Monday, June 7, 2010
PATTI SMITH'S JUST KIDS
This is a pretty terrific memoir. Once you (or I, I guess I mean) get used to the distinct voice (choice of words and rhythms etc.) which is different than Smith's poems and lyrics for the most part, it starts to flow in a way that is seductively satisfying.
I don't know Smith personally, though I've been in the same room with her a few times over the years and read in the same venues (last time was back in the '90s in San Francisco where she was reading in one room and I in another at a big book event I can no longer remember the name or theme of).
Back in the '70s I edited an anthology of mostly then "unknown" (to the wider world, including the wider publishing world of the time) poets that included Smith, but that was my publisher's doing. I had tried to contact Smith to include some poems I'd selected from an early "chapbook" of hers but didn't get a response, and when the deadline approached the publisher contacted her publisher and they arranged for the poems to be included. I objected, since I didn't have her permission, but they went ahead with it anyway.
I liked Patti and her work from the very first time I saw her and heard her. I first heard her on the 45 record she put out (I think from Gotham Book Mart, I have it somewhere and will try to confirm that) that had "Piss Factory" on one side and her version of "Hey Joe" but about Patty Hearst on the other. I loved that recording and played it constantly the year it came out.
No wait a minute, I think I first actually heard and saw her at a reading at St. Mark's in the early '70s when she kicked butt in a performance that made most poets seem like stiffs in comparison. I loved her whole style and presence at the time, fell in love with her really, the way we do with some performers.
Her combination of female seductiveness and male aggression (mild compared to some, like me, but at that time still considered a male trait by most) and her androgynous look (at least that night, not the style in the photo on the book cover above) seemed part of the same edge I was pushing and had been for a few years during that era, so I identified with a lot of what she was doing, and of course with her being a Jersey girl from the working class etc.
Though she was from South Jersey which meant her accent sounded more like Philly than Newark. I just dug her and always have. Whenever I saw her at a party or reading or whatever, she always seemed genuine and warm and friendly. JUST KIDS comes across just like that, with a kind of unique charm and ability to disarm.
But I have a pretty small caveat [I've gotten a lot of criticism and disagreement on the point I'm about to make since this post first came out, so let me reiterate once more, I LOVE PATTI SMITH AND ALL SHE'S DONE AND STANDS FOR, I just saw something in the way she told this part of her story that I wanted to comment on, as much for my own shortfallings as anyone else's]. JUST KIDS seems to me at times a bit disingenuous, which I believe is not intentional. I'm sure I do the same kind of thing in my own way and am unaware of it. But for instance take the title. I was 22 five years before Patti was and maybe that makes the difference. But at 22 I was married, in the service, had already lived a lot as far as I was concerned (and a lot of other people too) and would never have seen myself and my wife, who was a year younger, as "just kids."
I understand that from the perspective of someone now in her sixties, Smith may be meaning that term from a more contemporary take, but I still don't see myself as a "kid" in my 20s. Maybe it's just me because I bristled at that label even then, even when I was 18. Anyway, a small quibble, but when I add it to the other main theme, which is that she and her early lover, and close lifetime friend, Robert Mapplethorpe were "just kids" when they made the decision to become artists, famous artists, and set out to achieve that through hard work and in Mapllethorpe's case, according to Smith, the right connections.
Smith makes it seem like Mapplethorpe was very calculated about meeting people who could help him achieve his goal of becoming as famous or more so than Andy Warhol, and that she wasn't. And I believe that was probably true on a conscious level. But still, many of the people she talks about meeting and hanging out with and being helped by were part of an elite downtown scene that was not easy to get access to and which was extremely exclusive and dismissive of many who attempted to get into it.
I don't just mean Max's Kansas City and the Warhol crowd, which was in decline by the time Smith and Mapplethorpe became a part of it, or the unique characters that peopled the Chelsea Hotel where they lived for a while and made the transition from unknown college drop outs to budding stars on that scene, but the wealthy and influential patrons of the scene who made it possible for some to flourish in it and others not to.
I believe Smith when she writes that she wasn't concerned with making those connections and cultivating that scene, that it was all, kind of, accidentally a result of Maplethorpe's ambition that included her in as his partner and/or best friend during those years and that it was her hard work and dedication to moving her art forward that led to her success. But I still find it a little disingenuous, especially when you consider the list of her lovers during the period when she emerged on the scene in ways that made us all aware of her: Jim Carroll, Sam Sheperd and Tod Rundgren, all of whom were central figures already in terms of their impact on poetry, performance and music, just as Smith happened to make her mark as a poet, performer and music maker.
Again, don't get me wrong. I love Pattie Smith still, not just her work and her personality (every time I see her interviewed I fall for her all over again) but what she stands for as well. And I am not questioning her integrity at all. I believe she made her own way and deserves all the success she's had.
What I'm talking about is not recognizing that the drive to create and have your creations appreciated by a wider audience is usually part of every artist's agenda and influences the choices they make, not just the ones who broadcast their ambitions in ways that can't be ignored, like Mapplethorpe. For instance Smith comments on not becoming a part of the St. Mark's poetry scene because it was too "incestuous" which is totally true from my experience at the time, and which made me feel like I was never a part of it either. But I still read there and came to appreciate most of the poets who were a part of that scene, incestuous or not, whereas Smith still read there and used it as a stepping stone to a wider audience and more poetry cred and then writes as if she was above or beyond such scenes even though the scene she was becoming an integral part of during those years was even more incestuous and elitist!
At any rate her later moves (to Detroit and her marriage and family there) prove that in fact once she had the wider forum for promulgating her art and music choices she abandoned it, or the "scene" that got her there for more basic dailiness (caring for her family and her ill husband) leaving her few years on the downtown Manhattan scene as almost legendary, until her relatively recent return after her husband's passing and her children's maturation.
Now she's back big time with new music, new energy and sounds, as charismatic as ever, if not more so, with her unique beauty and voice, and I am grateful she is. May others whose work and presences I also love be as fortunate.
[PS: Just a further clarification on the title: the term "just kids" as Smith uses it in the book was applied to her and Mapplethorpe by someone else, referring to them as "just kids"—thus the title is in some ways meant, I think, to be ironic as well as the reflection of someone older now themselves looking back. I just objected to the concept as the "kid" I once was and was voicing my ongoing resistance to that kind of categorization. Hope I didn't confuse matters further (plus see my comment as well).]