My TLS Review of Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”

From The Times Literary Supplement
April 2, 2010

Lights and dark

Patti Smith has never wanted for acclaim. In 2005, she was named a Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an honour she shares with T. S. Eliot, Nadine Gordimer and Bob Dylan (Van Morrison is merely an Officier; Rudolf Nureyev a Chevalier). In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. Edmund White advances canonization: “She was once our savage Rimbaud, but suffering has turned her into our St John of the Cross, a mystic full of compassion.”

Smith, who has always worn her influences on her sleeve, carries the true flame passed down the sacred line of Blake, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet, Ginsberg, and Dylan. Her oeuvre has been a self-conscious pick-and-mix of her various influences (and the curiously limited set of symbols they have bequeathed her) just as she has ransacked the dressing-up box for her wardrobe: Dylan’s scarf, Frida Kahlo’s braids, her work uniform “from Anna Karina in Bande à Part”. For the cover of her 1975 debut album, Horses, photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe: “I threw my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style. I was full of references”. No kidding. The jumble, comprising the canon of art and literature’s renegade angels, finds coherence in this one iconic image of Smith’s unapologetic appropriation of male style. She was able to rise above the rummage, and reinvent the role of women in music, with her fusion of poetry and Rock’n’Roll – crucially, the sexy, shamanic rock of Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison (for whom she feels both kinship and contempt) rather than the more cerebral Dylanesque variety.

Her major contribution, the “illuminating addition” she constantly demands of herself in her memoir, has been to remind a new generation of the possibility of serious artistic endeavour in a cynical world; her trademark, despite the seeming affectations, is her authenticity, manifested in her utter sincerity. Just Kids, her memoir of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, is the story behind the photograph on the cover of Horses: its deeply personal history, its context, and its after-effects. It also chronicles a relationship lasting from 1967 to Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989, a life she has previously explored in The Coral Sea, a mysterious collection of short prose poems published in 2005.

The beginnings of Smith’s career saw her spice her poetry readings with electric guitar (played by Lenny Kaye, still her left-hand man forty years on). Her conscious intent was to save the souls of both poetry and music, to infuse the written word with the attack of rock’n’roll (“I did it for poetry. I did it for Rimbaud”) and to rescue rock, a genre “in danger of spiritual starvation”. Smith’s “Hey Joe” /”Piss Factory” (1974) is often cited as one of the first ever punk singles, Horses as the first Art/Punk record, and it is there that we see the emergence of a classic formula: a primitive rock beat, a slow build to frenzy, lyrics declaimed or sung in a rich gothic wail. Today’s listener may well want to take the broad view of her achievements, for much of the early material has dated as badly as its immediacy suggested it would. Her top three downloaded recordings on iTunes are “Because the Night”, a Bruce Springsteen song she revised into her only hit single, a doomy version of the carol “We Three Kings”, and “Gloria”, her cover of the Van Morrison song that merges with her poem “Oath” (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”). She is better known, perhaps, for the transformative effect she can have on someone else’s song than as a songwriter.

Before Smith met Mapplethorpe in July 1967, she had to escape a suburban upbringing “waiting for the iceman and the last of the horse-drawn wagons”. At a time when “sex and marriage were absolutely synonymous”, she gives up for adoption a child she doesn’t want, knowing that, as an unwed mother, her only choice would be which South Jersey Piss Factory she ended up in – the Columbia Records pressing plant or the Campbell Soup Company: “I would never look back. I would never go back to the factory or to teacher’s college. I would be an artist. I would prove my worth”. To buy her bus ticket to New York City, she steals money from a purse she finds in a phone booth, an act she immediately recasts as “the grant of the small white purse… the hand of fate pushing me on”. The bit players she meets in the big city appear only to guide her to her destiny. She notes of Saint, the vagabond who, having scrounged food for her the previous day, never reappears: “he had given me what I needed to keep going”. The language is typical of her solipsism and self-mythologizing. By chance, Smith meets Mapplethorpe the day she arrives in the city, only for them to go their separate ways. For the next few weeks, New York City, “shifty and sexual”, proves inhospitable: Smith finds herself “beat and hungry, roaming”, desperate for work, riding subway trains all night, a skinny thing sleeping in graveyards and doorways “trying not to wear out my unwelcome”. Her mantra, “I’m free, I’m free”, becomes “I’m hungry, I’m hungry”. When she finally lands a job at Brentano’s bookstore, she sleeps in the store on the sly. Then, on an awkward date with a stranger, she bumps into Mapplethorpe and asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend. With Mapplethorpe arrives a modicum of domesticity, at first no more than a friend’s empty house for which he knows the location of the key, but “as if it was the most natural thing in the world we stayed together”. Relying on the generosity of friends, they pool their money until they can afford their own place.

