I don’t know a lot about Patti Smith and I haven’t listened to a lot of her music. Horses is fine, but I’m not a fan.
I think it is important to say that at the start, because I imagine that your reaction to Just Kids will depend entirely on your position on Patti Smith.
On the other hand, I like Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. I know, I know, not necessarily the S&M shots he’s famous for, but his flower photographs are stunning and often overshadowed by his reputation and his lifestyle.
So really, I was reading this book to learn more about Mapplethorpe rather than to learn more about Patti and throw in the juicy details about the Factory and the residents of the Chelsea Hotel and the book becomes very appealing.
Now, it’s not that I want to take the piss out of Patti, but I’m afraid she’s giving it away. This book is so easy to parody that it is frightening. Here’s my attempt.
It was Joan of Arcs birthday. Sitting I was, in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel writing a prose poem on Rimbaud when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see Salvador Dali/ Jim Morrison/ Allen Ginsberg (delete as appropriate) admiring the French fisherman’s cap that I was wearing as part of my Godard ensemble. We discoursed on everything from Tibetan throat singers to the notion of perspectivism in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. I gave him a handmade leather bracelet and he gave me a feather, which Robert later included in his latest installation about Verlaine’s symbolism. He recited some Walt Whitman to me as he left and his words made me feel like my work mattered. Later that evening I took a lock of hair from Robert and sang him to sleep with his favourite Jacques Brel song and while he slept I created Art and thought about Rimbaud some more
In Patti’s world, men recite William Blake, everyone gives everyone else talismanic gifts of silver skulls and coloured stones, locks of hair are cut with abandon and there is always, always a famous person around the next corner. There are no less than 35 references to Rimbaud (she’s a fan you know) in this book. I tried to keep a track of all the poets/ philosophers/ artists/ writers/ musicians that are mentioned, but there are often as many as 5 – 10 per page. Patti wants you to know she’s artistic. And I’m sure she is, it’s just that the constant reinforcing of her intellectual and artistic bent is exhausting and often frustrating.
There is also a real sense that this book has been written in the glow of rose-tinted glasses. Don’t get me wrong, the book is mythic tale as it follows the young and desperate poet who, after giving up her baby for adoption, moves to New York with nothing, meets Mapplethorpe by chance and they embark on a life of artistic endeavor, hunger and the search for immortality and beauty before finding incredible success in their respective fields. But there is little of the pain in Just Kids. Patti and Robert worry about money, yes, but never seem hungry. Patti never mentions the baby she had and gave up again. When men let her down, and for that matter, when Robert ‘discovers’ he is gay, Patti is always magnanimous and gracious and never hurt and I just found this all a little hard to believe.
Patti Smith said she promised Robert she would write their story, but there is little of Robert in the book. He is an elusive presence in these pages. His struggle with his sexuality and his immersion into the world of S&M and prostitution is given scant detail. Undoubtedly theirs was a strong and loving relationship, both emotionally and artistically but it cannot have been an easy one and by the end of the book, he still comes across as a romantic enigma.
Having said all that, I still enjoyed reading the book because, let’s face it, who isn’t compelled by the bohemian artistic lifestyle of the Chelsea Hotel and the Factory in the late 1960’s and early 70’s? It was a heady, intoxicating time and Smith is clever enough to focus almost the entire book on a period of a few years when she and Robert were building their careers and meeting the right people.
Whether Smith means to or not, there is a sense that they were two people in the right place at the right time, in the centre of the storm, with Patti in particular working out which part to play to gain advantage. Poet? Artist? Musician? She gives everything a try until something works, all the while honing her image to her best advantage. On meeting Tom Verlaine from the band Television she says,
Divining how to appeal to Tom’s sensibilities, I dressed in a manner that I thought a boy from Delaware would understand; black ballet flats, pink shantung capris, my kelly green silk raincoat and a violet parasol
Patti plays a lot of dress up and it seems to me that of the two of them, Mapplethorpe was the one that artistically and personally really came to know and express himself. Even Patti acknowledges it when Mapplethorpe is taking the famous image of her for the album cover of Horses,
I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style. I was full of references. He was full of shadows and light.
Even more tellingly she says
Robert was concerned with how to make the photograph, and I with how to be the photograph.
She has the knack for a great turn of phrase, but for a poet, some of the writing is overwrought, clunky and sometimes just nonsensical.
He was holding a carton of milk, as if he were about to pour it in the saucers of his eyes
Yet when she writes about Robert’s battle with AIDS and his subsequent death, the book comes in to its own. The writing is moving, elegiac and for the first time, the real love and devotion between these two artists is clear.
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.
The end comes quick. Patti tells us little of her time as a successful punk singer and little about Robert’s meteoric rise in the art world. She marries and has children. That’s about as much as we get, and while the lack of detail during the latter part of the book can be a little frustrating, it’s understandable. That is not their story. It is not the story of their life together. Their life was centred on the exciting world of New York in the 1970s – the pain and poverty, the artistic process and the sense that one was still connected to a whole history of great artists in the past. It was the moment New York was becoming the cultural capital of the Western world and they were there. Playing their parts.
Ours were ragtag days and nights, as quixotic as Keats and as rude as the lice we both came to suffer, each certain they originated from the other as we underwent the tedious regimen of Kwell lice shampooing in any one of the unmanned Chelsea Hotel bathrooms
Personally, I could have done with less of the Keats and more of the lice…..
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