“[Sylvia Plath was] a poet with hair worthy of a Breck commercial and the incisive observational powers of a female surgeon cutting out her own heart.”
Patti Smith on Sylvia Plath
Reading Patti Smith is like listening to an old friend–but an old friend who is better read, better traveled and better experienced than you. And certainly wiser. And though she states several times at the beginning of M Train she has nothing to write about, her sense of nothing is quite different than mine.
As a means of remembering and reminiscing about her deceased husband–Fred “Sonic” Smith, who died in 1994–M Train begins by documenting a trip to French Guiana that the two of them took with the express purpose of gathering pebbles at an abandoned jail in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. It is a trip filled with obstacles and difficulties, but the three pebbles she has gathered are for placing on Jean Genet’s grave– the type of gesture of reverence and respect that Smith repeats throughout her account. And though her remembered moments with her husband anchor the memoir, more of it chronicles her life that continues on afterwards.
And what we find in that chronicle is an extraordinarily interested human being. (And generally, those who are most interested in the world around them are usually the most interesting themselves!) Smith is a voracious reader and much of her writing deals with what she is reading and the directions it sends her. (Here is a list of books–from Rimbaud to Susan Sontag–that Patti Smith once recommended.) The writer Maria Popova, in her wonderful blog BrainPickings, also has amassed a list of Smith’s literary references from M Train alone.
Her relationship with books goes well beyond the printed page. She engages with the authors and the characters and the places. (In actuality, she knew a good number of writers: Burroughs, Bowles, Ginsberg.) When she first reads Murakami, she reads nothing else, going from one novel to the next (though not in chronological order.) When she reads his The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, she immediately rereads it, fixating on a specific fountain that appears in the novel.
For Smith, the writers and artists who create the things she loves are very real–and she feels very close to them and their spirits. Thus, she visits Frieda Kahlo’s bedroom and Sylvia Plath’s grave, photographs Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, Beckett’s spectacles, Tolstoy’s bear. In Japan she makes pilgrimages to the graves of her most beloved writers and honors them reverently. To her, the spirit of these creative individuals remains. Like her husband, they too are dead, but still inform her world.
And while she is an extraordinary reader and traveler, she is also very much an ordinary person: addicted to detective shows (The Killing, Law and Order, and the gamut of BBC detectives), sits on her front stoop to smoke a cigarette, feeds her cats, and hangs out in a favorite coffee shop. (A hilarious scene occurs when a woman takes her regular table while she’s in the bathroom and Smith fantasizes how the woman’s murdered body would be positioned in various detective shows.)
It is this ordinariness that is the most charming. We easily forget that she is more than an artist–is in some senses a celebrity. But one never meets the celebrity; instead we meet a woman who is at times gregarious and at other times meditative, who lives simply and cherishes the little moments of our lives, and who is still capable of being overpowered by a book she has read or awed by a celebrity she has met. (She tells an amusing tale of running into the British actor, Robbie Coltrane, who starred in the rarely televised detective series Cracker.)
She reads with an artist’s eye and a writer’s ear; yet she writes like an old lost friend. And that is what has made both of her memoirs —Just Kids and M Train–such a joy to read.
Below is a lovely (6 minute) video of Patti Smith “giving advice to the young.” It is a good example of her wisdom, her kindness, and her hope.
“Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”
Patti Smith (remembering advice she got from William S. Burroughs)
I discovered a documentary the other night called Black, White + Gray by James Crumb (2007). The blurb calls it a study of the relationship between the curator/collector Sam Wagstaff, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and the poet/singer Patti Smith. To be honest, however, it is really the story of Wagstaff, that touches greatly on his relationship with Mapplethorpe and to a much smaller degree with Smith, both for whom he was mentor and patron and friend. (In Mapplethorpe’s case lover and companion.) Consequently, it also deals with art, the business of art, the demimonde of gay life in the 1970s and 80s, and, of course, the scourge of AIDS.
Moving chronologically through Wagstaff’s life–and anchored by Patti Smith’s intelligent and honest and fond recollections–the film follows Wagstaff from his schooldays through his loathed time spent in advertising to his prominence in the art worlds of New York, Paris and London. Along the way, there are appearances on the Dick Cavett Show, press conferences, interviews with his friends and colleagues, and countless photographs, many taken by him or Mapplethorpe and many part of his historic collection.
