Saturday, February 12, 2011

BOOK REVIEW - Patti Smith - Just KIds

You could call this a combined autobiography and a biography. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe seem, at least from her re-telling, to have become joined at the hip from almost from the first moment they met. Both in New York, both trying to become the artists they feel themselves to be, each inspired and encouraged the other to be bold, to go further. Their early love and relationship, found them living in and out of each others rather thinly financed pockets. This life together began shaping their own unique talents.

Patti Smith appears to have been very muse like, willingly devoting herself to Mapplethorpe's talent, sometimes at a great cost to her own. She seemed to lack confidence, not quite knowing where to focus her effort, in comparison to Mapplethorpe who's impulsive instinctive temperament was somehow sure he was on the right track. Ironically it was Smith who achieved her fame first, melding her poetry with rock music, in one of the most distinctive debut albums in popular music history - Horses. With Mapplethorpe providing the iconic photo of Smith on the cover.

Mapplethorpe becomes more on the outer fringes of Smith's life as the book progresses as her fame arrives, he gradually discovers his real sexual predilections, and simultaneously the subject matter for much of his classic photography. Here Smith cannot follow him, she can seem touchingly naive and unsullied for a rock n roller. The subject matter of his photography -often sexually graphic was and still is controversial, combining classical beauty with explicitness.

Smith's writing can sometimes be sparse, sometimes richly detailed, or poetically refined,but always evocative. She captures the feeling of the times, whether its the late sixties or early seventies New York. The days of Woodstock, of Max's Kansas City, and CBGB's jump off the pages, the eccentrics. the trannies, the druggies, and the bands. Its pages are colourfully peopled with the late, and often great, Smith and Mapplethorpe seemingly colliding with many stars on either their ascendancy or decline. Whilst they lived in the Chelsea Hotel, people, now of note, but struggling then to make their name, lived literally on the same floor as them.

At times it can sound like Smith is name dropping constantly, or leaves the impression that she was some sort of guide or seminal influence on the people she met. There is a token amount of self-mythologising and reshaping of the past to more accurately predict or prefigure the present. I lost count of the number of times in the early chapters, she tells Mapplethorpe he should try photography. But, that's often the case, one refines what ones life, and the lives of others, are about through the process of retelling them. I can see why this book has garnered critical awards. She has a flair for conjuring up the zeitgeist of a period, its visual motifs , its times and places. Her verbal fluency is subtle and well crafted, avoiding the overwrought. The result has a unique beauty, a truthfulness that, though often quirky, is very grounded. A bit like Patti Smith.

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