Monday, January 24, 2011

Through the past, brightly

"I don't know what I'm doing. But I can't stop doing it." -- Patti Smith on her early attempts at writing poetry.

I never was that big a Patti Smith fan. I thot "Because the Night" was a great song that shoulda been a MUCH bigger hit, but when I heard the rest of her EASTER album it just seemed really loud & kinda sloppy to my untrained 18-year-old ears. The couple times I heard RADIO ETHIOPIA it just sounded like a mess. Patti might even agree.
But back in my record store days we useta play the heck outta the 1st side of her WAVE album, with the shoulda-been-hit "Frederick," the mysterious "Dancing Barefoot," & the intense "Revenge." I certainly knew her reputation & respected her as a poet & performer, if not as a singer, & Todd Rundgren's production on WAVE seemed 2 add just the little bit of commercial flavoring she needed 2 get across. But the album didn't sell millions, & Patti retired 4 1/2 a decade 2 become a Mom.
I wanted 2 love her book JUST KIDS, a memoir about coming of age hungry & struggling in New York City in the early '70s. I still think the 1st 1/2 or so of the book is well worth reading. But I think this book about her lifelong friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is very much a rose-colored-glasses trip back in2 her past. Nothing wrong with that -- but if you get this book Xpecting some of the passion of the angry punk-poet of the late '70s (like I did), you'll B disappointed. It ain't here.
Mapplethorpe is 1 of the 1st people Patti meets after her escape from South Jersey 2 New York in the summer of '67. They scrape by, living on the street or in the world's smallest hotel rooms, doing odd jobs & relying on friends, working part-time & struggling 2 create their art. When Robert 1st starts taking pictures, Patti is his model. Later she is his muse. & he continues 2 take her picture up 'til his very last photo of Patti & her infant daughter, shot while Mapplethorpe was dying from AIDS complications in 1989.
These early stories of their life together -- the 2 "obsessed, work-driven wallflowers," lovers at 1st & later best friends -- is by far the best part of the book. Seen clearly & perhaps only lightly romanticized, these stories of the pair struggling 2 find their own voices & figure out what they were put here to do are at times beautifully written. & it's all as clearly depicted as if it were happening right outside your window. Smith makes being homeless & hungry in New York City sound almost fun. This 1st 1/2 of the book seems very light-hearted in its clear-eyed optimism.
The book is also livened-up by a series of cameo appearances by Todd Rundgren, Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Salvador Dali, Jim Carroll, Sam Shepard, Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult, & tons more.
There are also occasional moments that made me laff out-loud -- as when Patti admits that SELLING all the free records she got 2 review back in her rock-critic days earned her more $$$ than the actual reviews did when they got published....
But the story I was most intrested in starts fading out 1nce Patti starts performing on stage, reciting her poetry & eventually singing with the backing of guitarist Lenny Kaye & pianist Richard Sohl, later adding guitarist Ivan Kral & drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. After playing at CBGB's, the Patti Smith Group signs 2 Arista Records & Robert takes the cover photo 4 Patti's 1st album, HORSES.
But Robert has mostly drifted out of her life by then. He was already well into some much darker stuff. As his collages & photography veer more in2 a gay lifestyle & S&M imagery, Robert goes his own way & Patti goes hers.
Robert's illness & death just over a decade later is the shortest but most painful part of the book. Smith says there are many other stories she could have told about her life with Robert, but this book is the story she chose.
Overall, JUST KIDS is a cool, distanced, mostly dispassionate look back at a friendship that lasted more than 20 years. I think if Patti had written the book in 1989 right after Robert's death, we might have gotten a much different book. & if she'd written the 1st 1/2 of it in the late '70s at the height of her success -- when she really was the angry young punk-poet of the moment -- we might have gotten a much more passionate book. This reads Xactly like the kind of book a settled, comfortable woman in her early 60's might write, looking back over a tumultuous but successful artistic career.
But the whole book is sort of like a Mapplethorpe photo, like 1 of his famous flower shots, or the photo of Patti on the cover of HORSES -- everything is brilliantly lit, everything is very precise, everything is perfectly in its place. I would have welcomed a little more mess.
Even the New York streets -- tho they're sometimes full of rats & piled-up with garbage -- are brilliantly lit and clean. Neat. It couldn't have been this neat in real life. But the rough edges, like much of the pain in this story, have been buffed away so you hardly realize they're there. Patti Smith, back in the day, used to be ALL rough edges. I don't Xpect her 2 act like a 25-year-old 4 the rest of her life, but....
You should read the book anyway. Some of the writing's beautiful. & there's a lot of love in it....


rastronomicals said...

Nice review, well-stated.

Have always been a bit flummoxed by Patti Smith. Horses is a very famous album, and back when I first bought a CD player and was picking up the antecedent stuff I knew I was supposed to have heard when I spoke with people about music--Iggy, MC5, Modern Lovers, Richard Hell, early Talking Heads, that kind of thing--well, I bought Horses, too.

Have always remembered the line "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." But though well played and even somewhat passionate, the album left me a little cold. What I really didn't understand was how Smith was supposed to be so punk when she was playing with people from Blue Oyster Cult, and was on Arista.

'Course I was listening on the other side of the DIY revolution and Smith had come just before it, so holding her record label against her might be a little unfair. But still, I think her punk credentials are a little threadbare even compared to someone like Deborah Harry.

Melanie and I have a little injoke, she once heard Howard Stern pre-satellite exclaim about Smith, "Eff Her!" and now whenever we come across Smith's name anywhere, we each chime in "Eff Her!"

I'll no doubt tell her you read and reviewed this book tonight, and then we'll both say, "Eff Her. . . ."

Neither of us has anything against Smith, not really, but at the same time we haven't been moved to fierce devotion, know what I mean?

Taking my cue from your thoughts, I might even suggest that Smith has buffed the rough edges away from the getgo, if I were just familiar enough with the full body of her work.

R Smith said...

Never got into Patti's music although Gloria is the only song I play since it's on a punk rock compliation. If memory serves me, I believe she was Allan Lainer's GF in BOC at the time and gave the spooky vocal to Vera Gemini from Agents Of Fortune. Co wrote a couple cool things but never cared for the album closer Debbie Denise on AOF.

TAD said...

Crabby: You're right. Patti co-wrote "Vera Gemini" & does that spooky vocal. She also co-wrote "Debbie Denise," which I assumed from reading this book was written ABOUT her -- the song certainly fits her description of her & Allen Lanier's relationship. Supposedly "In Thee" (on BOC's later MIRRORS) was Lanier's farewell 2 her....

R S Crabb said...

I think In Thee is one of the most lovely things BOC has done. She also had a hand in writing Baby Ice Dog and Career Of Evil too.