he was young, and because we went through so much together as lovers and friends and artists, he could count on me to be truthful.

What emerges here is an account of two artists living together, working together, at first being lovers, then as they moved in their own directions remaining best friends who constantly spent time together. This book is a revelation about Mapplethorpe, a unique portrait of the famous and controversial photographer unlike any other. We see Robert before he was known, we see his very beginnings, in parallel with Smith's. This alone is worth the price of admission, although there is a lot more here that's equally revelatory.

Here's a taste of Smith's writing that shows both her prose style and the origin of the books' title. The tourist comment is also prescient:

One Indian summer day we dressed in our favorite things, me in my beatnik sandals and ragged scarves, and Robert with his love beads and sheepskin vest. We took the subway to West Fourth Street and spent the afternoon in Washington Square. We shared coffee from a thermos, watching the stream of tourists, stones, and folksingers. Agitated revolutionaries distributed antiwar leaflets. Chess players drew a crowd of their own. Everyone coexisted within the continuous drone of verbal diatribes, bongos, and barking dogs.

We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed, and he affectionately squeezed my hand.

"Oh, take their picture," said the woman to her bemused husband. "I think they're artists."

"Oh, go on," he shrugged. "They're just kids."

There's almost no sentimental nostalgia in Just Kids. Smith was never particularly sentimental, but hard-nosed and driven, willing to work hard, somewhat socially awkward. What sentiment she had was reserved for her relationships, particularly with Robert. This shows up in her way of telling some of the stories of encounters with people now famous. I don't even slightly feel like Smith is name-dropping: she and Mapplethorpe really were at the center of the whirlwind. Everyone was just there, during the period of time that she and Robert were living in a tiny room at the Chelsea Hotel. John and Yoko were around. Smith encountered Salvador Dali passing through the Chelsea's lobby, where she used to like to hang out and write. In the attached restaurant, a lot of the great musicians who were on their way up to Woodstock were there one afternoon, eating together, when Smith walked in. She relates how she felt a kinship with these people, a sudden closeness, even though she wasn't really traveling in their circles. (Yet.)

The Chelsea period of the book is told in vignettes, in short sections within a long chapter. This is a good way to depict the whirlwind. Because Smith was always a note-taker and journal-writer, she could look back on her old notebooks to keep things chronological. The overall sense, though, between encounters with artists and musicians, and with the continuous parallel track of Patti and Robert constantly supporting and pushing each other artistically, is that this really was an amazing, breathless time to be in New York, at the Chelsea, with the culture and the people unfolding around them. Smith's take on her own role in all this feels very genuine, as very much an observer—she describes herself more than once as a wallflower—watching and learning from her many teachers, absorbing it all. Her depictions of the time are matter-of-fact. Smith at times sounds like an anthropological fieldworker, a participant observer, with restrained wit. You can tell that she and Robert were laughing a lot and enjoying themselves, not only because of the stories that directly tell us that, but also because her writing throughout this section of the book simply sparkles.

Here's on of my favorite anecdotes from this part of the book, Smith's first encounter with Allen Ginsberg:

Horn and Hardart, the queen of Automats, was just past the tackle shop. The routine was to get a seat and a tray, then go to the back wall where there rows of little windows. You would slip some coins into a slot, open the glass hatch, and extract a sandwich or fresh apple pie. A real Tex Avery eatery. . . .

One drizzly afternoon I had a hankering for one of those cheese-and-lettuce sandwiches. I went through out belongings and exactly fifty-five cents, slipped on my grey trench coat and Mayakovsky cap, and headed to the Automat.

I got my tray and slipped in my coins but the window wouldn't open. I tried again without luck and then I noticed the price had gone up to sixty-five cents. I was disappointed, to say the least, when I heard a voice say, "Can I help?"

I turned around and it was Allen Ginsberg. We had never met but there was no mistaking the face of one of our great poets and activists. I looked into those intense dark eyes punctuated by his dark curly beard and just nodded. Allen added the extra dime and also stood me to a cup of coffee. I wordlessly followed him to his table, and then plowed into the sandwich.

Allen introduced himself. We was talking about Walt Whitman and I mentioned I was raised near Camden, where Whitman was buried, when he leaned forward and looked at me intently. "Are you a girl?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said. "Is that a problem?"

He just laughed. "I'm sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy."

I got the picture immediately.

"Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?"

"No, enjoy it. It was my mistake."

He told me he was writing a long elegy for Jack Kerouac, who had recently passed away. "Three days after Rimbaud's birthday," I said. I shook his hand and we parted company.

Sometime later Allen became my good friend and teacher. We often reminisced about our first encounter and he once asked how I would describe how we met. "I would say you fed me when I was hungry," I told him. And he did.

Rimabud is a touchstone throughout Smith's book. His book Illuminations, pilfered from a new Jersey newstand, was one of the few possessions Smith took with her when she first went to New York City. Rimabud's spirit follows along, as guide and example, throughout the poet's development into her mature self.

At almost the same time, the poet begins to find her feet, and Robert takes up photography, abandoning his previous collage and drawing and painting work. Towards the end of Just Kids we start to see the two people we are familiar with, starting to find their wings. They remain each others' muses, though, and that early bond with each other never goes away.

The book ends with the period around Robert's death. This really is Smith's tribute to Mapplethorpe. Near the end we read, in a change of style that flows together the way thoughts do under the circumstances of talking maybe for the last time to someone you love (it was this same way with my own father just before he died at home under Hospice care):

He knew he was dying and yet there was still a note of hope, a singular and obdurate thread, woven in the timbre of his voice. I asked him what he wanted me to do for him and he said take care of my flowers. He asked me to write an introduction to his flower book. They are color flowers and I know you prefer the black and white ones so perhaps you won't like them. I will like them I said and I will do it. I told him that I would continue our work, our collaboration, for as long as I lived. Will you write our story? Do you want me to? You have to he said no one but you can write it. I will do it, I promised, though I knew it would be a vow difficult to keep. I love you Patti. I love you Robert. And he was wheeled away for tests and I never heard him speak again. Save for his breath, which seemed to fill he hospital room as he lay dying.

The paperback addition has some additional photographs and texts, lacking from the hardcover original. Just Kids won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. I find myself thinking this was a very worthy award for this book, and also that it's another feather in Smith's career cap. She keeps getting better. Her prose here is amazing. I recommend this book highly—not just to fans of either Smith's or Mapplethorpe's work, although like myself they will learn a great deal about Mapplethorpe they never knew before, but to anyone interested in the history of art and culture of the end of the last century. This is an important document, a readable one, and an occasionally hilarious, occasionally deeply moving one.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I have a lot of time for Smith as a singer/songwriter – I think I have all her studio albums bar Radio Ethiopia for some reason and she’s one of the few artists whose work I’d buy without needing to hear it first. When I was in San Francisco I bought a book of her poetry to read on the flight home but I read very little of it and have never really been able to get into it since. I discover it every now and then and try again. I have no doubt I would enjoy this. I find her fascinating.

3:23 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

My own feelings about Patti Smith have been almost exactly what you describe here. We're on the same page about the songs, the poems, and the ongoing fascination. That's why reading this book has been such a pleasure. I'm certain you'll enjoy it, too.

7:14 AM  

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