Patti Smith


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Patti Smith and Robert Maplethorpe at Coney Island in 1969 – the cover of her autobiographical book “Just Kids”

I was 20 years old when Patti Smith’s album “Horses” came out. If you walked into a hip record store back then and heard that album playing, you knew that the world had made a seismic shift.

Just Kids is the kind of book that is nice to have around. More than a page-turner, it’s the kind of book that’s nice to pick up again, to be once again inspired by. You want to savor it, not try and soak it all up in one go. Patti is detailed about her influences, for example – a nice quality in any biography. Her story is thus imbued with layers of meaning, showing intention.

Yet there is space within it in which to imagine one’s own interpretations. It works very simply – it is good storytelling.

She tells of the close personal, creative and spiritual collaboration she shared with Robert Maplethorpe; of their ongoing dialogue. It was/is timeless. No one can speak of Maplethorpe’s work with more authority – their story seems essentially and inextricably linked.

It is at times a very plain, simple story of poverty and struggling to get by. Humble, waif-like beginnings, humility; and deep within the core of that, an essential understanding, confidence and belief in one’s self.

Simple, aesthetic pleasures – aren’t they the best kind? Choices had to be made about money: food or art materials?

Holding struggle sacred, as a part of artistic process; or alternatively, simply stating the reality of the way that it was. She makes that kind of commitment to art seem attractive and noble.

The value of having a muse, of collaboration. One is struck by the belief that they had in themselves, and in each other; how their combined vision gave them strength and maturity.

Contrasted with this was their unique position within the eye of a dizzyingly glamorous, historic cultural  and artistic milieu – New York in a time of incredible ferment. The Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City, the Andy Warhol scene; CBGB’s, punk rock, new wave, rock ‘n roll, poetry, art – they were there at the center of it all, participants. There was a change occurring in human consciousness…

She doesn’t candy coat or glamorize anything. She doesn’t need to – she was there. I liked her everyman/common man sensibility.

I like her perception and insight into Robert Maplethorpe’s early work – how it portrayed male gay sexuality in an entirely new aesthetic – with a simple, factual plain dignity.

Her narrative voice – her eye for detail, the movement of time and discernment of what’s important – makes herstory engaging.  She shares her artistic process and struggles. One gets a sense of integrity, spirituality and honor. It’s nice to learn the many sources of her inspiration and vision.

As autobiographies go – indeed, biographies – this one is a gem. It is good that she’s been able to share this story with us. It’s not something that’s easy to do. It takes a big heart – love, understanding and wisdom.

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Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg by Michael Schumacher

I wrote this poem in 1994 to remember how I felt and what I thought – some impressions – after finishing the “Dharma Lion” biography. I was depressed from chemotherapy. Finishing the book seemed like a victory; recording and writing the poem was cathartic. It was a sort of  journal entry, so I wouldn’t forget all of the good stuff I’d just read.

I resisted the urge to try to send it to Ginsberg, which I had done with an earlier poem in 1976. He kindly replied to that… [See “poem sent to Allen Ginsberg, 1976” on this blog.] 

I saw Ginsberg up close once, standing in the aisle with Anne Waldman, after one of the nights of the Nova Convention honoring William Burroughs, in NYC. (Thursday, Friday and Saturday – Nov 30th , Dec 1st  & 2nd , 1978)

There’s an awesome link!! to the Giorno Poetry Systems recordings from the Nova Convention here.

I wish that I had taken the opportunity to go up to him to shake hands and say hi, but I was shy and didn’t really understand his greatness. Whatever… I met his gaze with admiration and seriousness.

It was quite an event, the Nova Convention. I attended Friday and Saturday nights. I was staying in a drafty dorm room in Brooklyn with a bunch of other guys as we upgraded our Seafarers’ Union status. I got a cold and a nasty cough, partly despatched with some penicillin. My new friend Glen and some of the others showed me how to use the subways in New York.

Anne Waldman read her poem “Skin Meat Bones” [also the title of a collection of her poetry, Coffee House Press, 1985.] It’s a very powerful piece.

From Publishers Weekly:  “The verse in this collection is meant to be read aloud. Alongside the title poem are pitch instructions: ‘skin,’ high soprano register; ‘Meat,’ tenor; ‘bones,’ basso profundo. As if they were notes, Waldman plays with words, with their sounds and rhythms, placing them in various configurations within the poetry…”

There’s a nice trancelike recitation by Waldman with accompaniment by Ambrose Bye here

Ginsberg performed one of his Blake poems set to music – “The Nurse’s Song” from Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” – accompanying himself on the harmonium and with a young man on guitar [Steve Taylor?] as well.  That incredibly rich, deep mellifluous voice of his, rollling out, “All  of  the hillllssss   ech-ooo-edddd!”. What a wonderful memory, probably my favorite from the event.

