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?

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