Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Patti Smith / Just Kids

Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids is not an advice book, and should not be read as one. If you want to know her program for becoming a famous rock star in the 1970s, here it is:  move to New York City, even if you don't have any money and have to live on the streets for awhile (a good place to meet artists); attach yourself to a truly talented, driven artist; get a job that puts you in contact with people that might help you become an artist of some-- any -- type and allows you enough time to work on art of all kinds; move into the Chelsea Hotel, and work those contacts for all you're worth.

Really, it seems attaching herself to Robert Mapplethorpe and moving into the Chelsea Hotel pretty much paved the way for her success. In her memoir, and to her credit, she doesn't claim any great talent or really very much direction at all. If it weren't for meeting Mapplethorpe, getting hired by a bookseller, and hooking up with Sam Shepard, it's hard to tell what she might have done. At the Chelsea, she met rock stars, including Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Also Gregory Corso and some others who helped get her up on her first stage, St. Mark's Church, for an accompanied, high-octane poetry reading.

She was surprisingly, almost shockingly, nearly drug free. (The drugs make a very late appearance, which might say more about the '70s and rock and roll than anything else.) Her rough living was founded on poverty: homelessness and hunger. No health insurance. She comes across as eager and kind and enthusiastic, engaged and caring. Surely she was a little more raw and tough than the voice of this memoir would have one believe-- you almost have to remind yourself by looking at the pictures or focusing on the imagery in the artwork-- to remember what their "scene" was like. What it was they were creating was more punk than folk, even if she claims to have modeled herself on Bob Dylan.

Mapplethorpe, too, comes across as sweet. What I loved most in the book were the times Robert would be listening to her tell a story, or come in and find her doing something, and say, "Patti, no!" The first instance is when she's telling him the story of stealing from the jewelry box of a sick friend. Every time she got to the theft in the oft-repeated story, he's say, "Patti, no!" as if to get her to move away from the jewelry box. This playful outrage is repeated, and wonderful, especially near the end when he comes into her apartment and finds her awkwardly trying to roll a joint. "Patti, no, you're smoking pot!" It's what I will remember most from the book (and no doubt imitate in interactions with my friends).

Patti Smith was a poet, a singer, a painter/assemblage artist, a playwright (with Shepard), who got some very lucky breaks. She comes across as serious about life, but not serious about art, except for her desire to be an artist, in the way many people her age in the time the book takes place (18-24) are. If she were older, you could call her a dilettante. But she was actually just someone awake to her time, engaged with the people who came into her life, who found her way onto a much larger stage through the power of her personality and stick-to-it-ness.


Garnett said...

I also loved Mapplethorp's responses to Patti's stories. He seemed so charmed by her. And while I agree that a lot of her success had to do with being at the right place at the right time with the right people, I also think it was due to her work ehtic. No matter what else was goign on, she was working and evolving as an artist.

Susan Sink said...

I agree, Garnett. I almost added something in the review about her putting in her 10,000 hours. In a way I think she fits that model. She may have seemed to be dabbling, but she was always drawn to writing first, and clearly a gifted performer with a lot of presence, and it came across best in her rock and roll.

WolfsGotYourTongue said...

I just saw the Patti Smith Documentary that she worked on for 10 years a couple of days ago... I think it was called 'Dream of Life'. Suzette, who had invited me over, would interject snippets of what she knew from the book, helping to flesh out the story that was so visually captured. If you haven't seen it I would highly recommend it. I found that just in the watching Patti's devotion to art inspired me to remember how to view life in that way, and reminded me of the beauty.

Susan Sink said...

Thanks, Giana. I'm going to Netflix it immediately!