Two weeks ago I had intended to write about Patti Smith, but then my column got to be long enough so I decided to save it for later. Patti Smith is a musician who is probably best known for her song “Gloria.” There are two albums that I can think of off hand, “Horses” and “Easter.” I just looked it up and she also wrote “Because the Night,” (co-written with Bruce Springsteen) and “People Have the Power.”
She was born in 1946 and her mother, Beverly Smith, was a jazz singer. She was part of a band know as the Patti Smith Group from 1974 through 1979. She contributed lyrics to some Blue Oyster Cult songs. She was married to Fred “Sonic” Smith who was a guitarist for a Detroit band known as MC5. They had two children, one of which, Jackson, married White Stripes drummer, Megan White. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. This is all stuff I didn’t know before I looked it up.
So, here is how I got to know Patti Smith and, of course, it has to do with books. In October of 2015 I spent two weeks in Ethiopia and on my way home I spent one week in Paris. I was walking down a street, rue de Rivoli, I was actually on the sidewalk, and decided to stop at the W. H. Smith bookstore. One of the books on sale was the recently released book, M Train, by Patti Smith. It looked interesting so I bought it.
I enjoyed it because I liked her writing and I like to write. I found out she likes to visit cemeteries and I like to visit cemeteries. She likes photography and I like photography. She likes to visit Paris and I like to visit Paris. What more can I say? Ok, I admit I don’t make music.
Patti Smith’s photography is done through a Polaroid Land 250 Camera and she doesn’t use artificial light. After reading her book, M Train, and looking at her photos I bought a Fuji Instant Camera and tried my hand at instant photography. Polaroid was a precursor to the Fuji camera. The trick is, because the film is somewhat expensive, to get the photo you want in one try. With digital photography you can take 100 pictures and sort out the one you want to keep.
Following “M Train” I got a copy of “Woolgathering” written in 1992. “Woolgathering” is a book of poetry and in the spot on her bio, where her occupation is noted, she has listed it as a poet. Poetry is a difficult read for me and, so, much of what was in “Woolgathering” I didn’t get. I have also tried to read “Auguries of Innocence” (2005) and “Devotion” (2018) and “The New Jerusalem” (2015). Again, it was difficult for me to get much out of them, but I do know her poetry is good. I’ve been so told. “Devotion” was a book of essays on why I write.
One of the books by her that I was avoiding was “Just Kids,” which was a memoir she wrote in 2010 about her life with the controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe. His photos were in Black & White and were offensive. “Just Kids” details what life in New York was like for them starting out as artists, his photography and her poetry.
For a while they lived in the Chelsea Hotel. I enjoyed reading about how they lived and what they did. Smith worked in a bookstore and worked on her poetry. She also wrote about the people she encountered and in one passage she told about going down to the bar next to the hotel to find Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and one other really well known musician of the 1960s sitting in the bar. It could have been Santana, Joe Cocker or one of the Crosby, Still, Nash and Young guys. This was in 1969 and they were on their way to a place in New York called Woodstock to perform in a concert. What I wouldn’t have given to have been in that room.
“Just Kids” is a most readable book and Smith won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010. I was put off before I read it because of Robert Mapplethorpe and his art, but I’m really glad I read it because of the quality of Patti Smith’s writing and the story she told.
In addition to the National Book Award and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honors she was awarded, in 2005, the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. She appeared in an episode, Icarus, of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. In 2011 she had a museum exhibition of her photography, Camera Solo. She has done a lot and doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
So, would I recommend books by Patti Smith? Well, I would have to know someone fairly well before making that judgement. I like her written work, her photography, but I don’t get her poetry. I don’t know, ya take your chances.
Christopher Cullis is the publisher of The Bryan Times. Email Christopher at: firstname.lastname@example.org.