With 2010 about to give way to 2011, Miami native and Brooklyn-based writer Arielle Angel shares her thoughts on Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, in which New Year’s Day plays an almost mystical role in the life of the artist. In November, we covered Smith’s Miami Book Fair reading — easily one of the best local events of the year — so we figured this essay was apropos. Enjoy, and happy New Year’s — whatever it means.
I recently read Just Kids, Patti Smith’s award-winning memoir about her relationship with fellow-artist Robert Mapplethorpe. In the book, Mapplethorpe and Smith begin to go their separate ways once they both achieve stardom, and so a look into their relationship is also a look into the most formative years in their development as artists, from 1969 to 1974, when they were in their early 20s.
What strikes you when you read about their early artistic process is that they were not simply making artwork, but making themselves into artists, and that the two endeavors were parallel but not necessarily identical undertakings. The people they wanted to be were always hovering just above the people they were, directing them, propelling them forward, chiding them when they didn’t do it right, and the minutiae of their lives — the way they dressed, where they hung out — were never superficial, but genuine expressions of their interests and values.
Sometimes the level of self-consciousness seems slightly absurd, perhaps even juvenile. Patti is constantly coordinating her own life events — moving out of an apartment, for example — with the birthdays of her heroes, Rimbaud or Brian Jones. Robert spends hours in front of the mirror picking out the right number and combination of necklaces before he and Patti can go to Max’s, the Warhol superstars’ hangout. And yet, when we consider the outcome, the incredible achievements of these two, it is difficult to laugh off their mindfulness, the holistic and committed way they set about becoming artists.
In this world, where everything is self-expression, where every object and action has the capacity for transcendence and the power of symbol and myth, it is no surprise that the advent of a new year, too, has a special significance. Each year, Patti invokes her mother, who believed that what you do on New Year’s Day somehow foretells what you will be doing the rest of the year. Patti spends one New Year’s on the floor of St. Marks Church listening to a poetry reading that goes on from early afternoon well into the night. “I felt the spirit of my own St. Gregory,” she writes, “and resolved that 1973 would be my year of poetry.”
Last night at Sweat Records, zinester extraordinaire and Miami punk historian Erick Lyle guided a good-sized crowd (for a reading … in Miami) from the dumpsters of 79th street to the punk dens of the 90s to the police-barricaded avenues of the 2003 FTAA protests to the halls and walls of the Art Basel power structure and even into the chink in Shepard Fairey’s ego armor, all in the casually funny and punkishly poetic voice that characterizes his influential zine, Scam. We interviewed Lyle on Monday, so you can read more about his background there. The videos here are full clips from his reading last night, and each one is well-worth a listen. If you like what you hear, you can buy Lyle’s work from Microcosm Publishing, including his latest, an anthology of Scam’s first four editions. If you ask me, nothing says “stocking stuffer” like a document of career criminalism, art vandalism, hotel squatting, and generally punking around Miami in the 90s. Ho ho ho.
In this clip, Lyle pursues an “up-from-the-streets art career” by tearing up the ninth hole of the Miami Shores Golf Course and Country Club with a shovel and attempting to grace a blank I-95 billboard with “the perfect penis”, which he ingeniously portrays as a metaphor for Miami itself.
Lyle knows Miami from the city's abandoned hotels and dumpsters -- and writes beautifully about it.
Boca-native Erick Lyle, formerly known as Iggy Scam, handed out the first issue of his zine Scam at a South Beach punk venue called the Junkyard on July 6, 1991. Nineteen years later, Lyle has dropped the Iggy Scam sobriquet, long ago moved away from South Florida, and the Junkyard no longer exists, but Scam remains a vital influence on DIY literature across the country. In 2008, Lyle published On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City (Soft Skull Press), an anthology of essays he wrote in Scam and the Turd Filled Donut, a political newsletter, about his life and activism in San Francisco. Now the renowned zinester and sometime This American Life contributor is returning home to promote his latest work, an anthology of the first four issues of Scam documenting his life in South Florida as a principled dumpster diver, hotel squatter, and punk musician/writer. He will read from the anthology at Sweat Records on Wednesday starting at 8 p.m. Admission is free with gas-money donations encouraged.
Earlier today, I talked to Lyle by phone about Scam, Art Basel as a microcosm of the Miami mindset, and the fictitious Art Deco hotel that embodies the city’s strange history.
Can you describe the origin of Scam and the four issues in this latest anthology?
