This week I’m back the late sixties looking at the links between music, politics, and activism.
Theres a riot goin on: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars and the Rise and Fall of the 60s
Theres a riot goin on is really interesting so far and it been good comparing it to today and noticing just how many if not all of those hopes have not yet been realised.
Or to be honest most of their problems seem to have got worse from a 2011 perspective. Interesting parallels anyway.
Civil rights, feminism, socialism, anti war all had their heroes and anthems, all overlapping and crossing each other.
I’ll always take James Brown over Dylan myself. But I’ve found plenty of new music and unearthed a few gems along the way.
I’ve never been a huge fan of ‘the sixties’ because I always get the impression the way older generations go on like it was the only decade where people let their hair down everything after is completely unacceptable and we should behave ourselves but there are some interesting insights into why the ‘revolution’ never really happened and its been inspirational at least to see how people managed to get so organised and least try to stick up for themselves and others while having some fun along the way.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Patti Smith’s album “Horses” was one of the best buys of my teenage years. I can still recall the electrifying effect of hearing the opening lines of Gloria for the first time. But other than she was also a poet and a painter and that Bruce Springsteen had a major hit with one of her songs (Because the Night) I knew little about Patti Smith and her life and work. So I picked up her recent book “Just Kids” on the basis of wanting to learn more about the person who produced a record which meant so much to me as a young person, as well as on foot of some rave reviews in the USA.
“Just Kids” is presented as an account of the relationship between Smith and her mentor and inspiration in art, Robert Mapplethorpe, but it is really a memoir of her early life in which this relationship figured prominently. There are sections of the book in which Mapplethorpe does not appear much at all. They were not actually together as a couple for that long, and in different spells (including one living in the famous Chelsea Hotel) for Mapplethorpe would turn out to be a homosexual and follow that path; but a pure, loving and artistic relationship endured and overarched their physical relationship. It is a unique connection and one wonders if it would be possible in anything other than a homosexual male and a female. Smith is remarkably magnanimous about the men in her life; her one true love abandons her for men but her love remains resolute; she has an intense affair with the Playwright and director Sam Shepherd and though he runs back to his wife she has nothing but kind words; she becomes involved in a long relationship with Allen Lanier of the Blue Oyster Cult and even though one gets the impression that he slept with ever groupie available on the BCO’s lengthy tours again Smith has nothing but praise, apart from noting that his behavior “endangered” them both. I was relieved to have her finally settle down with the guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and raise a family … though he would die at a tragically young age.
It took me a while to get into the book for I was irritated by Smith’s method of establishing herself as an “artist” (i.e. listing all the poets she read, all the albums she listened to, etc.) and I did not find the writing particularly special. I think I was negatively affected because I was reading at the same time the Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison’s beautiful family memoir “Beyond Harvey River” in which every sentence screamed “poet” without Goodison having to mention Rimbaud a million times and make a pilgrimage to his grave. But as “Just Kids” unfolded I was more and more sucked in and gripped by the Patti Smith voice. It is a voice which stayed with me long after I finished the book, always a sign of good writing.
Just Kids is essentially the story of Smith’s (with Mapplethorpe as an inspiration) dedication to becoming a successful artist and her single minded pursuit of this is entirely admirable. She leaves home at an early age and lives on the street (where she meets Mapplethorpe) to follow her muse and works at all sorts of menial jobs to support them in their art. There is never really any doubt that they will become hugely successful and he eventually does as a photographer (the famous photo on the cover of Horses is his) while she takes the spotlight as a performing artist. But nothing is fortutious, it all comes from immense dedication to their choosen path in life and surrounding themselves with people of like mind. Lennye Kaye, for example, the guitarist who will play such an important role in her band, she meets because she reads an article that he has written and goes to the trouble of seeking him out to introduce herself.
I played Horses for the first time in decades after reading the book and it was even better than I remembered. Can’t say I thought much of the poetry in the book though.
And the book is supposed to centre on the great love of her life, Robert Mapplethorpe, but one constantly suspects that the great love of Patti’s life might be Patti. But that wouldn’t be unusual in artists .. Patti’s description of going to Mapplethorpe’s funeral:
“On the twenty-second of May, Fred and I attended the service at the Whitney Museum. Fred wore a suit of indigo gabardine with a burgandy tie. I wore my Easter dress of black silk velvet with a white lace collar.”
The criticism of the book I would have is that while it is embued with an “art for art sakes” philosophy the intellectual underpinnings of this are never elaborated and the major events of a very tumultuous political period breeze right past Smith. She herself writes that she can never find anything to say about them .. but the question remains “what makes what she does have to say important?” This is never addressed. But for all that it is book I recommend.
As there is strength
a deep control
a calla flare
there is a steady hand
adjusting child lace
and bravery’s face
in veil inviolate
there is a steady hand
adept in heavens skin
spending into black
where pure hearts
Sam Lord 13.4.2011
More recommendations for April reading, and book chat, on our Political World thread here –
FIVE and Sam Lord 13.4.2011