Frank Zappa was there as a stand-in for Keith Richards, apparently; who was supposed to have been there discussing songwriting. I have a vague recollection of Frank reading Burroughs’ “Talking Asshole” bit, pretty straightforward if not deadpan– truly the perfect guy to do it. Perhaps the occasion was a source of inspiration for some of his later anti-censorship activism…

Certainly Ginsberg and Burroughs used language not for the squeamish, but it didn’t leave that much of an impression on me at the time. Listening back to some of the recordings at the link above, Ginsberg’s performance surprised me – I had only remembered the gentleness and serenity of his soul…

Laurie Anderson’s performance piece was playful, weird – changing her voice into a little girl’s voice, with electronics… I can’t remember if she played her electronic violin… it seems like she did… It was all pretty cool, definitely left an impression.

Patti Smith good-naturedly announced that Keith Richards hadn’t been able to make it, after all. (Did anyone really think he was going to be there? I think most of the crowd was pretty jazzed at the line-up of luminaries, anyway.) She recited a couple of poems with some singing thrown in for good measure, playing clarinet and accompanied by Lenny Kaye on guitar. My most vivid memory is of her screeching abandonedly on her clarinet as a frantic-blonde haired female groupie in a leopard skin top beseeched her from rightinfront of the stage.

Yeah, I think Keith was having problems of his own then. Weird days, my memories of my time in NY… alone yet joyously independent… hazy drugsandsomethingevil in the air, like acrid smoke – stark,  slanted sunlight of winter though not too cold…  Sid Vicious  all over the news everywhere after the murder of Nancy…

Listening to a friend’s copy of the then radical, bonecrushing assault of the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind The Bollocks” – it seemingly made inroads into the musical / cultural lexicon – what did it mean?… Well it was pretty gritty and tight rock and roll, for the times. A real revival.  [Recommended reading: “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk” by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain]

Burroughs concluded the event  on Saturday evening. It was just 2 weeks after Jonestown – it was InTheNews. My memories of Burroughs speaking are of his inimitable gross-out droll humor; my own struggle to control a nasty cough as he spoke about “virus infected shits”; and his solemn parting words, “Onward, to Jonestown!”

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Ted Joans, the Beat era poet, organized two vigils in Seattle when Ginsberg passed. I read my Ginsberg poem at both. I got to meet Ted. He gave me a photo of myself reading, when I saw him at the second one. So thoughtful…!

Ted Joans, along with LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka , was an important African-American voice in the Beat era. They of course got little of the limelight that their caucasian peers did.  Amiri Baraka went on to help initiate the Black Arts movement.  And the jazz that Kerouac and many others loved was largely played by people of color. His enthusiasm for the music –  very much a muse of and influence on Kerouac, who also wrote about jazz as a critic – I believe helped to serve as an example of greater tolerance within the larger confines of society.

When he spoke at the second vigil he urged us to ”Be kind” and said that our poems etc. were going to be compiled and put in some kind of book. I never heard any more about that, though I think I gave him a copy of my poem.

Ted was in the Seattle phone book at the time; he was living here. I wish that I would’ve taken the opportunity to invite him and his missus to dinner at my home – taken his “kindness ethic” to heart. But I was too uptight. Afraid he would try to mooch some money from me or something. How pathetic of me.

At the second vigil I wore a red chiffon scarf around my neck. I got up to read this poem. I tore off my shirt with a mad gleam in my eye, and asked no one in particular if I should continue to disrobe. I wanted to do something memorable in honor of Ginsberg; which incidentally, was something he was famous for. I’d invited along my sister and a friend. Joans kindly urged me not to, lol.

Some woman spoke about what a lecher Ginsberg was, he’d tried to seduce her or something. We all gasped inwardly; that musta been Ginsberg come back to smile on us…

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That  Long  Allen  Ginsberg  Biography  I  Read
( Dharma  Lion)

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Allen Ginsberg!
– lover of teeming humanity, your fellow fellow man
man’s actual human being!    …so warm
You’ve  given the world your very humanity
relaxed honest sexuality
Ahhhh, gift of brotherhood –
not weepy, shrinking –
forthright and direct –
Angry World – go love yourself!

Ginsberg –
in love with your persona –  a human fame
Perfect accomplishment!  Remarkable  life!
Energy, and driven –
Remarkable toiler, master of your art and intellect.
Ohhh, very wise one
your typical All-American Jewish success story
Real..  People’s..  Advocate!

In a disposable world,
they were unable to put your can out on the curb
shut you up or shut you down.
a hero to generations
in the void of America, you discovered…
the rest of the world!
Your amazing presence on earth
my poetic muse
Your gift – a gift to us all

Your human love – between all people a bond
warm humanity, in awe as I read.
Did you invent yourself ?
– The millennium of the moments of your life,
colorful, they appear before my eyes
you’ve showed me something
– gave birth to yourself!

O, very wise one
awesome vision, visionary
protector of the earth
observing, commenting on
American  society and its
bareballed naked hairy lies
defrocker of falsehood
and legislated morality

beat generation…

this legacy!…
borne  on  your  poetic  voice, as the wind

raised by it
was the only thing that caught my ear, anyhow
– made good sense
not that rhymey stuff!
Ahh, now I understand – unrhymey stuff!

Read your biography
– it was good!
you know lots about
what’s good about life

I’ve admired you for many years
now I read this  bio
Now I wrote this down so clean
Thanks and Thanks…

…to  the  Author  of  your  life

(1994)

see also:  The Beat Writers