Monday, December 30, 2013

Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe, just '60s kids in the Village

"I was a dreamy somnambulent child. I vexed my teachers with my precocious reading ability paired with my inability to apply it to anything they deemed practical. One by one they noted in my reports that I daydreamed far too much, was always somewhere else. Where that somewhere was I cannot say, but it often landed me in the corner sitting on a high stool in full view of all in a conical paper hat." (Patti Smith)

The young, daydreaming wizard of southern New Jersey soon intuits that New York City is a more appropriate stage for her talents, and by the summer of 1967 Patti Smith is sleeping in Village doorways and living for art. Her bohemian dreams coincide with those already there and just as hungry. Robert Mapplethorpe is dropping LSD and already drawing his visions of the universe when they become friends, Dante and Beatrice on the Lower East Side.

Just Kids (Ecco/Harper) is a valentine to the blossoming relationship they shared and which deepened until Mapplethorpe's death in 1989. The memoir is Patti being tough and tender, romantic in the way artists often remember their own struggle, and filled with the people who made music and art their passion in New York of the 1970s. Robert's drawing and photography develops its challenging reputation as Patti begins to sing her own music, and this became a common creative bond that propels them in their personal life as much as their careers. For Patti the book allows her to wrap her troubles in dreams, even as the threadbare bohemian life becomes a distant memory through rock and roll.

As she re-traces the past, the book's real charm comes in the personal glances at Robert's life and career. His death in 1989 from AIDS and a portfolio of controversial images has made him, still, a confounding figure to many art historians. 
Just Kids allows a look at the artist as a friend and a companion, with his own troubles and dreams: he meets John McKendry, married and the curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:"John's devotion to Robert's work spilled over to Robert himself. Robert accepted John's gifts and took advantage of opportunities that John opened up for him, but he was never interested in Robert as a romantic partner. John was sensitive, volatile, and physically fragile, qualities that would not attract Robert. He admired (John's wife) Maxime, who was strong and ambitious with an impeccable pedigree. Perhaps he may have been cavalier with John's feelings, for as time went on, he found himself entangled within a destructive romantic obsession."

The savvy curator and the romantic bohemian are a good match: "John McKendry could not have given Robert a better gift than the tools he needed to devote himself to photography," Smith goes on. "Robert was thoroughly smitten, obsessed not only with the process, but also its place in the arts."

This is a carefully-written and nicely detailed memoir, more gracefully artful than gratuitously salacious, although there is ample opportunity to read between the well-phrased line. Patti writes of the first musician she knew: "I never knew if his speedy speech patterns reflected amphetamine use or an amphetamine mind. He would often lead me up blind alleys or through an endless labyrinth of incomprehensible logic. I felt like Alice with the Mad Hatter, negotiating jokes without punch lines, and having to retrace my steps on the chessboard floor back to the logic of my own peculiar universe."

For the girl who loved Motown and r & b, New York in the 1970s became the land of a thousand dances as she wanders in and out of the music and poetry scenes that are quickly developing. The names and locations are already familiar, from nights at the Chelsea Hotel to CBGBs. Robert is on his own trajectory, but together Patti and Robert became so entwined that Patti's marriage to Fred Smith, in 1979, sent an unexpected tremor of apprehension between the two of them. "What about us?" Robert asks. "My mother still thinks we're married." Patti hasn't considered that. "I guess you'll have to tell her we got a divorce." "I can't say that," Robert shoots back. "Catholics don't divorce."

And like the good Catholic boy who's being bad, Robert understood his work wasn't meant for everyone, and he went out of his way to show it. His first hard-core photos were in a portfolio, marked with an X, and placed in a glass case for viewing only to those over eighteen years of age. Once these images became public, he didn't hide from the eventual storm of protest and notoriety, although they formed a fraction of his work. 

Soon enough there were more important personal issues -- he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. The story is an old and eternal one: in Just Kids, passion, art, and love are redeemed by youth. If the outlines are familiar, the book is told with enough toughness to avoid being overly sentimental.

As Robert wanes, the operatic overtones of their artful romance are often leavened by Patti and Robert with wit and humor, even to the end. After his death, as his belongings are sold at auction, Patti can't make herself attend the sale, afraid she couldn't bear to watch. She recalls a phrase Robert used if he obsessed about something he couldn't have: "I'm a selfish bastard. If I can't have it I don't want anyone else to." Patti has given readers no small gift by sharing her continuing love and affection for Robert with the rest of us.

December 30 is Patti's birthday; in William Burroughs' rare admiring phrase, the poet/performer is still a "rock'n'roll shaman" at 67.

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