Monday, July 19, 2010

Patti Smith's Just Kids (And The Spring of 1987)

It's hard to criticize someone who made such a profound impression on you as a kid.

And my criticisms of Patti Smith's book, Just Kids (2010), have less to do with the book's content and more to do with my preconceptions going into reading this thing.

I mean, I set out to simply review this book by Patti Smith but I can't do that without getting a bit personal.

See, in 1987, right around the time I turned 20, I had a little nervous breakdown and heard Patti Smith for the first time. Did one precipitate the other? No, of course not, but what I was feeling -- what I was writing -- at the time seemed to echo the kind of fevered poetry-set-to-music contained on those first 3 Patti Smith Group albums.

Mental illness bears too much of a stigma in this country and my mental illness at the time seemed pretty bad but wasn't really too extreme. When I admitted myself into a good mental hospital later that spring, I suddenly realized that I wasn't nearly as "messed up" as the poor denizens in the place: I didn't have a drug addiction; I hadn't been arrested (though I had come close once); I wasn't a stalker; and I wasn't a nearly catatonic schizophrenic.

But I had some guilt and self-harm issues and I'm thankful for my time in the facility.

That's a long way of saying how amazing Patti Smith sounded to me at that time. There have only been two other times when I've heard something that felt exactly like what I was feeling during my breakdown -- or whatever it was -- and those two times were hearing the first Throwing Muses album later in 1987 and -- years later -- getting my first copy of the Manic Street Preachers' 1994 album, The Holy Bible.

But, in the spring of 1987, having just dropped out of Bible college for the second time and yet retaining my faith -- despite being wracked with guilt over my current relationship at the time -- I devoured Horses and Easter like a foreigner in a crowded American bus depot hearing his home language being suddenly shouted at him out-of-nowhere.

In 1987, songs like Babelogue and Rock N Roll Nigger seemed exactly like what I was trying to write before my little collapse and during my summer of recovery.

Just Kids deals largely with Patti's time with Robert Mapplethorpe and the book succeeds as a paean to a lost NYC. That New York City seen in Midnight Cowboy (1969) is the setting as the duo carve out a path towards artistic freedom.

If Patti comes off as more ersatz hippy than proto-punk, so be it; she always did straddle that line didn't she?

Certainly Patti is more complex than the picture provided from her early work and Just Kids shows us the human, womanly side.

What seemed like so much anger on those early releases was really the product of years in the wilderness choosing a path and cultivating her work.

One big complaint with the book is that years are rarely mentioned. What starts in roughly 1968 continues on and on and it's only the mentions of celebrity deaths, or a man walking on the moon, that give the narrative a sense of time and place. As this is not a traditional work of biography, I guess that can be forgiven.

Another very glaring error is when Patti makes some comment about someone's film tastes and says something about being able to compare Ozu or Bresson to Paul Schrader which would have been an impossibility in 1968, 1969, or 1970 as the guy hadn't even written any film scripts, let alone directed any, yet.

Maybe the anecdote was meant in general terms about the person later in her life? Still, it was quite distracting.

The parts about Jim Carroll are interesting as the guy who ended up sounding like Tom Verlaine and Television clearly predated those guys -- at least as a poet and author.

And a late journey to Rimbaud's Charleville in 1973 is quite moving.

I owe it to Patti Smith's work that I got into Rimbaud and for that I'm thankful still.

In a recent post about Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), I reflected on how in 1987 that film's soundtrack had helped me to get further into the works of David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto. And it seems now that in 1987, I changed quite a bit as a person largely due to the influences of the things I was reading and listening to.

An easy read that sounds like Patti's best work, Just Kids provides a glimpse into an odd couple in a lost world and I enjoyed that.

And the book pulls back the curtain on an artist that in some small adolescent way I'm forever grateful for.