Thursday, July 1, 2010

Week 1, #2: "I was full of references. He was full of light and shadow.": Patti Smith, "Just Kids"

I was outside Greenlight Bookstore in Ft. Greene the other night and noticed a book that had collected the stories of prominent New Yorkers talking about the moment they first arrived in New York. Now, there's at least one obvious problem with this, excluding, as so many stories about the city do, the people who grow up here. There's also the whole lost golden era thing. Ah yes, we think, back then people could come with no money, find a cheap place, work at a bookstore. . . and that kind of nostalgia for what you never lived through (the only kind of nostalgia I'm ever vulnerable to) is kind of boring, and probably wrong in a whole bunch of ways.

But then you read Patti Smith's memoir, and she comes to New York after working in a factory in Jersey and giving up a baby for adoption at twenty and right away by coincidence she meets Robert Mapplethorpe, then he comes into the, yes, bookstore, where she's working and buys her favorite necklace, then she runs into him in the park when she needs to get away from a creepy writer she went out with because she was hungry, and they fall in love, and they're still artistic soulmates after he discovers he's gay, and she makes extra money buying up first editions and reselling them, and they actually live at the Chelsea Hotel, where Janis Joplin hangs around without an entourage or anyone bothering her, and eventually she meets Janis Joplin and writes a song for her, and she writes poetry, and when she starts reciting poetry it's at St. Marks, and when she decides to start writing songs and then performing them it's at CBGBs, and she's about the only person on earth who can compare herself to Baudelaire and Rimbaud and get away with it. And did you know she tried to track down Rimbaud's lost writings, went to his hotel? She's just that kind of person, the person that these things happen to, and so yeah, it's a romantic and nostalgic book. What of it?

Of course, nostalgia is always about loss too, and along with Patti and Robert creating and meeting all the right people, the other thing that happens in Just Kids is that people die. Jim Morrison dies and Patti writes "Break it Up" about him Jimi Hendrix dies and she writes "Land" about him and Janis Joplin dies and never gets to sing the song Patti wrote for her. Years later, after Patti has moved to Detroit with Fred Sonic Smith, Robert calls Patti distraught that Andy Warhol has died, and then Robert's partner Sam dies and then Robert dies, and Patti writes "Paths that Cross."

The nostalgia and the elegy and the romanticism all work so well in part because this is such a fundamentally sweet book. The portrait of Mapplethorpe as a young vulnerable and protective artist finding his way is especially moving if you think about the way he became the anti-NEA poster boy in the eighties. His photographs, which you get a taste of throughout the book through reproductions that follow the story, are breathtakingly beautiful. He saw his S&M stuff as something he had access to and therefore a duty to record. His image as someone looking to shock makes all the more heartbreaking his and poignant his reaction when Patti tells him she's leaving New York: "My mother still thinks we're married." Sady Doyle has a typically awesome piece that notes how much she defends his work, and how reticent she is in describing her own artistic and sexual daring. She's right, and her observations about how women who write without that reticence get slammed are of course spot on. I don't know if Smith is holding back, so much, as telling a different kind of story than the one her music tells. I remember reading a profile of Almadovar where someone expressed surprise that he was being very critical of a colleague who had an affair. "Your characters are so sexually out there!" someone said, and he said "That's art. This is real life." So many people are moralizing in their work or public presentation and then "fail to live up to it," if they're even trying. Patti and Robert pour their wildness into their work, and with each other they were tender and protective and kept their vow to take care of one another. It's hard to know what counts as bohemian, or countercultural, but this combination is certainly something we could use more of.


  1. So, it turns out it isn't nostalgia to think people came to NYC in the 70s with no money and got cheap places and worked in bookstores! If one reads biographies of artists who came here in the 70s, one finds this story over and over...and yes, there were more bookstores then too. It was a different economy, perhaps a different kind of city--problematic in certain ways, but also seemingly easier to get by in as an artist. This is a history I'm very interested in.

  2. Yes - reflexive nostalgia is no good, but sometimes there's really something to miss! I didn't include the most romantic story at all: one day with no money a friendly poet buys her lunch. Turns out it's Allen Ginsberg and he was trying to pick her up, thinking she was a boy. When he realizes the mistake, he's embarrassed. But she still had her lunch and she still met Allen Ginsberg.