I'd say it's about time that somebody did for the Catholics what Steven Beeber, in 2007's The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB's, did for the Jews. Punk rock, argued Beeber, especially New York punk rock, is a Jewish thing -- in support of which contention he adduced the wit of Lenny Bruce, the poetics of Lou Reed, the dialectic of the Ramones (trust me, there was one), and the complex, fabricated libido of Blondie. Pace Beeber, there was another socio-religious identity at work in New York's 1970s underculture: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, like Jim Carroll and Andy Warhol, were tribally Catholic. (As of course was sufferin' Jack Kerouac, the grandaddy of them all, with his sacramental visions of homo viator.) And after reading Just Kids, Smith's memoir of the life she and Mapplethorpe shared in pursuit of their respective vocations, you'll be aware that this is something more than a coincidence.
Can anyone beat Patti Smith for rocking-ness? I imagine some white-haired professor or illuminatus, three hundred years hence, being asked by his curious students to summarize the brief twentieth-century cultural phenomenon known as "rock'n'roll." "Rock'n'roll?" he says, pleased. "Well, it couldn't be simpler, luckily for us. It begins and ends with Patti Smith's 'Rock'n'Roll Nigger'". A snap of the fingers, a hologram buzzes to life -- Patti mid-air in 3-D, the grave stoic head on the electrically scrawny body, one shoulder exposed, spitting "Baby was a black sheep, Baby was a whore! You know she got big, well, she's gonna get bigg-UH!..." He beams about him. The class is agog. The case is made.
Andyet Just Kids is about as un-rock'n'roll as it's possible for a book to be while still including an appearance by Gregory Corso. ("Gregory lit a cigarette and read from my pile of abandoned poems, drifting off, making a little burn mark on the arm of the chair. I poured some of my Nescafé on it.") The book is an act of recall in the Augustinian mode, closer to Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain or Thérèse of Lisieux's Story of a Soul than to, I don't know, David Lee Roth's Crazy From The Heat. The language is solemn, every word weighed, and the mood devout, even if Smith's saints and martyrs are a gang of heretical Romantic burnouts. Arthur Rimbaud, in particular, is a supernatural consolation to the young Patti as she struggles on the assembly lines of 1960s South Jersey. "Rimbaud held the keys to a mystical language that I devoured even as I could not fully decipher it. My unrequited love for him was as real to me as anything I had experienced. At the factory where I had labored with a hard-edged, illiterate group of women, I was harassed in his name."
Arriving in Manhattan in the summer of 1967, penniless and refusing to take off her raincoat, Smith meets the young Robert Mapplethorpe, all charm. They bond over an eighteen-dollar Persian necklace: Smith compares it to a scapula, prompting Mapplethorpe to ask if she's Catholic. "No," replies Smith, "I just like Catholic things." Mapplethorpe, an ex-altar boy, confides that he used to love swinging the censer. And so begin two decades of spiritual comradeship: Smith and Mapplethorpe, embryos in New York, fall in love. They bounce around the underground for ages, evolving away, Smith struggling with her poetry and songs, "meditations on the death of Mayakovsky and ruminations about Bob Dylan," Mapplethorpe struggling mainly with himself. Watching Jim Morrison do his thing with the Doors one night, Smith finds herself not transported but unexpectedly sober, "in a state of cold hyperawareness." From out of her then-anonymity she appraises Morrison; she understands him. "I felt both kinship and contempt for him." It will be years before she discovers that she herself is a rock'n'roll star - but Just Kids is full of these auguries.
Mapplethorpe makes things, he does drawings, he pursues obsessions: occultism, gay magazines. On a slow Sunday afternoon he takes a soldering iron to the groin of a Madonna. He discovers hustling and photography at more or less the same time: the camera's lens is freighted thereafter with his trademark heavy eroticism, flesh-worship thickly coiled. One night Smith comes home to find him in the talons of a bad LSD trip, "staring into an oval mirror, flanked by a black whip and a devil's mask he had spray-painted months before... The devil was gaining on him, morphing his features, which like the mask were distorted and blood red."
