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Archive for April, 2010

Just Kids by Patti Smith


April 17, 1976. The first time I ever saw Patti Smith was during her memorable appearance on Saturday Night Live. I was 13 and just getting turned on to punk rock — The Ramones, Blondie, Boomtown Rats…and Patti Smith. I remember being fascinated by what I saw but also more than a little puzzled. There was something more there than just music. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was art with a capital A.

As I grew older, I also grew fairly tired of the harsh, dissonant sound of punk. It seemed to me it became an affectation rather than a belief, an excuse rather than a stand. But I never grew tired of Patti Smith and her raspy, atonal vocals and raw, poetic lyrics. After awhile though, she disappeared and I forgot about her and her music/art.

Until I read a review of Just Kids, which I knew I had to get my hands on.

Just Kids is the story of Smith and her lover/friend/soulmate Robert Mapplethorpe, a trailblazer in his own right. Smith’s elegant, lyrical prose begins with her own childhood and eventually blends into her early life in NYC, where she wandered the streets alone, until she met Mapplethorpe.

She describes their early life together as one full of discovery and expression — both creating art as they felt it and experienced it in their daily lives. Objects held great importance for Smith and Mapplethorpe — how objects are made, used, treasured, seen. Smith used words and music to describe, while Mapplethorpe used the camera and both succeeded in making us see things differently.

Smith opens a window into the NYS art scene of the 70s and 80s, populated by such people as Andy Warhol and his entourage. While she writes about living and interacting with people now considered icons, Smith makes them all seem like regular human beings living out their purpose. None of the woke up one day and said “I’m going to create an icon today.” Instead they simply lived their lives and created as they went.

Art was as natural to them as breathing.

Throughout it all, Smith gives a human voice to Mapplethorpe, who continues to be considered one of the most controversial artists ever. He was just a beautiful boy trying to help people look at the ordinary and see the extraordinary.

Smith handles Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS with gentleness and authentic remorse. She uses a number of his photos of her throughout the book which reveal a stark but elegant beauty. Her account of Mapplethorpe’s last days and the aftermath of his death is heartbreaking.

Just Kids is a beautiful book and well worth the reading.

Mapplethorpe asks Smith at the end, “Did Art get us, Patti?” Maybe it did.

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So here I am re-launching this blog after about 18 months of non-stop work with lots of changes in my life. And how do I do it?

I announce a project that will keep me — and I hope, some of YOU! — busy in 2011.

The Rochester Public Library will be 100 years old in 2011, and in honor of that auspicious occasion, I intend to read 100 books — one from every year RPL has existed.

100 Books. 100 Years.

I’ve started building lists of books published from 1911-2011. Here are some that look promising:

  • 1911 – Queed by Henry Sydnor Harrison – Haven’t found a good description of the book, but this quote from the frontispiece on Google Books is intriguing: “Mr Queed, you are afflicted with a fatal malady. Your cosmos is all ego.”
  • 1912 – Tante by Anne Douglas Sedgwick – about the destructive relationship between a concert pianist and her young protégée.
  • 1921 – The Sheik by Edith M. Hull – bestselling romance novel which became the basis for Rudolph Valentino’s film of the same name.
  • 1926 – The Private Life of Helen of Troy by John Erskine – just what the title says. Later made into a film.

There are lots of good stories just waiting to be re-discovered. I plan to write about my year-long journey here, and am thinking about possibly starting a book discussion club if enough people want to join me.

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