Friday, 14 January 2011
Last-Year Reads: Just Kids by Patti Smith
Over a decade ago now, I did an internship for a summer at a New York museum. It was an amazing experience in many ways and while I didn’t professionally or socially shine in that particular environment, my imagination and creative ambitions flourished from being in the city. I loved the stories of the city. I sucked up its history, making pilgrimages to obscure sites in the city, devouring Wharton and Henry James novels, reimagining its rock and roll history. One of the girls I worked with was obsessed with the Chelsea Hotel and told me some of its stories; we saw one of the Ramones enjoying his cake in a local eatery. Patti Smith’s Just Kids revisits some of that turf: it’s her slice of New York history, living with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1960s and 70s in a truly bohemian existence, including a stint at the Chelsea Hotel, that I read filtered through my lingering impressions from my relatively brief but formative time there.
It’s an inspiring book, written with honesty, tenderness and self-awareness. On one level, the book is easy to identify with: a dreamy girl that arrives in the city, immersed in her books, poetry and art. She develops a relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and they live a hand-to-mouth existence on the artistic fringes, making the rent by supplementing her bookshop wage with selling second-hand thrifted books.
Her descriptions of the city are wonderfully evocative. On her arrival to New York, she notes “The city was a real city, shifty and sexual. I was lightly jostled by small herds of flushed young sailors looking for action on Forty-second Street, with its rows of X-rated movie houses, brassy women, glittering souvenir shops and hot-dog vendors”. Smith walks the streets immersed in its literary history – noting the shadows of Dylan Thomas, Terry Southern, Eugene O’Neill and Thomas Wolfe in a local bar for example. She and Mapplethorpe make their own journeys across the city, finding beauty in unexpected places: “Nothing was more wonderful to me than Coney Island with its gritty innocence. It was our kind of place: the fading arcades, the peeling signs of bygone days, cotton candy and Kewpie dolls on a stick, dressed in feathers and glittering top hats.”
Literary references soak her writing and her view of the world – in the above trip to Coney Island, Mapplethorpe is described as “like a character in Brighton Rock in his forties-style hat, black net T-shirt and huaraches” (as pictured on the cover of the book), Smith in another extract describes her “East of Eden” outfit: “a long rayon navy dress with white polka dots and a straw hat”.
Yet Patti Smith’s tales, no matter how simple, always seem extraordinary and she manages to draw an astonishing range of people to her, those people I idolized on my own New York pilgrimages. Her and Mapplethorpe take a room in the Chelsea Hotel, drawn to its reputation and shabby elegance, packed full of artists and musicians of the day. Their neighbour’s apartment, for example, was filled with silver helium pillows from Warhol’s original Factory drifted. She walks into its neighbouring restaurant, El Quixote and sees “At a table to my left, Janis Joplin was holding court with her band. To my far right were Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, along with members of Country Joe and the Fish. At the last table facing the door was Jimi Hendrix, his head lowered, eating with his hat on, across from a blonde.”
However, Smith never seems too impressed by celebrities or things that are said about her: “Someone at Max’s asked me if I was androgynous. I asked what that that meant. ‘You know, like Mick Jagger.’ I figured that must be cool.”
Much more than the long list of people they encounter, the book is about the couple’s relationship – physically changing as Mapplethorpe explored his sexuality and emotionally evolving as new partners come and go in each other lives. It’s also about how they inspired and pushed each other on artistically, exploring new iconography and mediums, especially Mapplethorpe’s early excursions into photography. Though she remains fiercely loyal to him throughout, she is honest about aspects of his work that she finds hard to reconcile with her personal view of him. Her description of his death, many years later of AIDS-related illness is heartbreaking but by no means the point of the book – it’s the living, loving, challenging, contradictory and brilliant Mapplethorpe that gets the centre stage here.
It’s not only his artistic progress that’s charted. Smith’s own development as an artist is fascinating – she always writes and gradually she moves to writing music reviews. A host of writers, including Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, encourage her work and it passes through many different stages before her more traditional debut with the Patti Smith Group at CBGBs. Although a natural development, it never appears the obvious, or the only, path open to her.
Mapplethorpe took the now famous image for the cover of Smith’s Horses. She describes the process in typical careful detail. The white shirt came from the Salvation Army, selected for the monogram below the pocket. She cuts off the cuts, echoing a photograph by Brassai and ends up slinging it over her shoulder “Frank Sinatra style. I was full of references. He was full of light and shadow.” The section ends simply “when I look at it now I never see me. I see us”.
Smith and Mapplethorpe talk to each other about the different signs that the universe used to show it was their side. This book creates the feeling the universe would be lucky to ever see such a partnership or period in history again, partly acting as a lament for a lost New York. Smith’s writing is a reminder of the beauty in unconformity and the ugly and the different. I wish I’d had this book with me in my exploratory months in the city, as a reminder of my own unique place, there to be shaped.