Smith, meanwhile, picking up confidence, picking up musicians, is working towards her own initiatory piece of blasphemy. "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine...": the shivering first line of 1975's Horses (cover shot by Mapplethorpe). She calls it "a declaration of existence." And Rimbaud and Corso and Mayakovsky, and the skittering prosody of Bob Dylan, and the drunken tremblings of Jack Kerouac, and her muttering, praying girlhood with its "small torrent of words" are all united at last in her style, her "babelogue."
Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989, by which point Smith was deep into semi-retirement and her marriage to Fred "Sonic" Smith, ex-guitarist for the MC5. If one senses at moments in Just Kids her concern that a destructive acceleration had overtaken his life, and perhaps imperiled his soul, the two were nonetheless friends until the end. Passionate friends, which is really the defining image of this somber and rather lovely book: two strange Catholic children, quite un-at-home in the world, treating each other with heroic tenderness, heroic generosity.--James Parker
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By Patti Smith
Copyright © 2011 Patti Smith All right reserved.
When I was very young, my mother took me for walks in Humboldt Park, along the edge of the Prairie River. I have vague memories, like impressions on glass plates, of an old boathouse, a circular band shell, an arched stone bridge. The narrows of the river emptied into a wide lagoon and I saw upon its surface a singular miracle. A long curving neck rose from a dress of white plumage.
Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement. It pattered the bright water, flapping its great wings, and lifted into the sky.
The word alone hardly attested to its magnificence nor conveyed the emotion it produced. The sight of it generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings.
The swan became one with the sky. I struggled to find words to describe my own sense of it. Swan, I repeated, not entirely satisfied,
and I felt a twinge, a curious yearning, imperceptible to passersby, my mother, the trees, or the clouds.
I was born on a Monday, in the North Side of Chicago during the Great Blizzard of 1946. I came along a day too soon, as babies born on New Year's Eve left the hospital with a new refrigerator. Despite my mother's effort to hold me in, she went into heavy labor as the taxi crawled along Lake Michigan through a vortex of snow and wind. By my father's account, I arrived a long skinny thing with bronchial pneumonia, and he kept me alive by holding me over a steaming washtub.
My sister Linda followed during yet another blizzard in 1948.
By necessity I was obliged to measure up quickly. My mother took in ironing as I sat on the stoop of our rooming house waiting for the iceman and the last of the horse-drawn wagons. He gave me slivers of ice wrapped in brown paper. I would slip one in my pocket for my baby sister, but when I later reached for it, I discov-
ered it was gone.
When my mother became pregnant with my brother, Todd,
we left our cramped quarters in Logan Square and migrated to Germantown, Pennsylvania. For the next few years we lived in temporary housing set up for ser-vicemen and their children
whitewashed barracks overlooking an abandoned field alive with wildflowers. We called the field The Patch, and in summertime the grown-ups would sit and talk, smoke cigarettes, and pass around jars of dandelion wine while we children played. My mother taught us the games of her childhood: Statues, Red Rover, and Simon Says.
We made daisy chains to adorn our necks and crown our heads. In the evenings we collected fireflies in mason jars, extracting their lights and making rings for our fingers.
My mother taught me to pray; she taught me the prayer her mother taught her. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. At nightfall, I knelt before my little bed as she stood, with her ever-present cigarette, listening as I recited after her. I wished noth-
ing more than to say my prayers, yet these words troubled me and I plagued her with questions. What is the soul? What color is it? I suspected my soul, being mischievous, might slip away while I was dreaming and fail to return. I did my best not to fall asleep, to keep it inside of me where it belonged.
Perhaps to satisfy my curiosity, my mother enrolled me in Sunday school. We were taught by rote, Bible verses and the words of Jesus.
