Monday, July 4, 2011

Another Place is the Space

Just Kids,” by Patti Smith, 2011

This is the story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s not a biography so much as an homage to a time, a place and a relationship.

The time is the late sixties and early seventies. The place is New York. The relationship is a friendship/love between a young gay guy and a young punk girl. Although ‘punks’ hadn’t been invented yet. Mapplethorpe is the ultimate ‘gay best friend’ and lover, I guess.

Smith writes in a poetic but somewhat childish manner, which fits.

The first thing you notice is that Patti is no slouch. She has read more than most English P.H.D.’s – and is none the worse for that. She drops the ‘Rimbaud” bomb repeatedly (and the Verlaine, Genet, Cockteau, Gide, Baudelaire bombs, along with a wide array of other weapons), then follows up with plain old name-dropping. Allen Ginsburg tried to pick her up in an Automat. Until he saw she wasn’t a boy. But she did get some food out of the deal. See? She even pals around with Sam Sheppard, the playwright, by ... accident. While Patti hangs out in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, Salvador Dali arrives, cape and all, and approves of her hair-cut. (!) If you are a poetry or culture junkie, this book is for you.

At some point, Smith's fascination with French symbolism twice leads her to a trip to France, once to visit Rimbaud’s museum and grave. Her self-education contrasts with a great many of the hippies thronging Washington Square at that time. Smith came from a working-class background in New Jersey, and, if not for finding $32 in an abandoned purse, might not have had the money to buy a bus ticket, escape New Jersey factory life and land in the Big City. She wrote a song, “Piss Factory,” about escaping the factories. Essentially it shows that self-education is many times the route to a creative life. Just as self-education is the route to a political life.

Mapplethorpe is a young artist who looks a bit like Jim Morrison. Patti meets him by accident on the streets, and after he rescues her from some old guy, they move in together. They stay together, for the most part until he dies of AIDS. He’s an adept at three-dimensional constructions and collages, working through a Catholic upbringing. She writes poetry, and together they decide to be artists. Moving from living on the street to dumpy apartment to arty apartment, from junkie-ridden hotel to the Chelsea hotel, and then to a loft across the street from the Chelsea, the two trace slowly improving fortunes. Mapplethorpe has his eyes set on the Andy Warhol crowd in the back room at Max’s Kansas City. He makes friends with a prominent patron, and begins to sell photos to an august group – people like George Plimpton. August as all that.

Patti didn’t know quite what she wanted, but ended up reading poetry backed by a guitar, and the rest is history. She ends up at the Bowery bar CBGB’s with Television and Richard Hell, and the New York punk scene is born. That is, after she cut her hair and got a rooster. She eventually marries Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of the MC5, after dating one of the members of Blue Oyster Cult. When Bob Dylan visited CBGB’s for a Smith show, she knew that ‘something was happening here.’ Dylan was the reclusive crown prince of the rock and roll scene in the city.

What is fascinating about this book is the sense of the place and time percolating a ‘scene.” Like Laurel Canyon (reviewed below) or the Mississippi Delta (reviewed below), the scene had a dynamic of its own, not determined by some outside influence. Patti, while living at the Chelsea in 1969, listens to Kris Kristofferson sing “Me and Bobbie McGee” to Janis Joplin, and doesn’t know what she just witnessed. The Chelsea is the historic hotel that Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, Bob Dylan, Arthur C Clarke and Oscar Wilde stayed in. At one point she goes next door to the Chelsea’s bar, the El Quijote, and in the bar sits Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Country Joe and the Fish, and Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, waiting for Woodstock to begin. Slick says ‘hi to you’ – and Patti feels at ‘home.’ If you are a music junkie, this book is also for you.

This scene closely parallels the eruption of creativity that occurred in Paris, involving surrealists, symbolists, existentialists, and others in the 20s and 30s, which ended with the start of World War II. The earlier sequential development fed into the later one in the U.S., as transmitted by Patti Smith and others. The real question is if bourgeois culture has another spark of creativity within its ‘bohemian/beatnik/hippie/punk/alternative’ impulse, or if those counter-cultural impulses have finally been commercialized and made harmless by corporate capital. In other words, is rebellion now a commodity? Quoting Thomas Frank, I think for the most part, it is. So the real question is to make a 'culture' that cannot be bought.

And I bought it at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi
Red Frong, July 4, 2011

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