Their relationship is never less than fascinating: she, whom we know as a singer, wanted to be a poet or painter; he, who gained both fame and controversy for his highly stylized black-and-white portraits of men, sometimes in extreme sexual situations, couldn’t be bothered to be a photographer. Between them, with barely any money, they patch together the circumstances that allow them to flourish artistically. Clichés abound – they were poor but happy, great art brings its own reward, she would “awaken and find him working in the dim light of votive candles”. But despite its rosy-tint, the picture feels fresh, and the romance is tangible: with only enough money for a single ticket to an art exhibition, one goes in and describes it to the other. “Nobody sees as we do”, says the young Mapplethorpe. Just Kids is a handbook of bohemianism, a How To Be a Serious Artist for Dummies, an apologia for youthful pretension, as well as a cautionary tale for those whose heart isn’t 100 per cent in it.

Smith claims she was happy to labour away in obscurity, whereas “shy, nonverbal” Mapplethorpe is lazy but ambitious. His taste is more cerebral, his inspirations Duchamp and Warhol. Smith is clear on the point: “I hated the soup and felt little for the can”. Unsurprising perhaps, if you nearly ended up working in the factory. What did she see in him? “He was an artist and he knew it. It was not a childish notion. He merely acknowledged what was his.” In other words, she saw herself. What did he see in her? The vision he presented on Horses was of a man trapped in a woman’s body. Smith claims, to the reader’s initial disbelief, that she was shocked to discover the true nature of Mapplethorpe’s sexuality, despite the fact that “he resonated… the world of Genet’s Robert Querelle” in his sailor gear. She blames her naivety on her “narrow and provincial” outlook: she understood Genet’s gays to be a mystical race, rather than anything to do with the reality of homosexuality. It is not the only time here we see Smith failing to apply the lessons of art to real life. Mapplethorpe spends his last cent on gay pornography, earns his money as a street hustler, and regularly visits S&M clubs, but Smith believes he’s primarily concerned with the literal play of light and dark. Of the brutality of his later sadomasochistic imagery, she writes: “it was hard for me to match it with the boy I had met”.

The two share a journey that, unsurprisingly, structures itself mythically: initial innocence, troubles ahead (“Maeterlinck’s children seeking the bluebird… caught in the twisted briars of our new experiences”), a descent into hell (The Hotel Allerton on 8th Avenue, doss house for “forlorn souls who had fouled their lives”), and redemption at the bohemian Chelsea Hotel, where they run into Salvador Dalí in the lobby (he calls her “a gothic crow”), Jimi Hendrix in the bar, and Harry Smith, one of the book’s great characters, who plays them old records. There may well be exaggerations (be warned when she says of Sam Shephard “it was possible his tales were even taller than mine”): did the Allerton residents actually wave white handkerchiefs in a farewell gesture to Smith and Mapplethorpe, “children who were escaping the purgatory of their existence”? Smith’s lyrics do not necessarily communicate well from the page, nor should they be required to (although they are often printed). Like much Beat poetry, which prefers visceral stream of consciousness to the more considered technique of classical poetry, her poems sometimes seem to lack a tune and a performance. Here she has gone for something else entirely: cool, frank, spare prose that enhances, rather than dims, her romantic visions. “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead?” she asks. In Patti Smith’s world, as in Blake’s, it is an actual possibility. The reality is that she may need bass and drums to do it, but Just Kids comes as close as she ever has with the written word.

