BOOK REVIEWS

 

L.A Speedwing


Rock and Rimbaud

 

AUDIO

 

 

Patti Smith. Just Kids.
Ecco, 2010.

 

I had never heard of Patti Smith before but then again, I had never been much aware of the 60’s music scene. I was in my friend’s apartment and she was once again trying improve my knowledge of music by making me to listen to her music collection. This time it was one of her Patti Smith’s albums. To my shame, we had only listened to a few songs when I quickly dismissed the artist. My friend accepted my lack of interest with good sport and we moved on to other artists.

Two weeks later, I was back at my friend’s place when I noticed a book with a black and white cover on her table. The cover showed a man and a woman staring straight at the camera. There was something in their degree of closeness that drew me to the picture, it managed to capture something beyond the flesh, something timeless, the essence of their relationship. Without knowing who they were, I could tell that there was a kind of peaceful chemistry between them as only equals, lovers, and friends can have. She stood, dressed like a man, her hair attached like a native Indian, self-conscious yet looking straight at the camera while he stood next to her, his hat at a rakish angle, with an amused smile on his face.

“Who are those two hippies?” I asked her.

“Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe”, she replied; “that’s her autobiography”.

That’s probably what did it. The power of one image was worth a thousand words.  I reached for the book, read one passage and that was it, I was a fish captured in a net. The honesty in her words intrigued me. It did more than that. I was hooked.

I plunged myself into Patti’s world, I didn’t so much swim as sink into it. Her search for the truth within herself moved me, reassured me, awed me. She is deeply poetic in this book and her love of words is evident throughout. Apart from Robert, bookstores were her world. She worked in bookstores the way priests work for God, religiously, with a ravenous admiration for the sacred. When she didn’t work in bookstores, she wandered through them like a lost soul looking for the answer.

Her choice of title—“Just Kids”—was a nod to a comment made by an old couple as she and Robert Mapplethorpe wandered through Washington Square in the Indian summer of 1967. They overheard the old lady, who was stating to her husband, “those two look like artists”, to which the husband derisively responded, “they’re just kids”.

They were indeed just kids when they met: seventeen years old. The book retraces how they met and how they worked and influenced one another for twenty-two years. Their time together was far from glamorous: meagre meals, times of sickness, cheap clothes, not to mention long hours of work for little money. She described their small circle of friends, the bars, the cramped places, their hopes and doubts.  She also talked about the good times, their love for each other, their common passion for drawing along with their shared eagerness to transcend art. Throughout the book the streets of New York provided the backdrop, wrapping its essence around them.

As I read on, I grew more in awe of her, how she seemed to be both strong and fragile at the same time. She was very strong to continue believing that art was her path, not letting herself being influenced by drugs in the sixties (no small task), and staying true to herself. Through her eyes, I saw a world of raw beauty, things that would mean little to us, meant a lot to her. The smallest things were the most beautiful, the little objects that she and Robert Mapplethorpe made and gave to one another—from vintage photographs to tattered dresses, from original poetry books found in second-hand shops to old magazines.

 I could see the world through her eyes, as a woman, as a person who wanted to be nurtured spiritually through art, belief, love, and yet could not deny that the fact that she needed to be nurtured physically too, food, tenderness, sex.

She showed her fragility by being both lost and found. Through the book, she acknowledged who she was, yet she was unsure of what she was. She knew her needs and I liked that they were so different to the rest of us.

She lived, breathed and ate for Art—she loved poetry, drawings, photography—yet she didn’t seek fame. Art was a means to live, a glass door that she sought to open. She tried to tear down the barriers and reach for art’s potential, to go beyond the abstract plane and immerse herself in it. She didn’t shy away from that, no matter how hard it was at times. There was no lying about her personal path. It wasn’t a path full of self-confidence and determination. There was doubt, hunger and inner turmoil.

At one point, with the help of her friends, she started performing poetry. She read her poems aloud in bars. Reciting poetry in bars. Those four words sound completely alien together. It would be like asking a gastronomy chef to cook for an army. It is inconceivable to me, drunken men appreciating the beauty of words. And yet she did it, night after night, for the love of words.

Slowly with the influence of her friends, music became an added element to the performance of her poetry. She wasn’t sure how a poet should approach Rock and Roll but somehow Rock and Roll found her. It is so unusual the way she thought of it. She didn’t want her poems to be confined with the musical rhythm. She wanted the words to be the instruments, not the music itself.

Amazed by her personal journey, I decided to try listening to one of her songs. I chose “Horses”. And what a song! I thought it was the perfect representation of what she was seeking as an artist. The song started with her just speaking. Words with no music at all. “Is this going to be a spoken song all the way?” I thought. “Eight minutes of words?” But no, as the song progressed, it changed. She started singing. And this song was exactly how she explained it in her biography, the music was just a complement to the words, rather than a medium for them

The melody was accompanying her voice, which was really strange because I had assumed that when writing a song, the melody is composed first and the words follow. But for the first time, when I heard this song, I could see the words mattered first and the guitar accompaniment was secondary. As I listened, I could see that her words were not casually chosen. She was not trying to make them rhyme but chose them for aesthetic purposes. They conveyed an atmosphere, a moment in the moment. They were more than words. They were a landscape. 

In this song, her words are both loose and sharp, careless but chosen, meaningless and meaningful. Her book is the same. There is no in between with her, no compromise. And as I closed her book, I felt as if I was closing the front door of a church as you try to leave in silence and respect, hoping that you won’t disturb the people behind you. For a moment, you wish that they will find a path as clear and truthful as Patti Smith did for herself.