Afterward we stood in line and were rewarded with a spoonful of comb honey. There was only one spoon in the jar to serve many coughing children. I instinctively shied from the spoon but I swiftly accepted the notion of God. It pleased me to imagine a presence above us, in continual motion, like liquid stars.
Not contented with my child's prayer, I soon petitioned my mother to let me make my own. I was relieved when I no longer had to repeat the words If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take and could say instead what was in my heart. Thus freed, I would lie in my bed by the coal stove vigorously mouthing long let-
ters to God. I was not much of a sleeper and I must have vexed him with my endless vows, visions, and schemes. But as time passed I came to experience a different kind of prayer, a silent one, requiring more listening than speaking.
My small torrent of words dissipated into an elaborate sense of expanding and receding. It was my entrance into the radiance of imagination. This process was especially magnified within the fevers of influenza, measles, chicken pox, and mumps. I had them all and with each I was privileged with a new level of awareness. Lying deep within myself, the symmetry of a snowflake spinning above me, inten-
sifying through my lids, I seized a most worthy souvenir, a shard of heaven's kaleidoscope.
My love of prayer was gradually rivaled by my love for the book. I would sit at my mother's feet watching her drink coffee and smoke cigarettes with a book on her lap. Her absorption intrigued me. Though not yet in nursery school, I liked to look at her books,
feel their paper, and lift the tissues from the frontispieces. I wanted to know what was in them, what captured her attention so deeply. When my mother discovered that I had hidden her crimson copy of Foxe 's Book of Martyrs beneath my pillow, with hopes of absorbing its mean-
ing, she sat me down and began the laborious process of teaching me to read. With great effort we moved through Mother Goose to Dr.
Seuss. When I advanced past the need for instruction, I was permit-
ted to join her on our overstuffed sofa, she reading The Shoes of the Fisherman and I The Red Shoes.
I was completely smitten by the book. I longed to read them all,
and the things I read of produced new yearnings. Perhaps I might go off to Africa and offer my ser-vices to Albert Schweitzer or, decked in my coonskin cap and powder horn, I might defend the -people like Davy Crockett. I could scale the Himalayas and live in a cave spinning a prayer wheel, keeping the earth turning. But the urge to express myself was my strongest desire, and my siblings were my first eager coconspirators in the harvesting of my imagination. They listened attentively to my stories willingly performed in my plays, and fought valiantly in my wars.
With them in my corner, anything seemed possible.
In the months of spring, I was often ill and so condemned to my bed, obliged to hear my comrades at play through the open window.
In the months of summer, the younger ones reported bedside how much of our wild field had been secured in the face of the enemy. We lost many a battle in my absence and my weary troops would gather around my bed and I would offer a benediction from the child sol-
dier's bible, A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson.
In the winter, we built snow forts and I led our campaign, serving as general, making maps and drawing out strategies as we attacked and retreated. We fought the wars of our Irish grandfathers, the orange and the green. We wore the orange yet knew nothing of its meaning. They were simply our colors. When attention flagged, I would draw a truce and visit my friend Stephanie. She was convalescing from an illness I didn't really understand, a form of leukemia. She was older than I, per-
haps twelve to my eight. I didn't have much to say to her and was perhaps little comfort, yet she seemed to delight in my presence. I believe that what really drew me to her was not my good heart, but a fascination with her belongings. Her older sister would hang up my wet garments and bring us cocoa and graham crackers on a tray. Stephanie would lie back on a mound of pillows and I would tell tall tales and read her comics.
I marveled at her comic-book collection, stacks of them earned from a childhood spent in bed, every issue of Superman, Little Lulu, Classic Comics, and House of Mystery. In her old cigar box were all the talis-
manic charms of 1953: a roulette wheel, a typewriter, an ice skater, the red Mobil winged horse, the Eiffel Tower, a ballet slipper, and charms in the shape of all forty-eight states. I could play with them endlessly and sometimes, if she had doubles, she would give one to me.
