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.”