On Sunday afternoon, head over to Books and Books in Coral Gables to meet punk priestess Patti Smith, who will be autographing copies of her new book, Woolgathering (New Directions, 80 pages, hardcover, $18.95). If you were lucky enough to catch Smith at the 2010 Miami Book Fair, where she read from Just Kids a day or so after it won the National Book Award and performed several songs, including a soul-rocking a capella version of “Because The Night” — then you should probably lower your expectations. The upcoming event is billed as a signing, not a reading or a performance. Nonetheless, the opportunity to chat up Smith, at 65 years old possibly the coolest person over the age of three on Planet Earth, is definitely an opportunity worth seizing.
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.”
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.