I had a secret compartment near my bed, beneath the floorboards.
There I kept my stashwinnings from marbles, trading cards, reli-
gious artifacts I rescued from Catholic trash bins: old holy cards, worn scapulars, plaster saints with chipped hands and feet. I put my loot from Stephanie there. Something told me I shouldn't take presents from a sick girl, but I did and hid them away, somewhat ashamed.
I had promised to visit her on Valentine 's Day, but I didn't. My duties as general to my troop of siblings and neighboring boys were very taxing and there was heavy snow to negotiate. It was a harsh winter that year. The following afternoon, I abandoned my post to sit with her and have cocoa. She was very quiet and begged me to stay even as she drifted off to sleep.
I rummaged through her jewel box. It was pink and when you opened it a ballerina turned like a sugarplum fairy. I was so taken with a particular skating pin that I slipped it in my mitten. I sat frozen next to her for a long time, leaving silently as she slept. I buried the pin amongst my stash. I slept fitfully through the night, feeling great remorse for what I had done. In the morning I was too ill to go to school and stayed in bed, ridden with guilt. I vowed to return the pin and ask her to forgive me.
The following day was my sister Linda's birthday, but there was to be no party for her. Stephanie had taken a turn for the worse and my father and mother went to a hospital to give blood. When they returned my father was crying and my mother knelt down beside me to tell me Stephanie had died. Her grief was quickly replaced with concern as she felt my forehead. I was burning with fever.
Our apartment was quarantined. I had scarlet fever. In the fif-
ties it was much feared since it often developed into a fatal form of rheumatic fever. The door to our apartment was painted yel-
low. Confined to bed, I could not attend Stephanie 's funeral. Her mother brought me her stacks of comic books and her cigar box of charms. Now I had everything, all her treasures, but I was far too ill to even look at them. It was then that I experienced the weight of sin, even a sin as small as a stolen skater pin. I reflected on the fact that no matter how good I aspired to be, I was never going to achieve perfection. I also would never receive Stephanie 's for-
giveness. But as I lay there night after night, it occurred to me that it might be possible to speak with her by praying to her, or at least ask God to intercede on my behalf.
Robert was very taken with this story, and sometimes on a cold, lan-
guorous Sunday he would beg me to recount it. "Tell me the Stephanie story," he would say. I would spare no details on our long mornings beneath the covers, reciting tales of my childhood, its sorrow and magic,
as we tried to pretend we weren't hungry. And always, when I got to the part where I opened the jewelry box, he would cry, "Patti, no . . ."
We used to laugh at our small selves, saying that I was a bad girl trying to be good and that he was a good boy trying to be bad.
Through the years these roles would reverse, then reverse again, until we came to accept our dual natures. We contained opposing princi-
ples, light and dark.
I was a dreamy somnambulant child. I vexed my teachers with my precocious reading ability paired with an inability to apply it to anything they deemed practical. One by one they noted in my reports that I daydreamed far too much, was always somewhere else. Where that somewhere was I cannot say, but it often landed me in the corner sitting on a high stool in full view of all in a conical paper hat.
I would later make large detailed drawings of these humorously humiliating moments for Robert. He delighted in them, seeming to appreciate all the qualities that repelled or alienated me from others.
Through this visual dialogue my youthful memories became his.
I was unhappy when we were evicted from The Patch and had to pack up to begin a new life in southern New Jersey. My mother gave birth to a fourth child whom we all pitched in to raise, a sickly though sunny little girl named Kimberly. I felt isolated and disconnected in the surrounding swamps, peach orchards, and pig farms. I immersed myself in books and in the design of an encyclopedia that only got as far as the entry for Simón Bolívar. My father introduced me to science fiction and for a time I joined him in investigating UFO activity in the skies over the local square-dance hall, as he continually questioned the source of our existence.
Excerpted from Just Kids by Patti Smith Copyright © 2011 by Patti Smith. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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