We usually like to keep Band Booking to a few questions, but when Amy Klein submitted this essay about Patti Smith, there was really no way we were going to turn it down for a few reasons:
1. Amy Klein rules.
2. We love Patti Smith.
3. Amy is in Titus Andronicus. They’re maybe the best rock n’ roll band on the planet right now. She also does a side project called Hilly Eye that we really like also.
Patti Smith, Magic, and Me
During the first meeting of my poetry class, my teacher asked us to go around the room and say our names, and what we wanted to do with our lives after college. As difficult as it is for a sophomore to articulate her goals in life, I had a pretty good idea of what I would say.
We went around the room, hearing from future professors, scientists, and humanitarians. When it was my turn, I suddenly found it hard to speak. I realized that I was shaking, and that, beneath my tough-looking black jacket with all the zippers, I had broken into a sweat.
What if everyone thought I was an idiot? What if I sounded like a naïve little kid? What if my dreams were simply too big for me? Nevertheless, I said it: “I’m Amy, and I’m torn between twin dreams of becoming a poet and a rock star.
There was a silence in the room, during which I felt ashamed of having articulated my secrets in public. Then, my teacher surprised me—by taking me seriously. “Why not do both!” he said, matter of factly. I was shocked that he was entertaining my childish ideas about becoming an artist—let alone granting me free reign to pursue two wildly divergent paths in life.
“Really? You think I could?” I asked. “Sure,” he responded. “Ever heard of Patti Smith?”
I had indeed heard of Patti Smith—had lovingly run my hands over the cover of Horses in the dark basement that housed the underground rock department of the student radio station. One night, looking for records to play on my show, I’d stumbled upon the black and white photograph of Smith, with her wild, unkempt hair and her mysterious, dark eyes staring straight at the camera—and thus, at me.
I admired the confrontational yet graceful style with which she lounged in the corner of her album, and marveled at her breathtaking androgyny. I had recently begun to dress, like Smith, androgynously, and I was always surprised and happy to discover another person who made me wonder, “Is that a woman or a man?”
When I put the album on, however, it didn’t resonate with me. The music wasn’t fast enough, and there were so many lyrics! It sounded a lot like a spoken word performance in a dim-lit coffee house, and not at all like the punk and hardcore songs that I was learning to love. There was no screaming, no screeching guitar, no punk rock rage. Instead, Smith’s voice had an old-fashioned timbre, like a character in an old, black and white film. She reminded me an intellectual smoking pot and ruminating over the mysteries of the universe—like something that would have happened in the 60’s. I couldn’t identify with it. I took the needle off the record after only a few seconds, and didn’t put it back.
Several significant events occurred in the time between fall of 2004 and fall of 2011. I graduated college, for one, and traveled to Japan to study feminism and the rise of Japanese women in rock bands. I returned from Japan, moved to New York, and got a job in an office. I quit my job and joined a touring band. I recorded and released a solo album and started a website of feminist writing. I wrote countless poems, including a manuscript for a poetry book.
Most of the time, I lived in a state of constant self-doubt, asking myself if I had what it takes to really make it as an artist, questioning whether my abilities, my dedication, and my determination were strong enough, and wondering if I’d ever make my mark on the world. I lost track of Patti Smith, and I didn’t think about her again.
In the years between 2004 and 2010, Patti Smith was working on a memoir entitled Just Kids—an elegy for her lost friend, the visual artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. I picked it up a few weeks ago—from a new releases table at The Strand near Union Square—a bookstore where, I later learned, Patti Smith used to work when she was about my age. I’d heard good things about the book, including that it had won a National Book Award. I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
I lived for the next week in a state somewhere between waking and dreaming, taking every opportunity I could to let the outside world fade away, to sink, instead, into the lush forest of that book. I call it a forest because the book creates a kind of landscape so vivid that it’s hard to believe it’s the stuff of memory—and much easier to believe it’s real.
With an artist’s hand, Smith paints the streets of New York City in the late 60’s and the early 70’s—a time when the bespectacled beat poets still roamed the streets, and when Andy Warhol’s factory was still up and running, a time when Saint Marks’ place was a swirling eye of pot smoke, and young people lounged on the grassy areas of Washington Square Park, arguing about politics and strumming acoustic guitars. In many ways, it’s an ideal vision—a vision of a prelapsarian world.
This was the New York City before the drug trade, before the AIDS crisis, before rents rose and forced poor people and artists out. It’s a world when people still believed in the possibility of revolution, and in the revolutionary potential of rock and roll. It was rock music that they wanted to safeguard, to shore up, to make secure against the bulwarks of corporate America and mass-produced culture. Rock and roll hadn’t been co-opted yet. Jimmy Hendrix wasn’t even dead.
