“Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead? That pursuit is what burns most deeply. I got over the loss of his desk and chair, but never the desire to produce a string of words more precious than the emeralds of Cortes. Yet I have a lock of his hair, a handful of his ashes, a box of his letters, a goatskin tambourine. And in that folds of faded violet tissue a necklace, two violet plaques etched in Arabic, strung with black and silver threads, given to me by the boy who loved Michelangelo.”
(watch this and then read)
Reading this was an interesting experience for me. Lately I’ve had a weird but insatiable urge to read memoirs by 1970’s musicians. Why? Not really sure – maybe I just need to re-watch Almost Famous. But for whatever reason, I had a particular literary itch to scratch, and only Patti Smith’s memoir would do.
I had heard Gloria before reading this book, and I knew that Patti Smith was a musician. I had never heard of her lifetime friend and partner Robert Mapplethorpe, and most of the artists who get name-dropped in this book flew right over my head. For this reason, this memoir might as well have been pure fiction to me, since I had almost no frame of reference for anyone except the biggest names. But I think that, ultimately, this worked in my favor: instead of spending every other page thinking, “oh my god, she totally knew [famous person] before they were famous!” I was just focusing on the story.
And it’s quite a story. People who go into this book expecting to learn about Smtih’s songwriting/performance career will be disappointed; her retelling of how she became a famous musician is basically “someone suggested that I try putting my poems to music and people seemed to really like it, so that’s cool I guess.” There’s not much about her actual writing process, even. She talks a lot about Rimbaud, and tries very hard to write like him. Occasionally you find yourself rolling your eyes at her prose, but for the most part, her writing is quite lovely.
This is, first and last, the story of a lifelong friendship. This is the story of people who sacrificed everything – home, family, comfort, security – in order to become artists. What makes it lovely is that you get the sense that becoming famous – at least, famous in the sense that most people would recognize – never even crossed Smith’s mind. She wanted, purely and simply, to devote her life to art. She was poor and homeless and miserable, but she was happy.
A true starving-artist story, occasionally overwrought, but always compelling. Patti Smith is cooler than everyone you will ever meet.
Verdict: four out of five stars