Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Still Kids

This past Easter, George Wallace, in his own inimitable commemoration of Easter Sunday, tweeted out a video of Patti Smith singing her song Easter.  He ended his tweet, as I remember it, with the cheer, “Go Rimbaud.”

Before that moment, I’d not knowingly listened to Patti Smith or read a line of Rimbaud.  I’ll admit, I’m late to the party.  More than thirty years late, by one count; by another, well over a hundred years.

But recently, I scanned the table of new arrivals at a neighborhood bookstore (yes, there still are a precious few).  There, beckoning me to pick it up, was John Ashbery’s newly minted translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations.  And this year, Patti Smith won the “pop” half of the Polar Music Prize.  So I may not be too late after all . . .

I’d been curious about Smith’s book, Just Kids, but not enough to pick it up, at least at first.  While she’s of my generation, by the time she made her first albums, I’d left rock and roll behind.  And, as the book recounted her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, I figured this was just another celebrity memoir, a genre the ubiquity of which I loathe.

But I do watch Stephen Colbert from time to time.  One night, he had Smith on to talk about Just Kids.  Early in the interview, she broke out in a toothy grin and pled “guilty,” when Colbert noted her book had won the National Book Award.

Her open delight was thoroughly disarming, but there’s something else that got to me even more.  Colbert asked (in his own inimitable way), “What advice would you give to like a young person . . . who decides that, I’m going to throw away, you know, my life, and be an artist?”

“Well,” she replied, “you have to work really hard.”

I had reason to recall the simple strength of that statement more than once while reading Just Kids.  Smith grew up in New Jersey (where they seem to grow rock and rollers in the soil).  She had three siblings, and the family is close.  Her father worked for Honeywell, her mother as a counter waitress in a drugstore.  As part of her childhood, Smith traveled door-to-door for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  “ . . . people would throw buckets of water on us and curse at us. It was awful.”

The family wasn’t a stranger to hard knocks.  “I had seen my mother closing all the venetian blinds on many a sunny day, hiding from loan sharks and bill collectors.”  Even so, Smith’s parents made room for dreaming, including taking all four children to the Museum of Art in Philadelphia.

“My parents worked very hard, and taking four children on a bus to Philadelphia was exhausting and expensive.  It was the only such outing we made as a family, marking the first time I came face-to-face with art.”  Smith was “transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”

Then, at age sixteen, Smith spotted Rimbaud’s Illuminations “in a bookstall across from the bus depot in Philadelphia,” which fed her dreaming for quite a while.  “He possessed an irreverent intelligence that ignited me . . .”.

Though inchoate, Smith’s artistic bent was purposeful.  New Jersey couldn’t hold her, and, when she was twenty, she struck out for New York.  As she left, her mom gave her a pair of “white wedgies and a fresh uniform in a plain wrapper.  ‘You’ll never make it as a waitress,’ she said, ‘but I’ll stake you anyway.’”

Her mom was right, Smith didn’t make it as a waitress.  She lasted three hours.  But she was no slacker.  She searched for jobs until she found a right fit, at Scribner’s, where she worked long hours and got promoted more than once.  That was only her day job, though.  In every available waking moment, she searched for her own means of artistic expression.

Smith and Mapplethorpe lived together for a time.  Smith was the primary breadwinner almost throughout.  “My temperament was sturdier.  I could still create at night and I was proud to provide a situation allowing him to do his work without compromise.”  They had little money, often debating "how to spend our few dollars—a toss-up between grilled cheese sandwiches and art supplies."

For their second anniversary, they went to Coney Island, where they ate at Nathan’s.  “Normally we only had money for one hot dog and a Coke.  He would eat most of the dog and I most of the sauerkraut.  But that day we had enough money for two of everything.”

Smith fell into rock and roll performance almost by accident.  Her first public performance was a poetry reading at The Poetry Project.  Mapplethorpe made the introduction that got her the reading, and Sam Shepard suggested that she add music.  She writes of that evening, “as this was hallowed ground for poetry, some objected, but Gregory [Corso] was jubilant,” and Smith was launched.

Smith has had successes and failures in her artistic life.  She seems to have kept a sturdy balance in the face of both.  She never turned her back on her friends, including difficult characters like William S. Burroughs and Corso—and living with Mapplethorpe was certainly no day at the beach.  She understood her friends, valued them, and accepted what they had to give, without expecting what couldn’t be there.

It would have been easy to do, but Smith didn’t get lost in the maelstrom of artistic New York.  She kept to her purpose, even when the form it should take wasn’t clear.  After a time, she retired from performing to raise a family in Detroit, emerging only after the death of her husband and brother in the same year.

Easter isn’t a day I celebrate, but I was struck when Smith wrote in Just Kids of its “restorative power” for her.  References to Easter are frequent in the book.  One Easter, Mapplethorpe bought her an Easter dress, “a tattered Victorian tea dress of handkerchief linen” that she adored.  After Mapplethorpe's death in 1989, Smith wore her "Easter dress of black silk velvet with a white lace collar" to his memorial.

Smith’s song Easter is one long reference to Rimbaud and his siblings walking to church on Easter Sunday.  The opening establishes a simple rocking pulse and melodic line, into which Smith sings.  Easter Sunday, we were walking.  Listening to the lyric, Isabel, my little one, take my hand. Time has come, I couldn’t help but imagine Rimbaud, his sister Isabelle, Smith, Mapplethorpe, and so many others, still kids, linking hands and not letting go.

