Patti Smith F—in’ With The Past
(with due respect to Doug Heselgrave who beat me to the punch with his excellent ND review, here’s my own take written last week and finally posted now …)
Just Kids by Patti Smith
The first time most of us living outside lower Manhattan were exposed to Patti Smith was likely her indelible 1976 appearance on Saturday Night Live. She wore what appeared to be Charlie Chaplin’s trousers, Keith Richards’ hair, an oversize white dress shirt, thrift shop black tie askew, a delinquent’s sneer with accompanying chip on her shoulder. The only thing she lacked was the kind of polished vocal instrument we’d become accustomed to hearing from anyone daring to climb onstage or in front of a camera, but she more than compensated for that with startling charisma and one of the great entry lines into the popular imagination: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” I was 13 at the time, but my bewildered reaction was this: Who gave her permission to do that?
The source of Smith’s artistic evolution is detailed in her recently-published memoir, Just Kids, which traces her late 60s, late adolescent drift to New York, where she slept in parks and doorways, nearly starved, scrabbled for book store work and tried to focus her early determination to be an artist of some unspecified sort. Her primary support during those times – both emotional and artistic – was Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met by chance as he was likewise grappling with a then shapeless creative spark. Just Kids takes its title from a remark Smith heard some tourists make about the couple, but in this brief, deeply-felt book Smith portrays the two of them as possessed by an enabling, child-like naïve self-belief. The two were lovers prior to Mapplethorpe’s tortured (and ultimately liberating) realization about his sexuality. They remained roommates and friends, but what becomes clear through Just Kids is that their audacity and sustaining tenacity was their greatest collaboration. It enabled Mapplethorpe to find his direction as a photographer and Smith to summon the nerve to climb onstage and recite her poetry accompanied by guitarist Lenny Kaye – a partnership that would catalyze into their epochal work as the Patti Smith Group.
Their saga is set against a backdrop of a then-crumbling Manhattan, where the grind of crime and urban decay had so depressed property values that Mapplethorpe and Smith could secure a giant loft for a few hundred dollars and a promise to clean up after the previous derelict tenant who had passed away in the space. It was a time when Smith could mingle in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel with William S. Burroughs or Allen Ginsberg or hang out with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin before they headed up to perform at the Woodstock festival. Along the way, Smith connects with a young Sam Shepard (then a rising playwright and drummer with the Holy Modal Rounders), Basketball Diaries author (and future poet turned rocker) Jim Carroll, Americana archivist Harry Smith, the last dregs of Warhol’s Factory scene and the nascent punk crowd coalescing around the Velvet Underground’s residency at Max’s Kansas City. She recounts those relationships without a tone of gushy namedropping; these were her peers and friends and they are part of her and Mapplethorpe’s story and it’s told with a kind of humility and the precise choice of language you’d expect from a poet of Smith’s talent.
Early on, Smith recounts going to see The Doors at the Fillmore East and describes being puzzled by her own reaction.
“I remember this feeling much more clearly than the concert. I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would ever be possible, yet I harbored that conceit. I felt both kinship and contempt for him.”
That complicated reaction finally answers the question posed by that appearance 34 years ago on Saturday Night Live. Like many great artists, Patti Smith gave herself permission to become Patti Smith.