Nick Kent may dismiss Smith as someone who “always knew a good bandwagon when she jumped on one” but the two are united in their love of Bob Dylan, who in a four-word review of a latter-day Stones concert, provides Kent with his title, Apathy for the Devil, and Smith (over whose memoir Dylan’s own, Chronicles, looms large) with the belief that we are the sum of the art that moves us, not to mention the curios on her desk (“My Persian cup, my purple heart, a tray of baby teeth”) which seem more like a Dylan lyric than tangible objects. Another mutual obsession is Brian Jones of whom the teenaged Kent observed: “This was exactly the kind of person I wanted to grow up and become”. He should have known to be careful what he wished for.

Smith was a musician who dabbled in rock journalism; Kent a journalist who dabbled in music, including a very brief stint as a member of the Sex Pistols. He was at the vanguard of the new rock criticism in the early 1970s, one of the New Musical Express’s star writers, and dived in deeper than anyone, certainly than any other English writer. As Charles Shaar Murray, his NME partner-incrime, says in Inky Fingers, the 2005 documentary about the magazine, Kent was fixated upon “doomed young poets in romantic squalor”. The “new journalism” required that he get up as close as possible, become equal to the subject: “Maybe I should interview you”, Beach Boy Brian Wilson suggests during an awkward encounter, “You look more like a rock star than me”. To Kent, rock writing was an “action medium”.

And there is action, whether Kent has a “beer-caked tongue” stuck down his throat (on the second page), runs into an aggressive, stoned Bob Marley in a studio bathroom, watches Keith Richards overdose, or is set upon at the 100 Club with chains by Sid Vicious and Jah Wobble, a beating later nastily celebrated by Malcolm McLaren. In fact, Kent can lay claim to be the all-time most beaten-up journalist, not to mention the rock writer most celebrated in song: he names at least four (by Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, Adam and the Ants, and Morrissey), none of them remotely complimentary.

Unfortunately, where “recollection in tranquillity” brings out the best in Patti Smith, it does not suit Kent. Though he is never less than charming, and writes without self-pity about the low points of his own addictions, we yearn for the present tense of his earlier articles (the thrill of the journalistic chase, the awkwardness of the final interview, the Led Zeppelin story delivered to the printer on British Rail toilet paper) as collected in The Dark Stuff (1994), which remains the definitive introduction to his talents. Reading that book today, one is struck by its immediacy. The stories were being told for the first time and would never be told as well again: returns diminish. His chapter on the Sex Pistols (about whom he wrote in The Dark Stuff “Maybe you’ll wonder… why I’ve kept from documenting my own experiences with the band in a special chapter. Fuck it, they were all absolute bastards. What else do you need to know?”) is the most compelling chapter, perhaps because the material is fresh. The portrait of Malcolm McLaren is brutal and believable: Kent, once a Pistol, then pariah, was nearly Gloucestered at the 100 Club merely for publicity.

Sifting through his clippings for that earlier collection, Kent modestly denigrated his own “over-abundant stylistic flourishes, the endless unwieldy sentences, the over-emphasis on now-redundant ‘hip’ jargon”. Unfortunately, few lessons have been learnt. The ideal may still be to “create prose that flows with a distinct musicality all of its own”, to write in a way that rocks, but Kent can’t quite get with the beat. The brisk read the book seems to invite is constantly foiled. When, from the paymaster of his first job, Kent says he heard “the magic words: fifteen quid would be paid for every thousand words I could come up with”, the reader may wonder if he has the same arrangement with Faber.

But, despite the overgrowth, there is much to enjoy: good anecdotes (members of the 70s glam rock band Sweet mistaking Count Basie for a bellhop, the music manager Peter Grant terrorizing the world) and pithy descriptions (Keith Richards is “a cross between a blackened spoon and Count Dracula”). Like a Kinks lyric, Kent is best when he focuses on the details (his father feeling the valves of the television to see if young Nick’s been watching Ready, Steady, Go! on the sly) and worst when making sweeping statements about the “zeitgeist pendulum”.