Friday, March 22, 2013

Patti Smith: The patron saint of leaving home

Rock and roll was the canopy of our cultural voice. [It was] striving to be a universal language... To be an artist was to see what others could not. Patricia Lee "Patti" Smith

Years ago, Robert Fripp did a solo signing event for King Crimson in the record shop of his family village of Wimborne Minster, Dorset. Two lads from a fledgling band brought him their demo and were eager for suggestions on how to make it in the business. Fripp's advice: Have you considered moving to London? Nobody goes trawling through the village greens looking for new talent, he said. They're not coming for you; Go to them.

Patti Smith knew this. And if even in that moment when she boarded the train from South Jersey to New York City she wasn't sure what the question was, she knew that to be in the throbbing heart of the dirty city was the only answer. Her Catholic girl's version of the Siddharthrian tale of leaving home is as much at the heart of her National Book Award winning Just Kids as her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Despite the difficulties and privations she would inevitably encounter, including sleeping on the streets, she never considered going back. This aspect of Just Kids makes for the much more interesting story.

Whether you have any interest in Patti Smith, her music, writings, etc. or not––or even Robert Mapplethorpe––it doesn't matter; anyone who's ever wanted to leave the stifling cozy of the 'burbs for the big dirty city will understand. If you need celebrity markers, she's got 'em: she drops marquee names like starvation pounds––Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol––and her own little black book of exes is equally impressive––Jim Carroll, Allen Lanier (Blue Öyster Cult), Sam Shephard. As both artist and muse her ability to be in the right place at the right time proves nearly preternatural. Though, as readers will learn, every door the universe pushes open for her was earned by extreme dedication. This is one of the book's two most important lessons; The other: To never make a Plan B.

Interestingly, for young travelers of today Smith advises not to bother with New York. The Disney-fied city is not the place it once was for artists. And speaking of Disney-fication, she's presently developing Just Kids as a screenplay. As for the book itself, the story begins somewhere after high school and ends as Smith's legitimate musical career begins when she's signed by Clive Davis. Beyond the celebrity names and its supplement to the lore of the 60s and New York City, it was at Mapplethorpe's urging that she write the story. Mapplethorpe, for his part, was mostly a rake. The fact that he stayed back at the apartment while she paid the rent is another retelling of the drummer's girlfriend tale. The fact that he could love her without all the messiness of sexual attraction is his only saving grace. That, and his apparent talent. Had he not been such an early casualty of the AIDS era, it's possible that Mapplethorpe's star may've burned brighter, certainly longer. Now, 30 years later, his work still holds its market value. In the visual language of his photographs, the bleeding testicle and the calla lily are aesthetically equivalent. Content-wise, his particular brand of celebrity portraiture, fascination with S and M and drag, and his tonally obsessed nudes may all be a little footnote heavy (a mix of Edward Weston, Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Baroque era still lifes, and classical statuary). The trail he is most credited with blazing is in his treatment of sadomasochistic subject matter. He pulled it out of the aura of spectacle and approached it as clinically and affectionately as any Baroque painter's still life. Many critics, like The Guardian, have gushed over him. His flower pictures are certainly fetish beautiful and he definitely deserves full credit for elevating the image of Smith's unsmiling visage to the iconic.

Of the many pre-rock goddess jobs Smith held, perhaps most significant was her scribing for CREEM magazine. Many of CREEM's writers have since become legendary––Lester Bangs, Cameron Crowe––and others would come to define the form itself––Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, Richard Meltzer, Lisa Robinson. Just about anybody who was anybody among the critic-arati appeared in its pages (even Smith bandmate Lenny Kaye). Anyone reading CREEM in the 70s would've seen gallons of unctuous ink spent on Smith. The release of Horses was practically heralded in its pages. Though, their zealotry may've had an element of the self-serving purpose of aggrandizing one of their own (other of its writers would join bands themselves, notably Richard Meltzer [VOM] and Lester Bangs [Birdland, The Delinquents] with far less promising results). What Smith did offer the world, and what the critics may've loved most about her, was not just her passion and commitment for her own work but her healthy respect for the tradition of rock and roll they were writing about.

As an artist, Smith borrowed heavily from this tradition as the basis for her own music. In the book she explains how she sees rock standards as the lingua franca of our time. As side one of Horses begins with the stunning opening line "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" which she then alloys onto Van Morrison's much familiar Gloria chorus as if she were sourcing Shakespeare or the Bible. It was a trick Smith would employ often, revisiting songs like Hey Joe, Land of a Thousand Dances, Time Is on my Side, So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star, My Generation, and Smells Like Teen Spirit and treating them all like a foundation for the rebuilding of the rock temple while adding new lines of her own. Despite the hallowed praise from the press, some of her own heros were less sanguine: While Smith often spoke eloquently of the significance of The Rolling Stones, The Stones didn't repay the favor––Mick Jagger would famously say he didn't care much for her.

Patti Smith may've been our truest psychedelic professor, our deepest poetic rock and roll encyclopedia, and one of the best theorists from the inside we've ever had. Just Kids formally establishes Patti Smith as one of her generation's elder statespersons and an invaluable cultural resource. Fortunately for us, she survived to tell the tale.

I can't wait for the next book.

Download: Hey Joe (A-side of Piss Factory single, 1974)
Download: My Generation (Live @ the Bottom Line w/ John Cale, 1975)

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