by wjw on November 9, 2017

just-kids200_custom-d0ba3712447b922dfab31b3d3a9be2723d95aaa8-s300-c85I’ve spent six of the last seven days either traveling to the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio, or attending, or traveling home.  I’m very tired now, and in retrospect I probably shouldn’t have tried quite so hard to have a good time.

My reading on the trip out was Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe.  The memoir is kind and loving, and it gets a few things just right, particularly the way a certain type of literary kid sees everything through the prism of reading.

If you’re a reader when you’re growing up, you read about every one of life’s important transitions well before you get to experience it yourself, and places in the world develop associations that have to do not so much with the place itself, as with the images of the place found in books.

So when Patti Smith traveled for the first time to Paris, it wasn’t to see Paris-in-itself so much as to see the Paris of Rimbaud and Baudelaire (and Jim Morrison), just as I went to London to see the London of Byron, Shakespeare (and Michael Moorcock).

I don’t look at London that way now, because I’ve lived long enough to have experienced the parts of the world that don’t come off a page, and I’ve been to London enough times to have generated my own associations.  It’s my own London now.  I’m guessing Patti Smith now has her own Paris.

Smith also gets the obsession thing right, which you would expect, her being Patti Smith an’ all.  She does things that would be very brave, if only she had the choice.  She moved to New York at 20, slept for weeks in Central Park, lived in squalor with Mapplethorpe and without him, and talked her way into the smallest, cheapest room at the Chelsea.

These might be courageous, but courage requires choice.  The fight-or-flight response kicks in, and you do one or the other.  But Patti Smith wasn’t brave through choice, she was brave because her circumstances and her own Patti Smithness compelled her to do things that might, incidentally, be brave.  She was so focused on bringing Patti Smith into being that she was oblivious to nearly everything else, including danger.  (On her return from Paris, she hears about Apollo landing on the Moon.  She barely notices, and doesn’t care.)

There’s one story I’d like to know a little more about.  When she was first in New York, working at Brentano’s Bookstore, cadging food, and sleeping in Central Park because her job didn’t pay enough to cover lodging, a co-worker took pity on her and set her up on a dinner date with a science fiction writer.  Smith doesn’t identify him other than to mention that he had a beard, which probably covers two-thirds of us.

He took her to dinner, and she ordered the cheapest thing on the menu and wolfed it down.  They went for a walk in the park, and he asked if she’d like to go to his apartment for a drink, and she feared he might be a predator and fled the scene with Mapplethorpe, who had appeared in the park by chance, leaving the bemused, bearded writer behind.  (He seems to have been a gentleman, really.)

Who was that, I wonder?  What bearded SF writers were living in New York in 1967?  And how obsessed were they by what they were doing?

Jimme Blue November 11, 2017 at 6:47 am

I’ve had “Just Kids” in my reading pile for years, but it just keeps getting pushed down the stack. This may cause me to put it back on top! I’ve loved her music for (counting on my fingers …) a looong time and she’s always seemed like a fascinating woman.

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