Wednesday, June 2, 2010

June Book Review

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@Barrie Summy

I was tempted to post something called "Check in here for all your bad-blogger excuses." But it's Book Review Club time, so I won't bore you with my tales of woe. Just as a hint: They involve spider mites, organic fertilizer, and Sears Roebuck & Co.

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Just Kids
By Patti Smith
HarperCollins, 2010

They were kids, sure, but there was no “just” about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

“Why can’t I write something that would awaken the dead?” Smith asks at the end of this absorbing, gut-wrenching memoir. She can’t do it for herself—all she has left of her friend and soul mate is a lock of his hair, mementoes, and photographs. But for us she has re-awakened both Mapplethorpe and the time he inhabited.

Smith is most famous as a punk-rock star, but she also has published five books of poetry and shown drawings, silk screens and photographs. In 2005, the French Republic named her Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. Mapplethorpe’s beautiful, raw photographs were among the work targeted for indecency by Sen. Jesse Helms and others out to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts. That was in 1989, the year Mapplethorpe died of AIDS.

More than half of Smith’s book is devoted to five years when she and Mapplethorpe were a couple and barely scraping together enough money for art supplies. Those were dogged, creative, reckless, brave years, described with tenderness and essential honesty, although probably artistic license too.

Smith and Mapplethorpe met on the streets of New York in 1967, the Summer of Love. Smith was twenty, a middle-class, Rimbaud-loving Jersey girl who’d gotten pregnant, given the child up for adoption, and dropped out of teachers’ college to head for Manhattan and the world. (“Nobody expected me. Everything awaited me.”) Mapplethorpe, also twenty, had grown up on Long Island, loved making necklaces, and was determined to be famous, most likely for his art.

Their meeting and first years together embody both the innocence and the decadence of the Sixties, as well as the crazy courage of youth. Smith landed in New York with not a penny to her name, and survived her first days there by learning to dumpster-dive and sleep on somebody’s front stoop. She landed a cashier’s job at Brentano’s, and while she waited for her first paycheck she slept on her coat in the store and trolled other employees’ coat pockets for change. Mapplethorpe was hardly better off, although cannier.

They became a couple the night they met, and stayed that way, more or less, even after he’d discovered, wrenchingly for a Catholic boy, that he was gay. Together, they survived increasingly dire living circumstances and poverty so intense that a day’s single meal sometimes consisted of day-old cookies from a friendly bakery. Over time, Smith became the chief wage-earner, adept at peddling flea-market finds on the rare-book circuit in addition to her bookstore work. Mapplethorpe worked odd jobs but also turned tricks, as much for self-immolation as for wages.

All the while, they were making art in a vibrant city, surrounded by other artists. One time, when a local automat raised the price of a sandwich by a dime Smith didn’t have, the poet Allen Ginsburg bought it for her and shared her table, thinking she was an exceptionally pretty boy. Eventually, Smith and Mapplethorpe landed at the Chelsea Hotel, rubbing elbows with the up-and-coming artists, writers and musicians of the day. Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, and Jimi Hendrix frequented the bar off the lobby.

Mapplethorpe found his medium, photography. Smith, to her astonishment, began to transform her poems into songs. They drifted apart as a couple, and both found other mates. But they always remained touchstones, muses, and alter-egos.

Others have written of those times and similar journeys. What makes the difference here is the unembellished rhythm of Smith’s prose, her deadpan sense of humor, her erudition, and her unflinching sense of truth—all the more endearing when she mixes in a certain amount of myth. (Was she really the first to call Janis Joplin “Pearl”? Who cares?) She may be more honest than she wanted to be—Mapplethorpe, her “youth cloaked in light,” comes across as a self-obsessed hustler as well as an artistic genius.

“Nobody sees as we do, Patti,” Mapplethorpe tells Smith during the Chelsea years. Self-aggrandizing, sure, especially in that environment. But probably not far from the truth.