Scam … started in Fort Lauderdale and it was kinda a punk rock, underground, activism-related zine, self published. I was living in Fort Lauderdale, and my friends and I, we were trying to get everything we could for free, to seek new ways to live creatively and not be chained to a 9 to 5 existence. And in Scam I was documenting that lifestyle. The first four issues are heavily South Florida based, and then I moved to San Francisco and started writing from there.
How frequently did Scam come out — every year?
No, they were really fat zines, so they would come out every couple of years. They were kinda known for being the thickest zines at the time. The concept was that Scam came out in that form because it was this enormous zine being given away, or sold very cheaply, because the copies had all been stolen. So, it was kinda like, “You can do this.”
A maggot-infested “half-dead man” and a toxic trash heap — “a gash in the earth that eats up everything” — both figure in Haiti Noir, the lastest collection of short stories in the Akashic Books Noir series. The collection was edited by Haitian-born writer, off-and-on Miami local, and McArthur Genius Award recipient Edwidge Danticat, who appeared with fellow contributors on Sunday at the Miami Book Fair. With a brutal history of violent oppression, an earthquake-ravaged infrastructure, and a fatal cholera outbreak ongoing, Haiti is an island nation in which the noir genre may feel more like realism. Still, the writers on the panel — Danticat, Mark Kurlansky, M.J. Fievre, and Marie K. Theodore-Pharel — inspired with their ability to craft literature out of Haiti’s darkness and still smile and laugh and galvanize. “The light … is that we have brilliant people writing right now,” Danticat said.
The notion that art and literature could play a crucial role in pulling Haiti out of the abyss was a motif of the discussion. “Write what you know, what you have lived,” Fievre said. “Just write.” The panel member’s dedication to Haiti flowed from different sources. Kurlansky said his fascination started when he saw a souvenir mask carved out of black wood as a child. Like the character in his story — Izzy Goldstein, a Jewish kid who nonetheless “felt in his heart that he was really Haitian” — Kurlansky was drawn to the island by an inexplicable force. He later covered Haiti for years as a Chicago Tribune reporter. “I think I’ve learned more about life and human beings, and what is good and what is bad in human beings, from Haiti than from any other part of my life,” he said.
Through darkness and mystery and murder, the goal of Haiti Noir is to share those lessons with the world.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Patti Smith brought the crowd at the Miami Book Fair to its feet and to joyful tears when she sang “Because the Night” a capella on Friday evening. Here is a video of the stunning performance, including a hilarious bit of improv in the middle of the song that I’d forgotten about.
Patti Smith was (almost) all smiles at the Miami Book Fair Friday night.
Reigning queen of art punk Patti Smith won the National Book Award Wednesday for Just Kids, a memoir about bohemian New York in the ’60s and ’70s and her “brother-sister” relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Though she may have thumbed her nose at such establishment recognition as a scrawny 17-year-old poetess, Smith was obviously still high on her triumph Friday night at the Miami Book Fair. And this turned out to be very, very lucky for the hundreds of people in attendance.
True to her punk roots, Smith interrupted her own introduction when she walked out onto the stage in the middle of University of Wynwood founder Scott Cunningham’s prepared remarks. Wearing an ill-fitting men’s jacket, white button-down shirt, and jeans tucked into slouchy leather boots, she wandered around the auditorium looking a bit like an old-folks-home escapee as Cunningham led a rousing choral reading of “Vowels”, by French poet Arthur Rimbaud. As Cunningham recited the lines from the podium, scattered members of the audience stood in succession and chimed in:
A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: the vowels.
I will tell thee, one day, of thy newborn portents:
A, the black velvet cuirass of flies whose essence
commingles, abuzz, around the cruellest of smells,
“I never saw anything like that,” Smith would say later. “That was really cool.”
It was quite a compliment from a woman who has seen a lot. Reading from Just Kids, Smith related one incredible story after another: eating at the Chelsea Hotel, in 1969, alongside Jimi Hendrix, Grace Slick, and Janis Joplin (“People ask, ‘Were you at Woodstock?’ No, Woodstock came to me.”); sharing a cup of laundromat coffee and a sandwich with a prowling Allen Ginsberg, who mistook her for “a very pretty boy” (“Does that mean I have to give the sandwich back?”); encountering Muhammad Ali in the Chelsea’s elevator while she was wearing, naturally, light-leather boxing shoes; and seeing Television perform Marquee Moon at CBGB.
