Saturday, November 21, 2015

Patti Smith – ‘Just Kids’

When I was ill and off work the other week, Patti Smith came on the radio (on Woman’s Hour) to talk about her new book M Train. Jenni Murray expressed incredulity at her fondness for English murder mystery TV, with a pause, and a ‘WHY?’ Patti said something about time spent in hotel rooms, and why not? I remembered that I had Just Kids stashed on my Kindle, along with so much else, plucked when it was on sale and then forgotten. Everyone knows that Just Kids is great. It can’t miss and it doesn’t. It’s the tale of two young artists in New York in the late ’60s, who supported each other to great things, surrounded by an impossibly glamorous cast.
He said they’d live in New York
And the stars would be their own
’Cause she was Debbie Harry
And he was Joey
He was Joey Ramone
        (Helen Love, ‘Debbie Loves Joey’)
That kind of thing, but a few precious years earlier. There’s Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, Candy Darling, Sam Shepard, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Warhol and Lou Reed from a distance. Allen Ginsberg tries to pick up Patti after mistaking her for a boy (he doesn’t mind, and they become friends). She is a great reporter of this social whirl, level-headed and journalistic, but able to dig down into artistry too. She is engagingly un-cool, in her own telling (most would disagree), her own rags-to-riches tale relatively workmanlike compared to that of her soulmate, Robert Mappelthorpe. She looks amazing in his photos, and adores the cultural milieu, but the social side can make her uncomfortable, and in a scene so defined by homosexuality and drug use, she is a bit on the conventional side. Tony Ingrassia, who directed her in two plays, calls her out on this:
Tony and I had a heated exchange that ended with him incredulous with laughter. ‘You don’t shoot up and you’re not a lesbian. What do you actually do?’
What she actually does, while the stars of New York swan around being fabulous, is work. Both in the prosaic sense, to support herself and Robert, and in the artistic one. She has a surprisingly religious attitude to creativity:
Robert […] never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.
Just Kids as a whole is not a book with a religious message (Robert is conflicted about his Catholicism, but mainly in relation to how his family see him), so this stands out.

As does this:
Harry Smith suddenly materialised, as if he had disengaged from the wall. He had wild silver hair, a tangled beard, and peered at me with bright inquisitive eyes magnified by Buddy Holly glasses. He shot animated questions that overlapped my answers. ‘Who are you do you have money are you twins why are you wearing a ribbon around your wrist?’
The longest section of the book is called ‘Hotel Chelsea’, as Patti and Robert live in this famed artistic centre for a while, and retain links to it (such as using its toilets and showers) when they move into a loft space nearby. Harry is the most Chelsea Hotel character imaginable, with his great archive and his idiosyncratic ways, alternately waspish and avuncular.
Harry was also an expert at string figures. If he was in a good mood he would pull a loop of string several feet long from his pocket and weave a star, a female spirit, or a one man cat’s cradle.
Who wouldn’t want him for a neighbour?


Warning: don’t read the Kindle edition, like I did, if you want to see the book’s pictures, as they are left out. A bit of an omission for a book largely about a photographer.

No comments:

Blog Archive