‘A series of Polaroid snapshots of New York City between the post-hippie and proto-punk eras, the years between the Fugs and the Tuff Darts’ – Just Kids by Patti Smith

A Sunday night, 16 May 1976, the Roundhouse, London – I had school the next day, Gary H had to be up early to work on a market stall, Louisa was there, maybe Shakey and Twig. We went for a few pints in the Caernarvon Castle, then into the gloom of the old railway-engine shed. The Guildford Stranglers opened – they had a keyboard player, they were old, they sounded like the Doors on sulphate, but then I’d done a few lines of Billy Whizz so maybe they just sounded like the Doors. We’d been listening to Patti Smith’s Horses for six months, throwing ourselves around to ‘Gloria’ and ‘Free Money,’ we were yet to see anyone pogo so we skanked along to ‘Redondo Beach,’ and tried to work out what the fuck she was singing about on ‘Land.’ We’d read all the interviews, raided Compendium Books in Camden for Rimbaud’s poetry, shared around Enid Starkie’s biography of the poet, wrote our own Patti-cum-Rimbaud poems in school exercise books. Patti had surged into the pantheon of our rock gods – David Bowie, Lou Reed, the Stooges, the New York Dolls – and through her, we had discovered Television, the Ramones, Talking Heads, the whole CBGB scene.

When Patti appeared on stage that night, her androgynous beauty, her energy, her use of language transfixed me, changed me. A few months before, I’d watched a pirate copy of The Exorcist at a mate’s house – Patti’s writhing and wailing reminded me of Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil as David Bowie as Keith Richards. I remember her dedicating a song to Keith Relf and thinking, Who the fuck is Keith Relf? I can’t remember what we did afterwards – probably had a kebab takeout, bought some more beers, stank out the train carriage on the way back to Feltham. I do know that a few weeks later, in the middle of the ’76 heatwave, drinking cold cans of Heineken rather than bottles of tea-temperature Newkie Brown, the sun melding my red vinyl trousers to my legs, my SEX T-shirt dripping with teenage sweat, my feet boiling in blue-suede brothel creepers, I returned to the Roundhouse with Gary H and Louisa to see the Stranglers, the Flamin’ Groovies, and the Ramones. 29 years after that, on 25 June 2005, I put on my black linen jacket, white shirt, skinny tie, faded old jeans, black leather brothel creepers and went to the Royal Festival Hall for Patti Smith’s performance of Horses. After the gig, I’d arranged to meet Gary H who I hadn’t seen in twelve years.

I admit struggling with the first 80 pages of Just Kids, willing the book to be Dylan’s Chronicles. I wanted to read it as though sitting with Patti over a coffee and listening to her talk about her life. It took me a while to get into the swing of it, ride the contradictory rollercoaster of her singular energy and naïf-as-rock-chick humility. Somewhere between memoir and elegy, Just Kids delivers a series of Polaroid snapshots of New York City between the post-hippie and proto-punk eras, the years between the Fugs and the Tuff  Darts – in necro-culture, between Richard Cottingham (the torso killer) and David Berkowitz (Son of Sam). Ostensibly, a portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti also documents the denizens of New York’s Chelsea Hotel, Greenwich Village and the Bowery – Harry Smith, William S. Burroughs, Candy Darling, Viva, and Hilly Kristal make appearances among hundreds of famous, self-famous, and rightly forgotten artists, musicians, freaks, and freeloaders. Patti lived in the city when it had energy and cockroaches, rats and diamonds, when just walking through Tompkins Square Park was an act rather than a work of art, when everyone was a poet, musician, artist – or all three.

As purple (violet) as some of the prose is, ‘We had ventured out like Maeterlinck’s children seeking the bluebird and were caught in the twisted briars of our new experiences,’ it is also honest and – like her best music – incantatory and addictive. Until meeting her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, Patti seemed to fall for impossible men – Mapplethorpe’s narcissistic homosexuality to her gamine poet / doppelganger muse; Sam Shepard with his cowboy mouth, his not-so buried wife and child; and the perpetual on-the-road shaganigans of Allen Lanier’s own personal oyster cult. Aside from the Mapplethorpe / Smith relationship, the sketches of an economically broke and erotically bubbling NYC, the tales of a would-be artist’s love and survival, Just Kids provides clues and pointers to some of Patti’s lyrics and her interest in religion, the occult, astronomy, and myth. A few things that caused this reader’s eyebrows to arch: an embedded hippie streak, a surprisingly low drug intake – especially in the heroin-ravaged NYC of the early ‘70s, an extremely strong family ethic, and an artistic selfishness that did not exclude care and support for others.

Patti turned her drawings into poems, her poems into rock music, her life from bookstore clerk to rock god, and the transformations are evident on every page. When reading, I could smell the street food on St Mark’s Place, feel my ears throb and nose twitch at the noise and stink of CBGBs, remember the look of horror on the faces of fellow A-train commuters as an AIDS victim – dressed only in a nappy – asked for money for medicines. I hope the sad and vibrant, poetic and diaristic Just Kids is a prelude to further volumes of memoir. From her childhood vision of a swan to Mapplethorpe’s dying hours and beyond, this book shows that Patti Smith has lost none of her electricity.

Any Cop?: Patti opened up the world of literature and music to a young man from the Wild West of London. The transformation of waste is perhaps the oldest pre-occupation of humanity; Patti Smith, like an alchemist, re-creates from the excretion of memory a pure and then soft and then solid gold event.

Steve Finbow

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