Author Ferdie Pacheco, right, was Ali's fight doctor for 15 years.
If Neil Armstrong had once landed on Muhammad Ali’s toe, chances are he’d be best known for that. So it goes without saying that accomplished author, painter, and screenwriter Ferdie Pacheco is himself best known as the “Fight Doctor” after serving 15 years as The Champ’s physician.
In his latest book, Tales from the 5th St. Gym, which he will discuss on Saturday at the Miami Book Fair, Pacheco recounts his 40 years ringside in the temple of boxing’s golden age. Originally at 501 Washington Avenue, in South Beach, the 5th Street Gym bred some of boxing’s greatest champions, including Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, and Muhammad Ali. In the book, Pacheco and several guest writers share their memories of the Oz-esque world that was the 5th Street Gym and of its “Wizard,” Chris Dundee, the older brother of Angelo Dundee, Ali’s cornerman.
On Wednesday, I spoke with the Fight Doctor by phone about his new book, the 5th Street Gym’s mystique, and the difference between a gym and a gymnasium.
You start your book by recounting how the commemorative plaque for the original 5th Street Gym, which was torn down in 1993 to make room for a parking lot, makes no mention of Chris Dundee. That, you say, is the reason you wrote the book.
Ferdie Pacheco: I think he was being disparaged, is what it was. It was the 5th Street Gym, and it was Chris Dundee’s 5th Street Gym. I wanted to set the record straight.
What made the 5th Street Gym such a special place?
Ferdie Pacheco: If you were going to be a good boxer, if you were going to fight in major fights, you had to go through the 5th Street Gym, and that made it incredibly important. You had to go through 5th Street Gym to get to the championship.
Director John Waters shares his odd wisdom at the Miami Book Fair International.
I’ve never seen a John Waters movie or read a John Waters book. What I knew of him before last night, I’d picked up by way of either scandalized whispers or unbridled gushing or The Simpsons (from which I picked up that he’s gay). What I know of him after last night, having heard him speak at the Miami Book Fair International, includes the following:
– that he takes life lessons from a member of the Manson family
– that a room full of incarcerated murderers once (at least once) unanimously agreed that he is “fucked up” after seeing one of his movies
– that perfect strangers confide in him their most disturbing secrets (“My whole family fucked me on Easter morning”) because, he says, “People look at me and think, ‘Well, I’ll understand.’”
– that he considers one of his movies the perfect sex addiction flick to screen at a birthday party
– that he was, in his own estimation, “typecast” as the flasher in the remake of his 1988 film Hairspray
– and that he advocates politicians having more sex as a peacekeeping strategy.
Even without having experienced any of Waters’ oeuvre, I was hardly surprised to learn any of this, for his reputation as the “Pope of Trash” precedes him. (William S. Burroughs coined the epithet, which Waters says was “like being anointed from above.”) But if I had ever thought about it, I might not have expected these idiosyncrasies to reside in a gentleman whose gentility, charm, and easy wit won over a packed house within moments.
The week-long Miami Book Fair International starts today, and with hundreds of events on the schedule choosing the ten best is no easy task. As in a game of musical chairs, inevitably one rare literary opportunity or another finds itself without a spot on the list. Which is to say, the Fair boasts enough high-quality guests and events to make a book worm wriggle with glee. But with only 24 hours in the day and a $10 fee to see some of the headliners (John Waters, Patti Smith, Pat Conroy), you’re likely going to have to make some choices. To help you decide, here, in chronological order, are our top ten recommendations, which include a few of the big names, some local writers, and mostly freebies.
While this would be far cooler in person, don’t miss a rare chance to hear two very different American iconoclasts shooting the breeze. Jay-Z will discuss Decoded, “an intimate, first-hand account of an artist, his work, and the culture that so powerfully shaped him.”
This exhibition will showcase originals from Inverna Lockpez’s 1960 graphic novel Cuba: My Revolution, “the story of a teenager who put aside her dreams of being an artist to become a doctor and militiawoman when Fidel Castro came to power.” The exhibit features originals for the book by acclaimed comics creator Dean Haspiel and reproductions of Lockpez’s 1960s drawings.
3. John Waters, Role Models (Wednesday, Nov. 17 @ 8 p.m.)
Perhaps “the filthiest person alive” for more than 40 years, John Waters will discuss his collection of essays on Tennessee Williams, a lesbian stripper, and a Charles Manson devotee (among others). Question is, Will he ride in on a pink flamingo?