Patti Smith and her wicked lifestyle porn

I’ll say this for Patti Smith: Homegirl certainly knows how to write lifestyle porn.

Somewhere between the Chelsea Hotel and the insertion of a millionaire benefactor I closed her love letter to Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, bonked myself in the head and said “Knock it off.” I needed to stop being dazzled and wooed and to start seeing through clear eyes or I’d wake up in a bus stop in Detroit clutching a one-way ticket to 1971.

People do that. Chuck it all, grab a blanket, commit 100 percent to making things. Music. Pictures. Words. More than just teacher-school dropout Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethrope, a skinny kid on the lam from the Catholic church.

Every day, maybe even right this second, a kid is climbing off a bus at some junction in New York City, schlepping a dirty military backpack filled with notebooks filled with poetry filled with nature imagery, A copy of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles in his back pocket. He’s got two weeks worth of dinero in a two-toned teal velcro wallet and a breathlessness about doing “whatever it takes, washing dishes, cleaning toilets as long as I can write.”

He might, like Patti Smith, sleep in a doorway or two. He might, like Patti, find a street angel who will teach him about day-old bread and primo napping places in Central Park. He might get a job at a book store; move into an extended stay hotel full of eccentrics; become a regular at corner bar. He might meet someone who is first his lover, then friend, muse and soulmate.

He’ll observe and jot and wait for a Warhol-ian figure to notice him, all while experimenting with couplets, then, perhaps free verse, then, perhaps starvation. Published in a zine. A promise for publication on a friend of a friend’s website. And after all those PB&Js, after he maybe even finds a word that rhymes with orange, maybe we’ll hear about him. We probably won’t. Maybe he’ll write a book about his soulmate and win a National Book Award.

This is in progress right now and right now and even right now.

The mere fact that we get to read this portrait of the 1970s art scene from this particular perspective is that they both, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, busted through the wall of obscurity. And the reason that this story is thrilling and exciting and tender and tugs at the soul and inspires wanderlust is because you know what was on the other side of that wall: Fame. Tragedy.

So what’s the difference between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe and [insert unknown artist’s name here]. Is it still possible to be short on cash for a sandwich and have the equivalent of Allen Ginsberg foot the rest of the bill in a madcap case of gender confusion? I can’t figure that out. Is it timing? Is it tenacity? Is it talent?

You can’t just say talent: After reading Belinda Carlisle’s memoir last year I realized that underneath the mounds of cocaine and the lipstick was a woman who couldn’t play an instrument, didn’t write songs, and really didn’t know much about singing, who went on to front one of the iconic bands of the 1980s. How did she get there: She hung out at the right clubs on the right West Hollywood street corners and was standing next to the right people when someone decided to start a girl group.

All I know is that reading Just Kids made me want to shed 15 years and ditch out for the big city with a dream journal and a change of socks. That’s easy to say, so freshly seduced.? This is one of those books that made me think I was born too late.

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