Partway through, Smith segues deftly to spoken word.  I am the spring, the holy ground,/the endless seed of mystery.  When she returns to the final chorus, it has become an incantation, the drum keeping a sturdy beat as church bells peal and lift the song out of its simple story to encompass the whole of a creative life.

I’ve now listened to the album Easter, as well as Smith’s first album, Horses, several times.  I can’t say that, for the most part, the music sings to me.  I wish it were otherwise, as I’ve grown to admire its maker.  The song Easter, though, is a keeper.  Within its lyrical simplicity, Easter resonates of the complex personal history, strength, and resilience of Patti Smith.

To hear Easter, click here.

Credits:  Stephen Colbert’s interview with Patti Smith, from which the interview quotations and the still at the head of the post are taken, can be found here.  The photograph on the cover of Easter is by Lynn Goldsmith, Arista Records, 1978.

The Jehovah’s Witness quotation is from Thurston Moore’s 1996 interview with Patti Smith in Bomb.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, in writing “Go Rimbaud,” George Wallace was likely intentionally quoting Patti Smith’s song Land (I stand ready to be disabused of this if my assumption is wrong).  All other quotations, except the lyrics for Easter, are from Just Kids.


Suze said...

'What advice would you give to like a young person . . . who decides that, I’m going to throw away, you know, my life, and be an artist?'

'Well,' she replied, 'you have to work really hard.'

That's it, right there.

Hilary said...

hi Susan .. good to read this post - so interesting and I may link to this if I remember .. actually just made a note where I'll use it - in due course .. and I'll let you know ..

So interesting and I looked up Rimbaud in Wiki .. fascinating stuff - and what a life ..

Thanks for letting us know where you are ..

Could you unembed this comment box - I have to type in my name and URL - because Blogger changed the template coding and it's messed things up .. I prefer the pop up comment box, but the full page is fine .. then we can all comment easily .. and I won't have to go into IE to open the post to comment either! Painful ..
all this change! Why google couldn't leave blogger as is .. I'll never know!

Cheers Hilary

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
I'm so happy that you are back again! I missed you!! (And please: tell me how I can follow you here - I am still not on Twitter)
Thank you for your post! I learned a lot, though I know the music of Pattie Smith for long - she is one the favourites of Husband (and he has of course the original old disc record 'Easter'). I can still sing "Because the night..." by heart :-) But I didn't know about her connection to Rimbaud - him I love.
We had a Mapplethorpe exhibition two months ago here in Berlin, and of course I was there. Some photographs reminded me of Beardsley - I believe that M. was rather self-referred, so your comment on their living together hits the mark.
Thank you so much!

Friko said...

I'll be back to read and comment. Still knee deep in muck for the moment.
But I'm following.

Mark Kerstetter said...

Welcome! Please, go ahead, eat a peach and tell us some stories.

I bought Easter as a teenager and I still love it. There's a scene in the Burroughs documentary with crusty old Burroughs and a frail looking Patti. She's expressing some self doubts, wondering about her future as an artist and the old man is comforting her. He said something strange, but memorable: "Life is very hard, and very few survive it." The scene is very tender; I would even describe her demeanor as child-like, which was disarming since I was used to listening to "Rock 'n roll Nigger" cranked to ten.

derekpiotr said...

i've always loved that album cover!

glad to have you back in the blogosphere, sue!! i really have to see you this summer!


Anonymous said...

Welcome back Susan and such a surprising blog and subject...but what do I know. I am happy to be part of a new adventure and loved the book Just Friends. Undoubtedly something anyone from back in the day can relate to.

David said...

Hurrah, you're here! Love Patti Smith, but wonder if you know Britten's incredible (early-ish) settings of Rimbaud's Les Illuminations? 'Antique' is one of the most Apollonian-rapturous lovesongs of all time, written for BB's then love Wolf Scherchen. Actually as I wrote that I suddenly realised that for him A major (love key for Mozart, often, too) might actually have stood for 'Apollo'. The apotheosis of Death in Venice is in that key too.

Elaine Sexton said...

I'll try again. Brava Sue. I admire the way you unpack this experience. And wonderful to see the clips of old and new Patti Smith!

Lou Freshwater said...

Great, great, post. I really want to read Smith's book. Most of all, love that you are here!

Susan Scheid said...

To all of you, I’m so grateful for your warm words of welcome. May I continue to earn them with each post. And now, to each of you in turn:

Suze: I just loved that she said that—and throughout the book, I really did sense that a bit of a wonderfully straight-arrow core to her.

Hilary: Oh, now, I am dreadfully curious! Rimbaud was quite the character, for sure. And watch this space, for there is more to come on him shortly.

Britta: I like to think of you singing “Because the Night”! I would love to know more about your “take” on Rimbaud—perhaps you’ll swing by for the next post, and say a bit on that. And of course, I’m amused by your thoughts on Mapplethorpe as well.

Friko: Thank you taking time from the deep muck you’ve been in (to utterly gorgeous results, I might add) to follow!

Mark: We shall eat peaches together, then! I so enjoyed your recollection, and I love to think of crusty old Burroughs and frail Patti.

Derek: I’ll look forward to that—perhaps at that contemporaneous concert in August, yes?

JMS: Of course, you are way ahead of me on the subject of Patti Smith!

David: I love that you are a Patti Smith fan, while at the same time seguing right into Britten’s take on Rimbaud, and then your own take on that.

Elaine: So, so glad you enjoyed the “inaugural post.”

Lou: Oh, please do tell me what you think, if/when you read the book. As you can see, I was quite taken with it, and with her.

Thank you, thank you all, once again, for the warm welcome back. It’s good to see you all again!

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