That’s why I found it hard to emerge from the forest of the book into the New York City of today. What potential does the City still offer young people without much money? Some, to be sure, but possibly, less than it once did. I was shocked when I read that the young Patti Smith lived on the street for a whole summer before moving to Brooklyn—without ever being hassled by the cops, and without ever becoming a victim of an assault—sexual, or otherwise.
To be sure, the city at that time was rife with inequality—racial inequality, economic inequality, inequality based on gender and sexual orientation. And crime existed then, as it does today. But there was a sense of possibility that young people had, a kind of faith in the radical possibility of art, that I feel most of us have lost, or have become numb to. And the city offered more freedom, more possibility.
There were hustlers on 42nd Street, sure, but people went there anyway—despite the hustlers, and also because of them. And they went for the porn theaters too. What was important was that 42nd Street wasn’t a mall. It had a culture—good and bad, but a distinctive culture nonetheless. That’s what the city is missing, maybe, in it’s current sanitized, real estate developer-friendly, over-regulated state.
It’s this kind of innocence that Smith captures as she depicts the New York where you could still run into Alan Ginsberg at the automat, and Janis Joplin in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel—and it’s also this kind of innocence that she depicts in her vision of the artists Robert Mapplethorpe. This is innocence that will not last long.
In her description of her relationship with Mapplethrope, Smith keeps no secrets—for the book is dedicated to his life, and to his death from AIDS, just as his artistic career was beginning to flourish. It’s a eulogy for a friend and artist and lover she lost too soon, and it’s also a spell that she hopes will re-animate him, at least in our eyes.
Mapplethorpe and Smith were many things to each other over the years—best friends, sexual partners, soulmates, confidantes, muses, breadwinners, role models, and inspirations—but most importantly, they were two fairy tale characters—two artists who believed in magic and fate, who believed that they were destined to live in the narrative they would create themselves.
Magic is a striking theme in the book—particularly since Mapplethrope openly and vehemently rejected the tenets of Christianity, and refused to believe in God. Perhaps he could never quite abandon his Catholic upbringing; Just as he marveled at the costumes and the pageantry he experienced as an alterboy, he would later marvel at the jewel-toned color and pure light of photographs, at the strips of leather in bondage gear, and at the makeup of drag queens, sparkling at night.
For her part, Smith never stopped believing in God. As a child, she became obsessed with stealing things—small talismanic objects that she felt had meaning—and hiding them beneath the floorboards in her room. Later, she would accumulate tarot cards, charms in the shape of skulls, a purple and ebony necklace from the Middle East, that seemed to her to be imbued with a secret, mystical power. She and Mapplethrope would exchange these objects between them, just as they exchanged paintings and poems, and then kisses too; the link between objects and art, between God and the human psyche helped link Smith and Mapplethorpe, and became the focus of their life together.
Alongside the thread of magic, the thread of coincidence is a woven into Just Kids. It’s strange how many times that Smith and Mapplethrope ran into each other, for example, before they eventually became friends: Smith meets Mapplethrope in Brooklyn, when she mistakenly enters his room. He is asleep, looking like a saint with golden hair. She is merely looking for her friends, and quickly apologizes for waking him up. Later, she sees Mapplethrope at the store where she works, when he covets the same talisman of a necklace that she has secretly desired for weeks. Finally, she runs into him in Manhattan, in a park, and impulsively requests that he pretend to be her boyfriend, to rescue her from a pushy, older date.
In the context of the relationship that would later develop between Mapplethrope and Smith, these coincidences take on a fated quality, which is, in the end, the mysterious, belated significance with which all events in a life story shine. There is even a kind of magic in the telling of Mapplethorpe’s death; when she walks on the beach, Smith believes she sees Mapplethrope painting the sunset above the ocean. Despite adulthood, and experience, and AIDS, Smith still manages to believe in God, and in heaven. Ultimately, the poignancy of the memoir inheres in Smith’s refusal to abandon the hazy colored, golden auras that she paints around Mapplethrope—although she now understands that they do not exist—or perhaps, because she understands this.
I am drawn to artists who believe in the significance of human relationships, and in the significance of art, although they have faced the worst of life head on—in the form of maturity, experience, and death. Shortly after I declared my intent to become a poet and a rock star to my college poetry class, I would lose a close family member to cancer. I would be awakened from my childhood dreams about the possibility of the imagination to offer salvation. I would learn that, in the end, art couldn’t save anything, couldn’t cure anything, and couldn’t offer us escape from pain or suffering. The experience would, more than anything, affirm my belief that art is a fiction that we can choose to believe in—knowing that it is a fiction, and knowing that fiction can be valuable to us, as a way of understanding what we already have.
