Saturday, July 16, 2011

God Bless Patti Smith

I finished reading Just Kids last night while gallery-sitting at Thunder-Sky, Inc.  It was devastatingly beautiful, precise without being perfect, compressed and controlled but expansive like a dreamy encyclopedia.  I never really thought of Patti Smith as a great rock-n-roll priestess.  I always considered her a sort of 70s belch of Rolling-Stones chic and creepy feminism.  In fact Gilda Radner's Candy Slice had replaced the real thing in my head.  I didn't know shit.  Just Kids educated me about a bookish, working-class girl who took off for the big city after dropping out of college because she got pregnant, had the baby and gave it away.  The scene Smith sets the day of her departure:  a sad drab going-away party with her family, and then she walks to the bus station and realizes she doesn't have enough money to get to the big NYC.  In despair she goes to a phonebooth in the station to call her sister, and in the booth is a little white patent leather purse with thirty bucks in it.  It is a tiny miracle that sends her on her way, and Smith delivers that miraculousness without one false note. 

Smith is a writer who can write without showing off, and yet every paragraph in Just Kids is a polished fender, pure chrome precision.  The poetry fits snugly into each moment.  She never languishes in her ability to lyricize:  she uses her lyricism to let us know what life can be.

Her depiction of Robert Mapplethorpe, her eventual best friend and lover, (and another cultural titan who in my mind had become a Bonfire of the Vanities parody -- snickering, silly/lurid 1980s bad-boy artist) releases Mapplethorpe from his own self-made cage of S&M stylizations.  He is beautiful and real and frenetic in the book, an angel with a devilish smile, trying so hard to make something of himself he makes something out of the world. 

The book chronicles Smith and Mapplethorpe's relationship as they struggle to become icons.  That alone sounds cheesy, I know, but it's true, and Smith never apologizes.  She just moves the story to its inevitable and devastating conclusion:  Mapplethorpe dying of AIDS at the peak of his success. 

Here's one of the last sentences in the book:

"So my last image was as the first. A sleeping youth cloaked in light, who opened his eyes with a smile of recognition for someone who had never been a stranger."

Nothing is better than that.  God bless Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.  I stand corrected.