Patti Smith

I loved The Ramones, The New York Dolls, Television and Velvet Underground.  Saw The Ramones many times.  The first time was at The Rat in Boston when they first came through, buzzing through their 30-minute sets with devastating fun.

Saw The Dolls in St. Louis.  I relished that whole scene—Talking Heads, The Real Kids, DMZ, Suicide (though I didn’t appreciate them at the time) and Richard Hell. I had a friend who knew what shows I had to see.  Thank you, Gregg.

But I never saw Patti Smith, even though she was right up there on my list.  Her voice, that underlying darkness.  Her take on things.  Her imagery, her rhythms. She didn’t give into rock formulas. The music seemed to follow her around and chase her down; she wasn’t cramming lyrics into standard formats.  She melded poetry and rhythm with that deep from-the-gut punch of a voice.  You could muck around in those lyrics.  Some lines were mumbled, made you wonder. “Horses.” “Babelogue.”  “Kimberly.”  “Til Victory.” She could swoop through seemingly light poppy reggae with a bleak storyline like “Redondo Beach” and she could rock it up in a frothy, wonderful frenzy.  Check her version of “Gloria.”

I always had the feeling that she was the observer, the interpreter and she would let us know what she saw, completely unvarnished and unfiltered.

I also always had the feeling that she was always this way, must have been born a sage.

Not quite.

In “Just Kids,” Patti Smith takes us back.  The title says it all. Just kids? I never thought of Patti Smith as a kid.  She was older, wiser, experienced.  Wasn’t she born that way? Maybe not.  “Just Kids” shows she was once wide-eyed, making ends meet, open to new friends and new experiences but very unsure, bouncing from lame job to lame job and gig to gig and stage to stage.  In “Just Kids,” Smith takes us back in time when two soon-to-be famous artists were trying a variety of pursuits, putting their lives together, knowing they needed at least some rudimentary form of income to live in New York and pushing themselves to take risks in processing the world around them into art.

“Just Kids” is a memoir, yes, but it skips like a stone across the surface of events. It’s also part tribute to Patti Smith’s soul mate, Robert Mapplethorpe, and to the bond the two fashioned.  This is memory l-i-t-e, catching the reflective sheen across the decades.

“Just Kids” focuses on how their individual art forms—poetry and music for Patti, photography for Robert—evolved.  In each of their fields, both artists pushed the envelope.  Patti is enshrined in punk lore for a reason.  She worked at it. Robert pushed the boundaries of taste, grabbed the underbelly and exposed it.  “Just Kids” tracks how the former altar boy’s approach to photography developed as he discovered himself.  Truly, it’s pretty remarkable think that a “chance encounter” led to their deep personal relationship but that’s what New York (or any big city) is probably all about.

The writing is atmospheric and breezy.  Punk scholars and historians, search elsewhere.  There are some evocative tidbits—Patti running into Jimi Hendrix, Patti with Sam Shepard, Patti with Lenny Kaye and hanging out with Todd Rundgren, Jim Carroll, Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd and many others.  (If this era of rock is of any interest to you, “Just Kids” is worth reading for the name-checking alone. If you’ve already studied or lived it, there’s probably nothing new.) Patti Smith seems to have been at the center of it all but the details are fairly sketchy—and that’s fine.  “Just Kids” is about the spirit of their friendship—like running off for a day of goofing around at Coney Island—and not encyclopedic details.

“Occasionally I read poetry at a bar, but would spend most of my allotted time sparring with drunken patrons. These experiences did much to sharpen my Johnny Carson repartee but little to advance the communication of poetry,” writes Patti.  “Lenny joined me the first time I played at the West End Bar, where Jack Kerouac and his buddies had once written and drunk, but not necessarily in that order. We made no money, but at the end of the night Jane rewarded us with a great piece of news. We had been asked to open for Phil Ochs at Max’s Kansas City in the last days of the year. Lenny Kaye and I would spend both of our December birthdays and New Year’s Eve merging poetry and rock and roll.”

I kept waiting for one big over-arching artist statement, some moment of purpose, when the point of view (for either of them) was galvanized, secured, embedded.  Alas, I suppose, art for these two was an ongoing process of evolution (as it probably should be) and neither was stuck for long.  So interesting now to hear Patti (on her recent covers disc, “Twelve”) dig back through her own mix tape and uncover some edge in some pop tunes like “The Boy in the Bubble” or “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” But then there’s her terrific take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and my favorite cover, “Changing Of The Guards.”   Patti is cool and serene throughout. “Fortune calls / I stepped forth from the shadows, to the marketplace / Merchants and thieves, hungry for power, my last deal gone down…”

Smith and Mapplethorpe were close friends until Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989. “Just Kids” is about that special bond between the two of them—and that special bond among the art crowd, the in crowd.

Speaking of which, there’s this picture in “Please Kill Me,” by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain.  The cutline: “Typical night out.”

Patti Smith dead center.  On her right, Dee Dee Ramone, Lenny Kaye and David Johansen.  On Patti’s left, Jay Dee Daugherty, Tom Verlaine and John Cale.  So much sheer talent in one snapshot.  Just a bunch out on the prowl in New York.

Just kids.

(Thank you for the pic, Bob Gruen: www.bobgruen.com.)

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One response to “Patti Smith

  1. Pingback: Patti Smith – “M Train” | Don't Need A Diagram

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