Saturday, October 08, 2011

Travel Reading: "Just Friends"

I'm reading "Just Kids,"  by Patti Smith.   It's kind of unusual travel reading for me, because normally I tend towards history, or if it's about someone's life, it's usually a biography, not really a memoir.  In fact, it's one of the few memoirs I've ever read - if you don't count Hakuin.  But I figured the woman who could write "We worship the flaw. The belly.  The mole on the belly of an exquisite whore. You spare the child and spoil the rod I have not thrown myself to god"  could put together compelling prose too. That's true.

It's an interesting comparison, Hakuin and Patti Smith.  Smith's book must have been quite a cathartic experience for her, since it is so honest and raw.  Much as I admire Hakuin, I can't say he ever moved me emotionally the way Smith does.

I never crossed paths with Patti Smith - a friend from high school once met her on the subway at 2 in the morning somewhere in downtown NY.  But her story is in some ways very much a story that rings true of a subset of New York at a time and place in the same way that Goodfellas does (with different subsets of course).  Both subsets ring true for me because I've observed both of them; the latter as a Long Island kid who lived in a South Shore neighborhood that was really "Brooklyn  continued by other means."  The Gambinos lived a few miles away.  Regarding Smith's milieu,  I used to share an apartment with a guy who was in a band who schlepped to CBGB from the Island every week for one or two nights a week to play in his reggae band. I know people that went to Pratt. 

But I was but a tourist comparatively speaking.  In the time frame when Smith and Mappelthorpe were starving in Manhattan I was in grammar school - and the lower middle class lifestyle my parents chose to lead reflected something in-between Smith's and Mapplethorpe's families, but culturally closer to the latter. But byy the time my friends were playing CBGB's it was the late 70s, I was out of college, and making a fairly decent living that never really allowed me discomfort.  I just dropped in whenever I had the opportunity.  Whatever discomfort I later had, due to my own ignorance, happened only much later, when I was doing my doctoral thesis.  And her telling the tales of Manhattan ring true because in my lifetime there it was possible to bump into all kinds of people; the famous, the movers and shakers, the artists, the bums, the grifters, were all crowded onto that tiny island and still are.  

Much of Smith's and Mapplethorpe's ideas of art as they speak of it seem sort of repugnant to me; though oddly enough the religious iconography phase of theirs I could well understand.  I came to a similar appreciation, as did one of my best friends, who experimented with iconography in comic strips.  He sort of drew R. Crumb meets the Orthodox iconographic artists. Regarding Mapplethorpe, I don't believe there was much esthetically in what he did until he started with that photography thing, which eventually became the meme that made Mark Wahlberg's career.

But there's a lot I don't get about a lot of art.  I do agree with Patti Smith's assessment of Warhol. I don't care much for Campbell's soup and I don't care much for the cans.   I also realize that there's tremendous skill involved in the creation of art;  as my experiments with Eastern calligraphy reveal in the absence of any kind of skill on my part (that should not be read as any kind of boast.)

I've had mixed feelings about Smith over the years; she clearly has undeniable power as a poet, able to invoke shamanistic incantations visible on the printed page; her poetry must be read aloud, and represents to me as well a genre of music that both pointed out the poverty of rap music and its potential.  But I'm no expert there either.

Smith's endorsement of Ralph Nader revealed to a a deep naivete present in her thinking, and you can see that naviete was there all along, and she pretty honestly lays out what she is aware of in that department from her former life.  But her talents at their best provide absolution for that, and in the naivete department I've been known to be quite clueless too, from time to time.

One thing also must be stated about this memoir: it is quite apparent that Smith and Mapplethorpe hungrily  clawed their way to the top of their field and put their entire existences into what they did.   That strength of will is quite moving.  I don't know if my modest career success would have been better if I had starved more in my life, but clearly deprivation and will were very good to Smith and Mapplethorpe.  There's a political lesson there somewhere, too.

There is so much I don't know; so many worlds and existences and universes outside my awareness, and even though there are deep resonances with the New York of the 60s-80s, I was not  largely  not of that world, nor was I completely alienated from it.  But I'm grateful to be reminded of the times in which I lived, even if echoed in people that socially speaking, were as connected to me as the Tasaday.

There is so much I don't know.  But I am so grateful to have been near what I don't know.


UncleMeat said...

NewYawk---the ugly buildings, the sports-apes, stadiums , Ahht, rocker-beat-freaks, gangsstas--should be like...disappeared. We're not for an actual bomb, sedation and then demolishing begins. Works for SF and LA too, and many other urban ratholes

Mumon said...

Obviously you've never lived there.

UncleMeat said...


Though you sound like another zen-lite nihilist, alas, like fraud-in-chief Jobs