Saturday, January 16, 2016
Just Kids - Patti Smith (2010)
Let's go old school with this review. Oeuvre rule: I first became aware of Patti Smith 13 years ago, when I took a course called "Writing New York" at NYU. The syllabus was interesting: it primarily consisted of a big anthology of essays and stories about New York written by famous authors over the previous 200 years, starting with Washington Irving's descriptions of the city as it existed in the financial district at its birth. "Bartleby, the Scrivener" by Herman Melville (1853) was also included, and moved me deeply. There was some of the usual stuff by the Beats, and some ultra modern stuff, like the entirety of "Angels in America." There were three even greater curve balls: The Dark Knight Returns, which I skipped at the time and would love 9 years later, The Velvet Underground and Nico, an album I already owned, and Horses by Patti Smith. Our professors told us that Patti Smith was a poet that became a musician. Later when I did mushrooms with a friend that year, he put on Horses and said that everyone had it wrong--psychedelic jam bands were not the preferred musical accompaniment to such an experience; Patti Smith was.
Fast forward 8 years and I'm doing an internship in law school and I see one of the co-workers with a copy of Just Kids under his arm. I was aware of the book at the time and was interested to read it, but then I went on a dating website and "expanded my options" and who should visit my profile but some person announcing that they were currently reading Just Kids and I quickly realize this is the same cubicle neighbor I know and I "narrow my options" again in fear and embarrassment. After a few weeks, I realize it's just one of those things and nothing awkward comes out of it but I've got to admit that it colored my impression of the book. After M Train was released last year, I figured enough time had passed.
I've written previously about Patti Smith regarding her excerpts in Please Kill Me and if it's not clear, I consider her a national treasure. According to interviews, she wrote most of Just Kids and M Train at Caffe Reggio. When I lived in NYC it was very exciting to think of who you might run into, but Patti Smith was probably right there the few times I went in that coffee shop and didn't even notice. What would you say to such people, though? I wouldn't know what to say until after reading this book. It won the National Book Award and while I really don't like naming back-to-back reviews "Best Books," this is just such a charming story, with authenticity in spades, that it would be wrong to say a Raymond Carver biography is more worthwhile: this is the more digestible volume.
When I took that course, the professors made much of Smith's adulation for Rimbaud. Now here, Smith finally writes about how she traveled to Rimbaud's hometown and stayed in the attic of an inn on a horsehair mattress and tried to summon his spirit:
"After a time, I left, and returned to the warmth of my hotel room and its provincial flowers. Tiny flowers spattering the walls, just as the sky had been spattered with budding stars. This was the solitary entry in my notebook. I had imagined that I would write the words that would shatter nerves, honoring Rimbaud and proving everyone's faith in me, but I didn't." (230)
Smith writes of her worship of great artists and heroes from the past, such as Joan of Arc, Baudelaire and Jean Genet. And it occurred to me gradually that Smith has achieved the status of a living legend. Not only is she a national treasure, but a world treasure. Her musical contributions stand on their own, but with Just Kids she adds another medium to her wheelhouse. One expects that her versatility and passion will be worshiped by future artists.
Just Kids is as much about Robert Mapplethorpe as it is herself.
Okay I just want to say I can't really go on because yesterday marked the death of David Bowie and it's just way too emotional to be writing about artists from this era that shared so many similarities, particularly as I was situating Smith into a context as one of the Great Artists of our Time. I don't want to say Bowie is any better than her (they were quite close in age and also worked in a variety of mediums) but I don't recall his being mentioned in Just Kids. Many other musicians of the time appear (Bobby Neuwirth, Bob Dylan, Allen Lanier from Blue Oyster Cult (a pretty serious boyfriend of hers), Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, etc.) but not so many from the so-called "punk era" (Tom Verlaine excepted), and perhaps M Train will have a Bowie story or two. Smith did post a photo on Facebook yesterday of her and Bowie singing together in 2004 or 2005. She seems to have a penchant for covering other artists' songs, so I would not be surprised if she shows up at some kind of NYC memorial for him, not unlike her rendition of "Perfect Day" after the death of Lou Reed roughly one year ago.
Sorry but the moment just needed to be cataloged. I don't think I should write obituaries or elegies or memorials or remembrances or tributes because they don't get a lot of traffic, the exception being Roger Ebert because of his extraordinary influence on my critical work.
But yes, this is book is decidedly about Mapplethorpe and my knowledge of him went no further than a few friends in college steeped in the art world trying to make me uncomfortable by shoving certain racy photos in my face. That, and a brief snippet from Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, which considered a self-portrait he had taken. That, and the last track from the AIDS benefit compilation No Alternative which ended with Patti Smith dedicating an ode to him. Finally, of course, the stories already shared in Please Kill Me.
