Friday, January 28, 2011

a string of words

Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.

This week, I tore through Just Kids by Patti Smith, an alternately envy-producing and heartbreaking account of her life in New York in the late 1960s and ’70s, when she lived with Robert Mapplethorpe and struggled to find her path in life. Envy-producing, because of the crazy energy and the primacy of the arts scene back then. Heartbreaking, both because we know what’s ahead for the young Patti (way too much loss, as friends and icons, including her beloved Robert, overdose or die of AIDS), and because she imbues her gritty, clear-eyed book with such delicacy and sweetness.

When Robert and Patti first live together, it’s in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, near Pratt. They have no TV, no money to go out, barely any money for books or magazines, so they spend all their time writing and making art. They’ll draw for hours, side by side, figuring out their styles, incorporating new influences, pushing each other to be better. It’s so sweet, how excited she was by the life she and Robert created for themselves. They were so broke that they’d stand on the street in a state of indecision, trying to choose between a meal at the diner or supplies from the art store; they only had enough money for one or the other.

They move into a tiny room at the Chelsea Hotel, where Patti finds a family of sorts, a family of slightly damaged, driven outcasts, an Island of Misfit Toys, or, as Patti refers to it, “a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone.” You could get by on very little money in New York in the ’70s. Not only could Patti and her compadres trade art for rent at the Chelsea or for drinks at Max’s Kansas City, but they could find raw space downtown for next to nothing, and maybe get the landlord to give them a couple months for free if they agreed to clean out the junk.

For example, since their shared room at the Chelsea doesn’t give him enough space to make art, Robert finds them a new home: an entire floor above the Oasis Bar, on the same block as the hotel. (Can you even imagine? It wasn’t that long ago that two chronically broke, near-starving artists could rent an entire floor in the heart of Chelsea. OK, maybe there was no toilet or shower, but still. A whole floor, with big windows and lots of light and plenty of space, smack in the middle of NYC. Damn.)

As she moves through the years of her young life, Patti leads with her heart and lays bare the enormous vulnerability she felt then, a vulnerability that must have been visible a mile off, given the way so many people offered help and encouragement. She gets songwriting advice from Bobby Neuwirth, Todd Rundgren takes her to hear music at the Village Gate, Sam Shepard buys her a lobster dinner when she doesn’t have anything to eat, Jimi Hendrix commiserates with her about being shy and awkward.

At one point, she’s scrounging around the Chelsea Hotel room, looking for enough change to get a cheese sandwich. She digs up 55 cents and heads down the block to the Automat, only to find the price has gone up. “Can I help?” says someone behind her:
I turned around and it was Allen Ginsburg... Allen added the extra dime and also stood me to a cup of coffee. I wordlessly followed him to his table, and then plowed in the sandwich.

Allen introduced himself. He was talking about Walt Whitman and I mentioned I was raised near Camden, where Whitman was buried, when he leaned forward and looked at me intently. “Are you a girl?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Is that a problem?”

He just laughed. “I’m sorry, I took you for a very pretty boy.”

I got the picture immediately.

“Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?

“No, enjoy it. It was my mistake.”

All right, so Ginsburg’s relationship with Patti didn’t start from a sense of protectiveness or altruism, but he ended up becoming a mentor, one of the many who helped her find her way. And now I’m listening to the result of all that encouragement, and all her hard work: her first album, “Horses,” where her fierce confidence comes roaring out at you, showing you everything she’d been through, and how she survived it all.

I don’t want to romanticize the whole starving-artists-in-the-garret scene, but it’s hard not to be wistful for Patti’s world, where nothing was more important than art and music and writing. I have to admit to feeling a bit melancholic about the choices I’ve made, ones that have given me a degree of comfort, but have taken me farther and farther from a life of creativity.

OK, maybe more than melancholic — maybe more like in a tailspin about what now look to me less like smart, practical life decisions and more like lame compromises. I’m trying not to beat myself up too badly — what’s done is done, indulging in regret means I’m living in the past, not in the present moment, and I’m causing myself pain. But I’ve learned that I can’t just put aside my regrets; I need to resolve them. So I’m trying to stay aware of the vibrations that Patti’s book set off in me, to remember the sense of loss I felt as I read her story, and to resolve to make some changes in my life.

One way that I can easily derail any resolutions to write more or to make art is to say, “But what’s the point? Where will it get me? Will I ever really be good enough?” Patti had her moments of self-doubt too, of course (and probably still does), but she finds a way forward that I’m taking to heart:
In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos—the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?... Robert had little patience with these introspective bouts of mine. He never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.