Patti Smith confronts new school celebrity

If the Grammys telecast Sunday and the recent Golden Globe Awards taught us anything, it’s that products that are mass produced to possess inherent widespread appeal have become synonymous with award-winning talent.

Of course, it’s been this way for some time, and to harp on the grotesque nature of voyeurism and shameless self-promotion in relation to celebrities who were born into this era is futile. What is intriguing, however, is when modern celebrity conduct is projected onto the figureheads of past generations, as seen in Los Angeles this past weekend.

To promote her memoir Just Kids, which was released Jan. 19, seminal punk pioneer and avant-garde poet Patti Smith conducted a mini publicity tour around the city that included a discussion at the Hammer Museum on American artist Harry Smith and two in-store readings — at West Hollywood’s Book Soup and Skylight Books in Los Feliz, Calif.

But to pair the phrase “publicity tour” with “Patti Smith” instantaneously forms a grand oxymoron, for Smith is hardly a celebrity in the modern sense of the word.

“Celebrity back then was not like now. People in rock ‘n’ roll and poets and artists weren’t afflicted with the same sense of celebrity,” Smith said as she stood before a modest lectern crammed into the corner of Book Soup. “There are so many misconceptions, as if we were giant movie stars or something all hanging out with each other.”

For Smith, the act of writing Just Kids was not a well-planned money-making ploy centered around an exclusive tell-all that would hastily rise to the top of best-seller charts. Rather, Smith spilled her thoughts and memories onto the page for one person only — her one-time lover, long-time friend and creative soulmate Robert Mapplethorpe.

“Robert died on March 9, 1989, and, on March 8, I promised Robert I would write this book,” Smith said. “I promised Robert I would write our story because I was the only one who could tell it.”

Just Kids, which marks Smith’s first work of published prose, details the musician/poet’s life as an aimless New York City bohemian in the late ’60s, her first taste of fame in the ’70s and, most significant, her relationship with Mapplethorpe, a photographer known for his stark black-and-white portraits that often featured subversive subjects like homoeroticism and S&M bondage.

Chelsea walls · Patti Smith’s new book, Just Kids, documents the years she and Robert Mapplethorpe spent as artists in New York City. - Photo courtesy of Ecco Publishing

Smith met Mapplethorpe while she was working a minimum-wage job at Bretano’s bookstore and sleeping on park benches. Together, they pooled their meager earnings and rented an apartment that, according to Smith, was covered with psychotic scribbling and had a stove full of dirty syringes. They could not afford to attend shows at famed venues like the Fillmore East and, instead, would stand outside to catch snippets of the action.

Both artists supported each other’s work. Smith claims it was Mapplethorpe who suggested Smith record an album; it was also Mapplethorpe who was responsible for crafting one of the most famous album covers of all time — Smith’s 1975 debut Horses, the record that simultaneously sparked her fame and acknowledged his photographic talent.

“I never thought I would have a record,” Smith said. “I grew up in the ’50s, where the boys had driver’s ed. and the girls had home ec.”

In 1969, the couple moved into the Chelsea Hotel, a refuge for musicians like Janis Joplin, poets like Allen Ginsberg and numerous Warholian artists.

“At the Chelsea Hotel, the difference between the rock stars and the rest of us [was] the rock stars had bigger rooms,” Smith said. “Celebrity was mostly saved for giant pop stars and movie stars.”

When Smith writes of the Chelsea, she writes of a generation where artists were revered — not obsessively photographed — and art was still at the forefront of society.

It’s a state of mind she still possess, apparent in the sincerity she displayed when responding to attendees’ attempts to snap pictures and record videos for their YouTube pages.

“Please, only take one picture,” Smith said. “It makes me really self-conscious, and I look terrible today.”

But once Smith gave an impromptu performance of “My Blakean Year” and left the lectern, the pushing, line-cutting and grumbling commenced, as the hundreds of attendees rushed to have Smith sign their copies of Just Kids. It was as if the signed hardcover book was more important than the storytelling and performance that had just taken place — as if this signed packet of paper or iPhone-recorded video would deem one culturally significant.

For those of us who grew up in the age where celebrities were meant to be oogled rather than admired, this rings true. But considering most of the Book Soup audience lived through Smith’s era, it’s evident this way of being has become adopted as standard protocol.

At the beginning of this year’s Grammys celebration, Lady Gaga’s flamboyant emcee hammered this point home, proclaiming that Gaga and her music are turning “all of you into monsters.” It was poignant, spot-on commentary — we are goo-goo for Gaga, preoccupied with whatever fashion or stage antic she’ll pull next.

What we’re not preoccupied with, however, is how Stephanie Germanotta became Lady Gaga. But as Smith reminds us, most celebrities were not born into fame.

“People say to me, ‘You hung out with a lot of famous people — Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim Carol and all of these different people,’” she explained. “But nobody was famous then. We were all young and struggling.”

It is within this struggle that makes and inspires the artist, and it is within this struggle that the artist’s true story lies. But just as Twitter delivers information in a matter of seconds, present day artists want success as quickly as one can download a song from iTunes, leaving no time to perfect their craft or define who they truly are. One can only imagine what Lady Gaga would sing about if she too spent her nights penniless on streets of Manhattan like Smith did at age 21.

In the first chapter of Just Kids, Smith writes of her devotion to art and her need for being an artist at a young age: “I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”

It was this notion that pushed Smith to live the quintessential artist’s life of constantly feeding creativity and slumming to get by. And at one point in time, this notion was not a romantic dream as it is now in our black-and-white world of instant success or immediate failure. Instead, it was a conceivable lifestyle more exciting than fame itself.

As the book jacket of Smith’s memoir so elegantly states, “Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy” — dedicated to both Robert Mapplethorpe and the decline of a 20th century renaissance.

Lauren Barbato is a senior majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column “Sound Check” runs Tuesdays.

1 reply
  1. Queenie Taylor
    Queenie Taylor says:

    FYI, Lauren, it’s Jim Carroll (not Carol) (People Who Died). He died a few years ago. good article on Patti.

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