Friday, August 12, 2011

Patti Smith: Unplugged

I never tire of girl-moves-to-New York City stories. I recently inhaled Just Kids, poet-rocker-artist Patti Smith's memoir of her early days in the city and her romance-cum- friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith's prose is spare and beautiful; her restraint a surprise.  She was involved with Mapplethorpe, renowned for pushing buttons and boundaries with his shocking photographs, yet she is discrete, almost prudish, in her revelations. For instance, she describes their first time together with the Victorian phrase "our first intimacy."

Smith's story moves softly through the bold names and places of New York in the late '60s and early '70s. She encountered Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, had an affair with Sam Shepherd, lived in the Chelsea Hotel and hung out at legendary nightclub Max's Kansas City.

Yet, her very earliest times in New York intrigued me the most.  She left college, New Jersey and a factory job. She had no money and sleeps on the street and in parks. She barely ate.

This skinny girl, who idolized the poet Rimbaud, first saw Mapplethorpe when he walked into Bretano's bookstore, where she was clerking. Later he serendipitously materialized in Tompkin's Square Park and saved her from a horrid date. Soon they were living together in Brooklyn.  He was ostensibly a student at Pratt Art Institute. Holed up in together, they dreamed of artistic accomplishments, sketched, wrote and listened to music. Dinner was splitting a grilled cheese sandwich at a diner. A day in Manhattan was one person going in to museum, the other waiting outside and then describing his or her experience to the other. They could not pay for two.

The portrait of their home life in the pre-internet, pre-cell phone, pre- electronic age is an astounding period piece. Take away their electricity, and they might as well have been the Brontës creating into the void of the desolate moors. Their apartment had no TV, radio or phone. Some evenings they played a game called "Night of the Record" and drew while playing the same record over and over. Its album cover would be displayed on their mantel.

Last week I watched my nine-year-old daughter iChat for the first time. My 14-year-old son is always texting or scrolling through Facebook or You Tube. The contrast is incredible. What is it like to live an unplugged life?  How does a plugged-in person capture enough quietude to develop as an artist, a writer, an anythinger these days? What feeds the creative soul better: instantaneous online recognition or silent isolation?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Half That Makes the Artist Whole

While my friends Scotch taped pictures of David Cassidy, Michael Jackson or Elton John to their bedroom walls, my teenybopper longings went in a different direction. I loved Bob Dylan.

The first album I ever bought was Desire. (It was so long ago I bought it in the record section of the long-defunct Jordan Marsh department store.) It was a bad pressing. The first two tracks skipped, but I loved it and the homemade cassette tape of Blood on the Tracks that I found on the street. The trippy tangle of words strung together into fantastic stories was unlike anything else I heard on WRCO, Boston’s top pop station. I loved the poetry. I loved the melodies. I loved Bob Dylan.

Eventually, he returned my love. On the first date I had with my now-husband, loving Dylan was one of our first bonding points. The fact that we were walking through the same East Village streets he once roamed made the conversation all the sweeter.

A few years ago when Dylan’s famously silent girlfriend Suze Rotolo published a memoir, A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, her straight-forward remembrance of the Village when the folk music and protest scenes were fomenting and she was living with Bob, I gobbled it up and loved her too. First, having had my own romance with life in New York, I’m a sucker for young-woman-in-the Big City tales. As a Dylan fan, I had wondered about the Boho glamour girl strolling arm and arm with the musician down a snowy street on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover. And, finally, as the wife (of an artist!) I am fascinated by the whole dynamic of muse-dom and couples and the half that makes anyone, but especially the artist, whole.

Suze Rotolo (pronounced Rote-o-lo) didn’t inspire by just sitting in a corner looking beautiful – although it looks as though she could do that very well -she educated and guided. In her book and a subsequent press interview, she comes across as a grounded New York girl, serious and smart, not silly, but a bit dreamy. The working-class daughter of Italian-American Communists, she was schooled equally in social justice, opera and the arts. She started taking the subway from Queens to Harlem to volunteer for the civil rights group CORE while still in high school. Dylan, a relative bumpkin from Minnesota, learned a lot from her.

“I listen to Dylan’s songs spread over his early albums and I remember how it was; it’s like reading a diary,” she says in A Freewheelin’ Time. “A private smile because no one knows about that, a laugh because that was really funny, or a tear because it was so hard.” When her book came out, she told The New York Times that she and Dylan “created a private world” and that “We were searching for poetry, and we saw that in each other. We were so ultrasensitive, both of us. That’s why it was a good relationship but also why it was difficult.”

She also gives some tantalizing details of everyday vignettes that were transmuted into lyrics: in one she reminisces about walking home from nightclubs or parties in the early morning. They sometimes passed a Thompson Street butcher that stocked live chickens. On the deserted dawn street, they could hear the roosters crowing. “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” a song widely believed to be about her (even if she doesn’t admit it,) has the line “When the rooster crows at the break of dawn, look out your window and I’ll be gone.”

As a lover of New York and student of Bohemia, I thrilled to her descriptions of the village in the early ‘60s: cheap rents, apartments filled with books and records from secondhand stores and clothes she made or found in thrift stores. She describes one apartment as an “empty canvas” which she filled with free-hand designs painted on the wall, richly colored burlap curtains she made herself and bookcases made from fruit crates.

Rotolo died of lung cancer last week at home in the Village not far from where that iconic portrait Freewheelin’ portrait was taken on Jones Street. (Unfortunately Chesterfields and hand-rolled cigarettes also make an appearance in her book.) In 1961 when she met Bob, he was 20 and she 17. They were together for three years. An artist, activist and Village resident for the rest of her life, she married, had a son and, by all accounts, was happy mostly ignoring “the elephant in the room of my life,” until publishing her book in ’08.

Dylan is known for being opaque, yet Rotolo, whose endeavors as a visual artist never met the audience his work has, in some ways, had the last word. Refusing to be reduced to the girl who inspired one song or the other, Rotolo says she doesn’t “lay claim” to any one piece having been written about her, but that Dylan himself said certain ones would not have existed without her. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean a particular song,” she explains in a Freewheelin’ Time, “It means I served as a muse during our time together and that I don’t mind claiming.”

For that time, she was the half that made the whole. Did he ever thank her?