Friday, April 16, 2010

Patti Smith's Just Kids

Art can set us free. Art is holy. Art is love. These are the messages that rock ‘n’ roll poet Patti Smith delivers in her typically earthy, yet ecstatic style in this memoir of her youthful affair with Robert Mapplethorpe, later renowned for his black and white portraiture and homo-erotic depictions of flowers and the male body.

It would take a stony heart indeed not to be moved by this book’s last ten pages, as Mapplethorpe lays dying from AIDS-complicated disease and the resonances of his relationship with Smith gather like electrical fibres behind every word she writes.

Just Kids is framed by Mapplethorpe’s loss and a sharp lyrical reminder that, “In the end truth will be found in his work, the corporeal body of the artist. It will not fall away.”

“I was asleep when he died,” Smith writes at the very start. “I had called the hospital to say one more good night, but he had gone under, beneath layers of morphine. I held the receiver and listened to his laboured breathing through the phone, knowing I would never hear him again.”

Between his dying breaths Smith takes flight into a story of origins. Within moments we are back in her childhood, a winter scene, “vague memories, like impressions on glass plates.” Before we can grasp the impressions she describes how “A long curving neck rose from a dress of white plumage… Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement. It pattered the bright water, flapping its great wings, and lifted into the sky.”

Smith attempts to sustain this metaphor of ascension throughout Just Kids. Within the telling of her childhood there’s an equally powerful sense that this telling is less for us and more for Mapplethorpe’s departing presence. The intimacy of the writing voice, as well as its lyrical force, is that strong. Smith details her love of prayer, her desire to be a missionary like Albert Schweitzer, the death of her girlhood friend through leukemia and a funeral she could not attend as she lay in bed with scarlet fever herself. At age 19 she falls pregnant to a 17 year old boy and is forced to give her child away, swearing an oath to become a great artist in memory of her child, and setting off for New York with a copy of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations in her bag.

There is a fabled intensity to all this, and no shortage of will power and wild dreaming. Initially Smith ends up living on the street and sleeping in Central Park, but she makes her way ‘up’, falling in with the boyishly beautiful Michelangelo-obsessive called Robert Mapplethorpe. He is yet to discover photography is his true calling; she is yet to find out that she wants to sing in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Still grieving the loss of her child Smith cries so much in Mapplethorpe’s company he affectionately nick-names her “Soakie”.

Passionately in love, their relationship shifts to something akin to brother and sister as Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality and troubling flirtations with S&M begin to emerge. Smith is oddly passive about this and overly tolerant of other, later lovers’ foibles as well. It’s hard to conceive of such a personality being so weak – and inadequate to judge her that way. By book’s end her idealism and tolerance take on an unimpeachable quality strengthened by her devotion to her own work.

Most people would be familiar with Smith through her stellar albums and ritualistic live performances. Since the release of her debut recording Horses she has secured her place in a grand pantheon that includes Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen. We hear only a little of this later career, though Smith makes space for a wry street scene where her first hit ‘Because the Night’ is blasting out of a window and Mapplethorpe enviously drawls, “Patti… you got famous before me.” He well knows the song is a paen to their old love affair, that it’s the dance song he always wanted Smith to write for him.

Just Kids is unashamedly the love story of two artists being born – and never entirely torn apart. At times the gaucheness is striking, the self romanticizing hard to take, with the over-emphatic hero-worship of Mapplethorpe even more difficult to swallow. But these same irritations are qualities I came to envy. Turn a coin and what are they but furious openness, youthful being, blinding love? What major public figure is willingly this open and bold in print?

Because Horses was such a clarion call work of the punk era (if in retrospect a highly literary and sophisticated oddity too), it’s also a surprise to realize how much of a product of the late 1960s and early 1970s Patti Smith is. In her affairs with poets like Jim Carroll and rising young playwrights like Sam Shepherd, as well as her encounters with Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs and Janis Joplin, it’s possible to feel the age itself shifting and her eyes being opened. There’s an ache too, the expense of inventing yourself anew and the costs this can incur, when she observes the tragic glamour of The Factory scene and draws from Andy Warhol’s perception of its heroes and heroines as “pioneers without a frontier”.

Though it doesn’t have the mystic coherence of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume 1, Smith’s Just Kids impresses with its idealistic bravery and an adventurous heart you can’t help but succumb to, helped along, of course, by brilliant lyrical passages. Together with Don Walker’s Shots it also suggests the finest memoirs of the past few years have grown out of the rock ‘n’ roll scene, where a poetic and personal voice does not lose sight of the texture of the times and even captures it.

As a slice of personalized history and a love story you’d be hard pressed to find better. Late in the book Smith details the photo session she did with Mapplethorpe that would produce the iconic image of her that ultimately graced the cover of Horses. “When I look at it now,” she says, “I never see me. I see us.” Love’s labour never lost.

- Mark Mordue

* First published Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books, April 10-11, 2010


Elizabeth said...

Wow -- this review is exactly what I would have written if I could -- I felt nearly the same about the book as you --

I'm new to your blog and look forward to reading more of your writing.

Unknown said...

Thanks Elizabeth, much appreciated.

liz said...

In case some of you are interested, KQED's "The Writers' Block" has published an episode of Patti Smith (who just recently won the National Book Award) reading from her memoir, Just Kids: