Whether a memoir or an act of romantic self-mythologization, Patti Smith’s book is a sensitive evocation of her and Robert Mapplethorpe’s entwined histories in the sixties and seventies as they struggled to make their way as artists. The Bildungsroman seems destined for the screen.
When I heard that Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids had won the National Book Award, my reaction was similar to learning that Mel Gibson’s Braveheart had won the Oscar for Best Picture. A friend and I had laughed our way through the film, flabbergasted by its facile script, clichéd narrative and characterizations, and most of all by the swaggering ambition of the director/star in the lead role, guiding his mount through artificially constructed battle scenes with an air of unearned grandeur. The bombastic, grandiose epic was so bad that we felt certain the award had been some kind of insider Hollywood payola, otherwise it was inexplicable.
The recognition of Smith’s memoir, about her determination to become a poet/musician and her romance and friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in New York in the late sixties and seventies, seemed dubious for different reasons. It wasn’t just that her self-portrayal as a bookish bohemian intellectual didn’t chime with my sense of her as a raucous punk rocker, but rather that the entire account seemed more an act of fiction than nonfiction.
I understand that a memoir is not merely a stringing together of autobiographical facts, but also the author’s reflection on them. The writer is expected to digress and expatiate a bit. But, reading Just Kids I repeatedly needed to ask myself, how could she possibly remember in such detail these episodes and scenarios from 40 and more years ago?
To take one example, Smith recounts not just that at a specific time on a specific date she put on a specific outfit and strolled down a particular street towards a particular diner where she ordered a particular sandwich and drink. She also describes the sequence of storefronts she passed along the way, the contents of the window displays, and the character of the sky above. In addition, she recalls not only eye movements, facial expressions and conversations verbatim, but thought processes – and not only hers, but Mapplethorpe’s, as well. This makes for a compelling read, but Smith unspools her long-ago experiences with such specificity that it challenges credulity.
At 92nd Street Y on February 16 she read from her book a passage about taking a bus to Philadelphia on a specific date in 1967 to see the statue of Joan of Arc, a suitably charged destination for a future feminist. But, did Smith really plan a trip to Philadelphia expressly to see Emmanuel Frémiet’s gilded equestrian statue of Saint Joan facing the parkway below the city’s Art Museum acropolis? The story rings false to me, like revisionist self-romanticizing history, but who knows?
In another passage she describes Mapplethorpe having taken LSD and waiting for it to take effect. He notices the blood coursing in the veins on his hands, slips into a series of thoughts and memories that Smith enumerates in detail, and finally tries to stand up but his legs are asleep. It’s a plausible scenario, but Smith wasn’t there. And she makes no pretense that Mapplethorpe recounted this subjective experience to her.
I was hopeful that Smith’s talk would offer some insights to her creative process and locate her text along the fiction-nonfiction spectrum. Had she kept journals that aided her? When the audience was invited to submit questions on index cards, I scrawled, “Talk about your use of journals. What was in them and how much does the text rely on them?” And to my surprise, my question actually was among those addressed to her on stage. She had answered all the others, but when mine was read to her she muttered, “Skip that. Go to another.” Why had she refused to answer the question?
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Perhaps she felt that an explanation about the technical aspects of the writing would have taken away from the book’s air of effortless heartfelt reverie. Or maybe she sensed that a proper answer would have disrupted the casual mood of an evening devoted to her reading passages from her book and singing a few songs (with her sideman Lenny Kaye and former lover Sam Shephard on guitars). Whatever the reason, her failure to explain how she came up with such precise recollections left me wondering if the text should be regarded as a memoir or as an act of imagination.
My conclusion was that the factual matters in the book — names, dates, events – are like sharply delineated flowers in the foreground of an impressionistic landscape: the facts enhance the authenticity of what is essentially a poetical rendering, in this case, of the author’s life and her appreciation of her dear friend.
There is nothing wrong with assembling reminiscences and enhancing them in order to more fully conjure a past era. Smith’s use of poetic license, if we may call it such, allows the reader to enter into her and Mapplethorpe’s shared lives and states of mind more dramatically than had she limited her account to the more generalized recollections we tend to have after four decades. It also makes the story more readily adaptable to the screen, which seems not to have been too far from her mind in writing it. But if the book is not a strictly factual account, should it be described as a memoir or as an act of carefully constructed mythmaking?
Whatever its relationship to truth, her book succeeds in evoking the struggling life of two fledgling artists in the ferment of late sixties Manhattan. She crosses paths with everyone from Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix to Salvador Dali and Allen Ginsberg, and has an engaging vignette for each. There are brief but penetrating cameos of Metropolitan Museum photography curator John McKendry and the collector Sam Wagstaff. She says of the latter, “He was rich yet unimpressed with wealth. Knowledgeable and enthusiastically open to provocative concepts, he was the perfect advocate and provider for Robert and his work.”
Smith tells a sweet story about how she met Ginsberg. She was buying a sandwich from a self-serve window in the Automat, and after scrounging up the change and putting it in the slot she discovered that the price had gone up. A voice from behind her offered to help. It was Ginsberg, and he gave her the balance and also bought her a cup of coffee. When they sat down he talked a bit about Whitman and after a brief conversation he had a minor revelation and asked, “Are you a girl?” She replied, “Yes, is that a problem?” He said no, but that he had thought she was a pretty boy. It’s a wonderful story, whether it’s true or not.
Of course, Smith is best known as a musician, and rather than risk disappointing her audience by lingering too long on her book (as the audience felt Steve Martin did in his recent talk at 92Y) she entertained with a few songs. Kaye and she have worked together 40 years – she sings and often writes the lyrics, and he plays rhythm and adds a few modest solos and occasional backup vocals. Shephard did a couple of country blues songs on his own. They came off like simple folk singers, not much more than you’d hope for listening to self-taught dabblers playing around the campfire.
I know that Smith has a loyal following of Baby Boomers with a fondness for hits like Gloria, Because the Night, Dancing Barefoot, Frederick, and so on, but her musicianship always seemed mediocre to me. Her voice is sometimes affecting, but the lack of complexity in her song structures and her sophomoric lyrics are amateurish, redeemed only partly by her band’s driving rhythm.
She quotes herself telling Mapplethorpe, “I don’t want to sing. I just want to write songs…I want to be a poet, not a singer.” Mapplethorpe had it right: it turns out she’s an okay singer, but no poet. Smith seems not to care. She’s always laid on a lot of anti-establishment attitude as a substitute for musical skill. Though I share the anti-establishmentarian impulse, the whole Punk scene never appealed to me. The players’ ambition and self-regard far outweighed their talent and achievement.
Mapplethorpe, however, did produce original and beautiful photographs. His classicizing studies of the body, his anthropomorphic flower still lifes, his wild self-portraits, and his unprecedented explorations of sado-masochism and aspects of homoeroticism assure him a place in the annals of photography. We may never know the degree to which Smith’s Bildungsroman is a memoir or an exercise in self-fashioning, a documentary or a fantasy, but I enjoyed its portrayal of her and Mapplethorpe’s entwined histories, and appreciate it especially for conjuring the seedbed of Mapplethorpe’s artistic sensibility.
Just Kids by Patti Smith, 304 pages, $27 hardcover, $16 paperback. Harper Collins, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-06-621131-2
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