Sunday, August 24, 2014

Art and Identity in Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”

It’s taken me years to pick up Patti Smith’s memoir “Just Kids.” Now that I’ve finished it, I’m wondering why I waited so long. Like Smith’s poetry and music, her memoir is beautifully composed but incisive, leaving a lasting impression on the reader.

The book has a straightforward structure. Smith starts with her childhood and moves from adolescence into adulthood. Growing up for Smith seems like a continuous run of artistic explorations. From an early age, Smith becomes fascinated with the individual’s ability to create art and captivate the attention and imagination of an audience. A childhood trip to the Museum of Art in Philadelphia has a profound impact on her:

But it was the work in a hall devoted to Picasso, from his harlequins to Cubism, that pierced me the most. His brutal confidence took my breath away… secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.

As a young woman from South Jersey, Smith makes the common trek to New York City. When she arrives, in 1967, she can hardly contain her stoke. She visits lots of bookstores and hangs out in parks and coffee shops in Greenwich Village, just like I did when I first moved to NYC.

It’s during this wandering period when Smith meets Robert Mapplethorpe. The two become inseparable, each inspired by the other to explore different artistic themes and media. Their relationship is the crux of this memoir, which works because their enduring connection is a beautiful thing.

When Smith meets Mapplethorpe, he’s struggling to accept his own sexuality, struggling to find a place in the world for his artistic expression.

He wasn’t certain whether he was a good or bad person. Whether he was altruistic. Whether he was demonic. But he was certain of one thing. He was an artist. And for that he would never apologize.

Together, Smith and Mapplethorpe weave their way through the thriving art rock scene of late 60s/early 70s New York. They move into the Chelsea hotel together, which Smith describes as being, “like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe. I wandered the halls seeking its spirits, dead or alive.”

Robert Mapplethorpe & Patti Smith.
The title of the memoir stems from an experience Smith and Mapplethorpe share while hanging out in Washington Square Park.

            We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observes us. Robert enjoyed being noticed, and he affectionately squeezed my hand.
            “Oh, take their picture,” said the woman to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.”
            “Oh, go on,” he shrugged. “They’re just kids.”

But the two do become artists, successful ones by pretty much any standard. Mapplethorpe and Smith make the rounds together, and the art rock reader will find plenty of names to relate to: Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol, Todd Rungren, Jimi Hendrix and many other folks I’ve never heard of. While Smith drops lots of names without much context, she does spend time with a lot of these people and she has plenty of interesting things to say about how they interact.

I’ve always been fascinated by Smith’s revulsion for traditional female gender roles, which she explores in this book. Apparently, she feels this way from quite a young age. Early in the memoir, Smith recalls a conversation she had with her mother as a pre-teen:

            “Patricia,” my mother scolded, “put a shirt on!”
            “It’s too hot,” I moaned. “No one else has one on.”
            “Hot or not, it’s time you started wearing a shirt. You’re about to become a young lady.” I protested vehemently and announced that I was never going to be anything but myself, that I was of the clan of Peter Pan and we did not grow up.

It seems Smith is never fully comfortable with her body and her sexuality, like she feels burdened by the baggage of the classification: straight white female. Smith’s physical features are striking and sharply delineated, and her cut hair and hippy-mod dress led some people to mistake her for a man, a lesbian or a gender nonconformist. This doesn’t seem to bother Smith, perhaps because she herself isn’t sure what to make of her appearance.

Traditional gender roles are further shaken up by her relationship with Mapplethorpe, who is gay but maintains a loving partnership with Smith. The love that Mapplethorpe and Smith share is alluring in its inability to be categorized.

We needed time to figure out what all of this meant, how we were going to come to terms and redefine what our love was called. I learned from him that often contradiction is the clearest way to truth.

Patti Smith, 1976. Credit: The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Mapplethorpe develops a keen interest in photography while shooting Smith in their Chelsea Hotel room. Smith calls herself Mapplethorpe’s muse, but she doesn’t fully understand his interest in her as a subject.

