Jun. 25th, 2011

Just Kids

Jun. 25th, 2011 04:17 pm
purejuice: (loaf-haired pats)
Just finished reading Patti Smith's Just Kids. It is astonishingly pretentious, but very, very interesting. Patti, and not her Hansel, Robert Mapplethorpe, as billed, is the star; not only from the moment she is walking down the streets of the village holding hands with Mapplethorpe when out of every loudspeaker of the record stores they pass blares the song she did with Springsteen (Because the Night).

Mapplethorpe says, Patti, you got famous before me.

In case you doubted it, there's a long chapter about her solo penniless pilgrimage to Rimbaud's home town and grave, with touches of pretentiousness -- I had a simple meal of stew, wine and bread -- all her lodging and food seem to have been freeloaded -- that are scarcely credible. Her whole Frenchification when she escapes south Jersey as a teenaged unwed mother, the whole Rimbaud deal, that whole bringing poetry to rock and roll deal, strikes me as so derriere-garde -- in the same way Hollywood is -- deeply, deeply conservative -- and in Smith's case, pretentious -- as again, to be scarcely credible. Everyone else pacing those sidewalks -- from Melville to de Kooning to Streisand to Sam Delaney -- actually was becoming themselves. Not Patti.

What is clear -- Ginsberg tried to pick her up at the Chelsea Automat, saying, I thought you were a very pretty boy -- is Mapplethorpe's attraction to the young, homeless, heterosexual Patti, and his need, in those days, to appear as part of a couple in a het social unit. He needed, as he was struggling with his sexuality, Patti on his arm even at, or especially at, Max's Kansas City, the fading Warhol hangout. There Mapplethorpe, an incredible social climber who alternated the Park Avenue drawing rooms where his Max's contacts led him to the aging homosexual sugar daddies of the Henry Geldzahler circle, with 42nd Street hustling, began his casting couch ascent of the Manhattan art hierarchies. How do you know you're not gay? Mapplethorpe asks a fellow Chelsea Hotel/hipster/hustler. Because I always take their money, says he.

Mapplethorpe didn't always, even though he was totally broke all the time. He didn't need to. He was living off Patti's munificent salary as a bookstore clerk.

Then he got a sugar daddy and Patti did too.

I kept thinking, before I read this very accurate portrayal, with tons of names dropped -- Susan Sontag bought her picture frames at the very same five and dime across from the Chelsea that Mapplethorpe and Smith did! -- and very little sense of physical description, how much I wanted to know about the Downtown Bohemia of the '60s.

Patti and Robert in a cold water walk up in Brooklyn, drawing together. Maybe he loved the boys she attracted, but he also loved her. Did she love him? Or was he the boy she picked (as we all did) so as not to start out alone in life? Could I have made it in Downtown Bohemia back then?

I think not. It was populated, very strangely, with the same very narcissistic boys -- Just one more toke, and then I'll be a rock star -- and hard-working girls, and murderous outlaws and creepy freeloaders nobody but the hard-working girls had the balls to stand up to -- that the communes were. What made me feel the worst was when Mapplethorpe starts to take his portfolio around to the museums and the galleries. He comes home to Patti and says, None of them are interested in the work. They all want to fuck me.

That's New York. I wonder if it went down the same way for de Kooning. Who totally walked the same neighborhood -- as did Melville -- this is part of the romance. It echoes very strangely the part of Streisand's early 60s' Bohemian bio, where Barbara escapes Brooklyn, and starts singing in a cabaret in the village trained, in every gesture, vowel, and phrase, by her gay guru/live-in boyfriend. These layers provided by one's own reading are perhaps the only romantic part of the Smith/Mapplethorpe tale. Even in the day of Janis Joplin's Chelsea hotel, the scene is so insistently focussed on Miss Patti that you can't remember either what Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix said to her. That the guy who jumped off the roof of the Chelsea to his death was wearing the t shirt she'd just given him is the only kind of detail you're likely to get.

She thinks Mapplethorpe was an artist, and not a gold digging hustler exploiting her androgynous Keith Richards haircut. It was the best haircut in New York. Nobody gave either one of them the time of day until Patti gave herself that hairdo, and she says so. People were always stunned to find out she wasn't a heroin addict and she wasn't a Lesbian. Telling Mapplethorpe's story, making him an artist, is strangely an act of self-reference. It makes her one, she thinks.

Just Kids, the title, is the very best part of it.


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January 2012


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