Wagstaff was strikingly handsome, aristocratic, and intelligent. (Dominick Dunne called him one of the most handsome men he ever saw.) He was also gay, but closeted himself for much of the oppressive fifties and early part of his life. Not until his meeting with Mapplethorpe did it seem he grew comfortable with his homosexuality. As a curator, he embraced and pushed forward those artists and art forms that were still on the fringe, Minimalism, Earth Works, Conceptual Art, and, most importantly, photography. Wagstaff believed that photography was an ignored art and deserved to be elevated to the pantheon of “Fine Arts.”
Indeed, it is because of Wagstaff that photography holds the status that it does today. His relentless collecting, the exorbitant sums he paid, the continual praise and comments in the press, single-handedly hauled photography onto the main stage.
A few years before he died, Wagstaff sold his private collection of photographs to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for the then unheard-of price of $5-million. It was testimony to how far he had brought photography to the forefront.
The interviews within the film are honest and intelligent. Many deal with his collecting, with his curating, and with his “vision.” Many deal (some negatively, some positively) with his relationship with Mapplethorpe. Dominick Dunne, particularly, gets much air time, and talks about Wagstaff in two of the worlds that he lived in–the socialite world and the gay world. And all is brought together by the reminiscences of Smith.
“Compartmentalized” is a word that often came up, and it seemed that Wagstaff was very good in ordering his life into separate and distinct components. But in the end, it was the gay world that did him–and so many others–in. It is easy to forget that at one point, AIDS was a scourge that was decimating much of the art world. The film ends with Wagstaff’s death, and then with Mapplethorpe’s, and then with a list of the many artists who have died of AIDS complications since.
It is a sobering ending. But then the credits role and are intersperse with clips from the many interviewees and once again we are reminded of the life, of the visionary man who rose so high in the world of art–and brought others with him .
We know much about Mapplethorpe’s life, and Patti Smith’s, greatly due to her wonderful memoir, Just Kids. James Crumb’s film Black, White + Gray adds greatly to our knowledge of that time and that world and the people who populated it. It’s worth while finding and fascinating viewing.
The title of the film, Black, White + Gray not only refers to the B&W Photography that Sam Wagstaff collected, cataloged, and often curated, or the shades of distinctions in the compartmentalized life that he constructed, but also to the momentous exhibited he staged at the Hartford Wadsworth Atheneum entitled “Black, White and Gray.” The exhibit, considered the first minimalist show, featured the work of Stella, Johns, Kelly, and Lichtenstein, among others. It was an extraordinary success, influencing fashion, Hollywood, advertising, and, of course, Truman Capote’s infamous Black and White Ball.
I have a niece who is struggling in New York City to make it as a writer…and she is doing pretty well (see my blogroll and click on “Courtney Gillette.”) Nevertheless, it is a struggle. I have a friend whose son Brendan is carving his way as a comic/comedy writer–not the easiest of niches to crack into–and he is making headway. They are just two of thousands who go to NYC with dreams of making it big and –more power to them–they have the drive and determination to do so. But it is not just New York, it is cities around the world where people intent on making something new, struggle to survive and to get their work out…and hopefully recognized. So I thought of both of them–Courtney and Brendan–when I read this article this morning. The article itself is from mid-April, but it is a fun piece highlighting some of my favorite people and writers.
Anyway, here is the article from a site called AWL. It tracks what particular writers arrived New York with before they “made it” and adjusts the value of their belongings and purchases for inflation. It is a fun piece that ranges from Dorothy Parker and Zora Neale Huston to Patti Smith and Tama Janowitz:
And speaking of Patti Smith, I have been on a Patti Smith kick for over a year now. One day in December 2010, I actually received three separate copies of her memoir, Just Kids and of course read it in a night and then began giving out copies to everyone. Then I began to reacquaint myself with her music. (Her video singing “Helpless” with Neil Young is powerful.)
Just last week a friend sent me this new Patti Smith video/song. It’s about April and poetry and fools. Enjoy.
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