I no longer felt that I was the right model for him, but he would wave my objections away. He saw in me more than I could see in myself. Whenever he peeled the image from the Polaroid negative, he would say, “With you I can’t miss.”

When I was in Hamburg, Germany a few years ago I attended an exhibit of Mapplethorpe’s photography, which featured many nude images of Smith. I found Mapplethorpe’s photos striking with their black and white contrast and voyeuristic intimacy. I found Smith’s nakedness beautiful in a profound and arresting way, her rigid facial features and dark hair contrasted with her wiry frame and generous breasts. Looking at her nude, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could find her ugly or strange looking.  

Smith’s first meeting with the poet Allen Ginsberg tells a lot about how others perceive Smith, and how she, in turn, perceives herself. To set up the story, Smith is broke (as usual) and hungry. She wants to buy a cheese and lettuce sandwich (apparently that is a food) from a local shop. She’s saddened to find out that the price has gone up by a few cents, and Smith doesn’t have enough change for the sandwich.

            I was disappointed, to say the least, when I heard a voice say, “Can I help you?”
            I turned around and it was Allen Ginsberg. We had never met but there was no mistaking the face of one of our great poets and activists. I looked into those intense dark eyes punctuated by his dark curly beard and just nodded. Allen added the extra dime and also stood me to a cup of coffee. I wordlessly followed him to his table, and then plowed into the sandwich.
            Allen introduced himself. He was talking about Walt Whitman and I mentioned I was raised near Camden, where Whitman was buried, when he leaned forward and looked at me intently. “Are you a girl?” he asked.
            “Yes,” I said. “Is that a problem?”
            He just laughed. “I’m sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy.”
            I got the picture immediately.
            “Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?”
            “No, enjoy it. It was my mistake.”
            … Sometime later Allen became my good friend and teacher. We often reminisced about our first encounter and he once asked how I would describe how we met. “I would say you fed me when I was hungry,” I told him. And he did.

Despite Smith’s persistent and prolific work, she struggles with a sense of artistic self-doubt in a time of war, racial violence and anomie — a time much like our own. She wonders: What is the value of dedicating oneself to art when people all around are suffering?

I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.

Speaking of illumination, Smith has an interesting take on god. She is taught prayer and reverence for god as a child, and she develops a mystical sense of the divine as she grows into her art.

It pleased me to imagine a presence above us.

But, of course, Smith’s ideas about god are complicated. One of the first things I remember hearing about Patti Smith was her line: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” It resonated strongly with me because it was such a liberating assertion of the self, and a simultaneous rejection of the false promises of salvation. Smith explains her thoughts behind that statement:

… I spoke the line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” I had written the line some years before as a declaration of existence, as a vow to take responsibility for my own actions. Christ was a man worthy to rebel against, for he was rebellion itself.

She writes about the “moral power I gleaned in taking responsibility for one’s own actions.” Smith — the mystic, seeker and romantic — yet she refuses to apologize or make excuses. While her music isn’t exactly punk rock, Patti Smith lays out quite a punk rock ethos with her focus on these themes.

When I lived in Brooklyn in the early 2000s, I saw a lot of my favorite punk and hardcore bands play at CBGB’s, the old Bowery club and Mecca of American punk. I watched Sham 69, Agnostic Front, Sick Of It All, Youth Brigade, T.S.O.L. I soaked up every minute in that steamy dive because I knew it wouldn’t be around for long. Knowing the pivotal part that CBGB’s played in the birth of punk rock, I found it especially interesting to read about Smith’s experiences at CBGB’s.

We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technological complexity. We would call forth in our minds the image of Paul Revere, riding through the American night, petitioning the people to wake up, to take up arms. We too would take up arms, the arms of our generation, the electric guitar and the microphone. CBGB was the ideal place to sound a clarion call.

That clarion call was heard loud and clear. And I’m glad I was able to experience the reverberations decades later.

So, I highly recommend reading this book. I read it on the Jersey Shore this summer, and it was one of the more enriching literary experiences I’ve had in quite some time. 

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