This is one of those books I’d been meaning to read for ages: I heard about it when it first came out, and then I was reminded of it again in 2015 when I read what Nick Hornby had to say about it in More Baths, Less Talking. Then I found a copy of it in a Little Free Library in Asbury Park this July, which felt apt given Asbury Park’s rock-and-roll history, and then I saw Patti Smith open for The National in August, and then in October a friend picked this as our nonfiction book club’s next read.
So, right: this is Patti Smith’s memoir about her artistic coming-of-age and about Robert Mapplethorpe’s, and it was really interesting to read about how they met and their connection and their parallel/overlapping artistic journeys, with Robert finding his way to photography and Patti finding her way to music. The book is also a portrait of the New York City through which Smith and Mapplethorpe moved from 1967 to 1978, and there are so many great/wild stories – Smith and Allen Ginsberg at the automat/him saying he thought she was “a very pretty boy”, Smith and Sam Shepard at Max’s Kansas City, except she doesn’t know he’s Sam Shepard even though they’ve been seeing each other for a while at this point, and, of course, the whole artistic milieu of the Chelsea Hotel. There are excursions to Coney Island and Paris and the town in France where Rimbaud was born, all of which are excellent; Smith is very good at conjuring the feel of a particular place at a particular moment. Here are a few sentences describing Washington Square Park, from early in the book: “In Washington Square, one could still feel the characters of Henry James and the presence of the author himself. Entering the perimeters of the white arch, one was greeted by the sounds of bongos and acoustic guitars, protest singers, political arguments, activists leafleting, older chess players challenged by the young.” I also loved this, when Smith is talking about walking up 2nd Avenue after Coltrane’s death, thinking about Frank O’Hara: “Pink light washed over rows of boarded buildings. New York light, the light of the abstract impressionists.” And this: “There were days, rainy gray days, when the streets of Brooklyn were worthy of a photograph, every window the lens of a Leica, the view grainy and immobile.”