When they were young, Smith and Mapplethorpe chose to believe that fate was guiding the life they engaged in making for themselves. The way in which Smith and Mapplethorpe exchanged the aforementioned purple necklace between them, believing that it imbued the possessor with a secret power, and that they should give it to “whoever needed it most,” reminds us of the very real way in which they continually supported each other, provided for each other, and held each other close, when they were just two kids with rent to pay and a whole lot of loneliness to diffuse. They believed in magic, and held onto this belief as a way of affirming their faith in childhood and in the imagination. However, in looking back, Smith is far wiser, knowing that she created magic for Mapplethorpe, and he created magic for her.
In describing her childhood, Smith highlights a particular occasion when she visited the park with her mother, and first saw a swan. When she asked the word for the beautiful, white creature with the long, graceful neck, her mother told her, “Swan,” and Smith repeated the word, somehow unsatisfied with its accuracy.
I have often felt the same inclination as Smith—the same sense that the words that exist in our common language are simply not enough to describe all the beauty that the human mind is capable of apprehending. I think this is the motive for creation—recognizing that the world, as it was created, and as it exists, is simply not as good as it one day could be.
Believing that you’re worthy of creating poetry means believing that the world isn’t perfect as it is, and also have the crazy, inexplicable faith in yourself that means you are someone who could make the world better. I don’t think that artists believe in myths, because myths remain true to the reality of the world. We believe in stories, and we believe in writing them ourselves. We don’t believe in magic. We believe that, one day, in a thousand different words, we might accurately describe a sunset.
It’s hard for me, looking back on it, to find anyone in my life who resembles Robert Mapplethrope. I’m going through old memories now, trying to find a man who was an artist, who believed in me, and who lived with me and supported me through all the years. The closest I can come is a young man named Tomo, who I met in a park in Tokyo one day, when the rain was softly whispering in the acacia trees, and the whole day had a sense of possibility about it—a kind of spine-tingling certainty. You inhaled the feeling with the mist—the feeling of being young, and in an unfamiliar city, where anything could happen.
I was playing a song I had written when Tomo came striding down the path in his tall boots, and stopped to ask what I was playing. He spoke English, and played the piano, and we felt there was an instant connection between us. We went out for a beer and discussed literature, art, and starting a band—which we later did, the band. We played all over Tokyo as a duo—me on guitar and vocals, and him on piano. There was no victory in the end, no stellar achievement by either one of us—only the sense that we were engaged in a dual quest to make art. We supported each other, and worked on songs, and indeed, I wrote more songs that year than any other year of my life. The last time I saw Tomo was when I left Japan, but we still email occasionally, and wish each other well.
When I finish Patti Smith’s book, there’s an odd intertwining of life and story. I’m in the process of putting the finishing touches on my first full-length album, and as I sit on the worn out black couch in the studio, I read about Smith visiting the studio with Mapplethrope—for the last time, before he died of AIDS
.She’s recording a song that’s a lullaby for her son, and by the time she finishes, Mapplethrope, now frail and weak, has fallen asleep on the couch in the control room, just like a little child. Smith’s husband is crying, and I’m crying too now, unable to separate the world in the book from my reality. Smith writes to Mapplethrope that, of all his work, it was he himself that was the most beautiful. I can’t help but understand that the faith in each other that the two artists shared sustained them both for so many years that they will forever be the artist of the other. In the end, the work of the artist is the work of understanding.
As I walk home through the streets of Brooklyn, the streets are dark and wet with melting snow. I see people lined up outside a church, waiting for the bus. The streetlights shine in the puddles and reflect on their faces, making them flicker like the wicks of candles. It’s a long way to the train station, and as I pass the stores, some dark and shut, some all lit-up for the last hour of the day, it’s easy to feel a sense of accomplishment in what I’ve done. I’m proud of myself for recording this album, however it ends up being received.
I feel young in this city, the way Patti Smith did once. It’s a different city to be sure. But we’re both women in it, women looking to make our mark on the world in a way we don’t quite understand. I am speaking about Smith in the present tense because I like to believe she’s alongside me, like some kind of friend and advisor. That is how she thinks of Mapplethrope isn’t it, although he isn’t here anymore either? I may not have a Mapplethorpe who lives in the Chelsea hotel with me, and the world of the Chelsea hotel may not exist any longer, but I have Patti Smith, and I believe in her.
That night, I put on my record for the first time. It sounds good. My voice sounds strong and wavery at the same time, like there’s a lot of emotion and purpose behind it. I’ve worked hard, and the results are what I’d hoped for. When I’ve listened to the whole thing, I decide to put on Horses, just to give it another try. I’m stunned at what I hear:
Smith’s poetry is breathtaking. It sounds like she’s improvising words, channeling spirits from another dimension. And her voice carries a real depth—the weight of a true singer, the weight of experience, but also the unpracticed quality of someone who taught herself, singing as she walked aimlessly along the street, and strumming a thrift store acoustic guitar in her room. There’s a fierce intensity and a wobbly vibrato that reminds me a lot of someone I know, and someone I’m also likely to criticize, and to dislike most of the time.
I realize, with a start, that her voice sounds like mine.