I pretty much knew he was gay, but he really comes off as being straight in the beginning, bi in the middle, and gay at the end. That's not the way it always is, but that's the case some of the time, and probably a lot more often in the 60's and 70's. He basically was Patti Smith's boyfriend for a couple years, and they lived together almost like a married couple. Mapplethorpe's mother, actually, believed they were husband and wife up until the point of his death in 1989. He came from a devoutly Catholic family and his parents did not believe a man and a woman should live together as they did unless they were married. Even though he started going out with another dude, they continued to live together. Patti continued to see other dudes, too. In between, they were sometimes still intimate. Their bond is a truly beautiful thing to behold. If everyone was lucky enough to experience the love that they shared for one another, the world would probably be a much better place.
It's quite remarkable how Smith is able to pinpoint the exact date (Memorial Day, 1967) when both she and Mapplethorpe, states apart, committed themselves to the pursuit of art. Also remarkable is the fact that Mapplethorpe is seemingly the first person that Smith meets a couple months later when she ventures out to make it on her own in NYC. I've got to be honest here: I feel like she's stretching the truth just a tiny bit. Like, I'm sure the events happened as they are described, but come on--Mapplethorpe probably did trip on acid that Memorial Day and make that drawing and Smith probably did genuflect before that statue of Joan of Arc in Philadelphia--attaching a greater significance to the situation is what one is supposed to do in a book like this. And maybe she had a meaningful conversation with someone other than him that day when she tried to find her friends at Pratt, but whatever. This is a super petty criticism.
While we do not live in New York in the 1970's, the great value of this book is its portrayal of "the artist's life." They are poor and they live together and they support one another and they have moments of great luck and they network like crazy. They live in the Chelsea Hotel and they go in the back room at Max's Kansas City and basically try to hobnob with the post-Warhol crowd. Mapplethorpe sort of wants to be Warhol, and Patti tries on a variety of guises before settling into the one that fits. Maybe that last sentence is inaccurate: Mapplethorpe also goes through a variety of experiments with different mediums before he is given a Polaroid camera as a gift.
Along the way Mapplethorpe is reduced to doing dishonorable things for money.
"He went to a placement service to get part-time work but nothing panned out. Although he sold an occasional necklace, breaking into the fashion business was slowgoing. Robert got increasingly depressed about money, and the fact that it fell on me to get it. It was partially the stress of worrying about our financial position that drove him back to the idea of hustling.
Robert's early attempts at hustling had been fueled by curiosity and the romance of Midnight Cowboy, but he found working on Forty-second Street to be harsh. He decided to shift to Joe Dallesandro territory, on the East Side near Bloomingdale's, where it was safer.
I begged him not to go, but he was determined to try. My tears did not stop him, so I sat and watched him dress for the night ahead. I imagined him standing on a corner, flushed with excitement, offering himself to a stranger, to make money for us.
'Please be careful,' was all I could say.
'Don't worry. I love you. Wish me luck.'
Who can know the heart of youth but youth itself? (135)
Another pleasure of this book is the effortlessly beautiful prose. Smith is economical with her words and describes a vast array of events. I can only imagine that she kept quite detailed diaries throughout these years. Either that, or she is blessed with a photographic memory. Actually, there are many photographs in the book, so perhaps it is a mix of the two: the photograph as diary.
There really is nothing "fancy" about this book, and its sheer modesty is responsible for a great deal of its charm. Smith certainly could be said to be "artsy," but she is never arch or snobbish. She comes off like an enthusiastic teenager, and her sincerity has an infectious effect on the reader.
I'm at a loss for what else to say about this book, except that, I wasn't going to add it to the Best Books list until I got to the end. The ending is undoubtedly the most powerful section of the book:
"There was no one present save his nurse and she left us to ourselves. I stood by his bed and took his hand. We stayed like that for a long time, not saying anything. Suddenly he looked up and said, 'Patti, did art get us?'
I looked away, not really wanting to think about it. 'I don't know, Robert. I don't know.'
Perhaps it did, but no one could regret that. Only a fool would regret being had by art; or a saint. Robert beckoned me to help him stand, and he faltered. 'Patti,' he said, 'I'm dying. It's so painful.'
He looked at me, his look of love and reproach. My love for him could not save him. His love for life could not save him. It was the first time that I truly knew he was going to die. He was suffering physical torment no man should endure. He looked at me with such deep apology that it was unbearable and I burst into tears. He admonished me for that, but he put his arms around me. I tried to brighten, but it was too late. I had nothing more to give him but love. I helped him to the couch. Mercifully, he did not cough, and he fell asleep with his head on my shoulder.
The light poured through the windows upon his photographs and the poem of us sitting together a last time. Robert dying: creating silence. Myself, destined to live, listening closely to a silence that would take a lifetime to express." (275-276)
One could only pray for such a beautiful tribute from a friend. Over the past week, I've seen tributes and homages like I've never seen before. Bowie touched millions of lives and will be remembered as long as music is recorded. Mapplethorpe doesn't possess quite the same cultural cache, but he was very close in age, and left this world far too early. He will be remembered by anyone devoted to the art of photography, but he might have accomplished so much more. Regardless, Smith has done her part to keep his memory alive to the wider public. There are few better gifts that a human being may bestow.