Monday, 2 April 2012

Patti Smith: Just Kids Review - The Birth of an Artist(s)

Do all great artists need creation myths? Reading this excellent semi- autobiography of Patti Smith ostensibly about her symbiotic relationship with controversial artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe but also about her (re) emergence as a musical icon from the scuzzy sexy New York of the 1970s I wondered. For there are many passages in here where I wasnt sure if it was truth, exaggeration or fiction: at one level it doesn't matter because the art stands apart and may or may not have had such a genesis.

So whether a young Patti had a chat with Jimi Hendrix on the stairs a few months before he died, whether Allen Ginsberg made a pass at her in a diner because he thought she was a he or whether she shared bon mots with William Burroughs in the Hotel Chelsea (actually believed that) is neither here nor there. In the world she was in that could have happened and it could have help her create the original masterpiece of Horses.

What is most touching and true is her account of her remarkable relationship with Mapplethorpe - the work is bookended with memories of hearing of his death from the distance of her new life and world in the late 80s. Yet for the majority of the period looked at they are almost "twins". You could almost say soul mates if that term hadnt been terminally destroyed by god awful internet dating adverts .

They run into each other almost by accident refugees in the underworld of NYC and bind together for survival. Again there is a whiff of mythology about exactly how they meet but their initial life together is a believable bond. I like the way their initial meagre surroundings are made palatable by their artistic impulses with little design touches and ornaments which they share with each other. Although they seem to start off as lovers in a fairly conventional early twenties relationship this is not really maintained as Mapplethorpe embraces his sexuality more fully, having as is the American way come from a fairly repressed military/religious background. He even has a period of working as a male prostitute when together with Patti before embarking upon lasting male relationships. They share a living space and a bed for much of this period - including a couple of years in a Chelsea hotel bedroom with a shared bathroom. As their Art develops their relationship deepens but becomes something different - they live in separate parts of the same studio. Patti develops a relationship with a guy out of Blue Oyster Cult who she also lived with, they contemplated having her as the singer of the band fact fans! and in a very well written bit an encounter/fling with Sam Shepherd - the actor/playwright.

The art that each engage with is almost interchangeable - I get a sense that they were both experimenting with which medium they felt more comfortable with. Patti always is writing poetry in particular but paints and has an eye for books and design. Robert begins as a designer of jewellery goes into visual art with a focus on collages particularly of gay pornography (there seems to be a theme!) and finally - and famously - Photography which he initially only tentatively embraces. I think it is significant that the launchpad for both comes around the Horses album which Robert M took the iconic photos with.

Mapplethorpe also has a small obsession with Warhol and entourage though Patti is a little less committed - she likes artists who shake up their time not merely document it. Though this is the late 60s early 70s period Warhol where he is more or less in hiding following the SCUM assassination attempt. So that is strange a lost movement of drag queens, male models and wannabees hanging around nightclubs and bars waiting for their leader who never shows up.

Though through this world Smith sees the Velvet Underground, Hendrix, Joplin and famously in her eyes Jim Morrison who in her eyes showed her that she could become a musical performer. These are intertwined with her love of Rimbaud, whose trip to Abyssinia inspired her second album. In echoes of Dylan's autobiography she mentions key musical tracks through this time which are versatile - heavy roots reggae along New York Doo wop - and all worth a listen. One amazing find for me which was her soundtrack in part of the 70s was a pan-pipe album from Morocco produced by Brian Jones.

Danny Baker, of all people, gave an interesting analysis of Punk on an interview I watched recently stating that the 70s was an amazingly productive musical period and Punk was the last throw of this - following Bowie, Krautrock, Reggae, New York, soul etc etc. It was in contradiction to the Year Zero manifesto of the London Punk movement of MacLaren/Pistols/Clash etc. Patti S with her broad appreciation of musical form and language through poetry is clearly an argument for the former. Her description of creating her first recording of a Hendrix track, Hey Joe, with Tom Verlaine and Lenny Kaye is spellbinding. Even cliches of rock biographies like how she gets her band together and the tracks on the first album have a new perspective. She also explains how she wanted to integrate political protest into her work - something Robert M shied away from. Her later work is only really skirted over - maybe for another bio although I dont think she would be interested in doing a musical chronology which had no real theme.

The work with the exception of the foreword and ending is very linear though - one experiment Dylan did with his Chronicles was to be episodic - dip in and out of times jump back and forward. I thought that worked well and would have liked to see Patti S try this method. But this is a more stylistic criticism than content.

Being an analysis of her closest adult relationshop - they even look spookily similar in some photos mortality is central to the work. Death is something which is all around Patti S work - the musicians that died young, her husband who she nursed before he died, her brother and numerous casualties around the NY scene. But touchingly it is the dying of Mapplethorpe with AIDS which seems to have the most profound effect. Her pursuit to wake the dead is "the one that burns most deeply".

So it's a book about growing up, life long relationships, death and art. And great music. What more do you need.