Just Kids: II
Patti Smith’s memoir provides a good excuse to re-examine the political, economic and social context of the seventies. Yet it also begs the question: how much artists are influenced by their times and how much by their personal enthusiasms and by their admiration for earlier artists.
For most people the punk movement in Britain is indelibly associated with the political and economic malaise of the 1970s. In 1973 Middle East producers doubled the price of oil in response to the west’s support for Israel during the Yom Kippur war. As the decade progressed, Britain’s steel, shipbuilding, coal and textile industries lost out to global competitors in the Far East. A growing rift appeared between workers. On one side were protected workers in nationalised utilities and in other services provided by the public sector. On the other were more economically exposed workers in traditional manufacturing industries. Governments commanded tiny majorities and political parties appeared increasingly irrelevant.
Such social and economic changes sparked an inevitable protest among young people. In the late sixties hippie students had aspired to the wide-open spaces of the American dream while looking forward to a life-time of full employment. In contrast the punk movement emerged as angry, dirty and disruptive. The baton was passed from the indulgent individualism of the middle class to young people growing up in the benighted estuaries and crap towns of Britain’s post-industrial wasteland. Nor was punk simply a revolt of those young people that had failed the eleven plus. The lyrics of The Clash’s London’s Burning or of The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen epitomised the frustrations of a whole generation who were just experiencing the end of the post-war boom.
At first sight Patti Smith’s release of her single Hey Joe seems to mirror the experience of Britain. The disc, which some people have identified as ‘the first punk record’, came out in New York in 1974. In that year America continued to be rocked by the revelations of Watergate, the failures in Vietnam and the defection of Patty Hearst to the Symbionese Liberation Army. More significantly, the ‘B’ side of the single, Piss Factory, described the experiences that Patti had suffered as a teenager in a local factory and her determination to get out and make something of her life In Just Kids, her brilliant memoir of the emergence of her and her partner, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, she recounted how her fellow workers accused her of being a Communist because she had a book by Rimbaud in French.
There are, however, three broad reasons why her account does not reflect the same political and economic influences as those that inspired the punk movement in Britain. The first and most obvious is that the dates don’t fit. In 1974 punk was an inchoate phenomenon that only became an identifiable movement in New York in about 1975 and in Britain the following year. Even then it meant different things in different countries. Hence as a cultural label it is more analogous to the term ‘Expressionism’ than to a coherent and self-identifying movement such as Futurism or Vorticism. The second reason is that Patti Smith is openly ambivalent about politics and seems less inspired by her immediate surroundings than by her passion for nineteenth century French culture. The third is that just as Patti Smith’s emergence as an artist was formed by her experience as a woman, so too was that of her partner, Robert Mapplethorpe, determined by his increasing confidence as a gay man. While such experiences represent by definition the experience of more than half the people in the world, they are not necessarily consistent with the British equivalent, which in the 1970s was still defined primarily by class.
In Just Kids Patti Smith remembers that in the New York art scene around Warhol, ‘No one talked much about politics in Max’s except the politics of the Factory. It was generally accepted that the government was corrupt and that Vietnam was wrong..…(but)…I could not identify with political movements……I never had the right lines.’ Elsewhere, speaking of her early days in New York when she slept in Central Park and stole food to survive, she describes the skyscrapers around her as ‘monuments to the arrogant….yet philanthropic spirit of America.’
What sustained her was her passion for art. She and Robert Mapplethorpe dreamed of the day when they could afford two tickets to the Whitney Museum and of its staging an exhibition of their work. Surrounded by some of the most influential artists in the New York art scene, she writes that her work ‘was shifting from the formality of French prose poetry to the bravado of Blaise Cendrars’. Such lack of contemporaneity was matched by her admission that what attracted her to the musician, Howard Michel’s, was that ‘it was a relief to converse with someone about everything from Nietzsche to Godard.’ Even her first visit to the Factory to see Trash in 1970 resulted in her disappointment that ‘perhaps, it was not French enough’.
Patti seems to reimagine New York as the Paris of ‘Breathless, Man Ray, Rimbaud and Duchamp’ that she had glimpsed on a fleeting visit to the Boulevard Raspail. Yet, what is even more surprising is the preconception that she brings to her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. At sixteen she read The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera and dreamt of ‘meeting an artist to love and support and work with side by side’. No doubt this will come as a shock to fans of Frida Khalo. So too will her tolerance of Robert’s tardy admission after a resumption of their relationship following a period of separation that he has probably just given her gonorrhoea. ‘I felt a rising pleasure,’ she relates elsewhere, ‘when he used a reference to me in a work as if through him I would be remembered’.
Their support for each other was mutual and there are wonderful descriptions of their relationship throughout the book. Yet, one sometimes feels that the obstacles that she faces are typical of what she expects as a woman of her generation. Early on she seems uncritical of her father’s determination for her to acquire a teacher’s qualification since she will never be ‘attractive enough to find a husband’. When she goes home to South Jersey he reads Plato aloud to the family while her mother – whose parting gift to Patti had been a waitress’s uniform like her own – busies herself in the kitchen making meatloaf sandwiches.
As so often in Just Kids, her consolation for her disappointments is French literature. When Robert, who has previously hustled for money, starts an affair with David Croland, she records her belief that homosexuality is ‘a poetic curse’. More surprisingly, and with a nod to her beloved Rimbaud, she says that ‘she thought that a man turned homosexual when there was not the right woman to save him.’ Consistent with her solicitude for Mapplethorpe is her empathy for the early deaths of such contemporaries as Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. In Paris she visits the grave of Jim Morrison shortly after her pilgrimage to the cemetery that contains Rimbaud. Yet when Mapplethorpe succumbs to an early death from Aids, it underlines the distinction between his experience as a homosexual and that of contemporary heterosexual males who were busy indulging their feminine side by imitating the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground, David Bowie and Roxy Music. Before the Aids virus, such influences on the construction of male identity might have seemed less important than the battles which Patti Smith and other women artists waged to assert themselves as musicians. Nevertheless they may have shared some of the same origins as the more familiar narrative of feminism.
In this context it is worth noting that Patti herself was often mistaken as a lesbian by her acquaintances and as ‘a very pretty boy’ by Allen Ginsberg at their first meeting. As a tomboy, she recalls her childish horror at the garishness of women’s make-up in the fifties and of how when she became pregnant at sixteen she never wanted to ‘become a woman or grow up’. Such references to Peter Pan are almost as potent as the story of the ugly duckling that seems to lie behind what she implies is her own first memory.
As a symbol of an era in which the personal became the political it seems particularly evocative. For Just Kids is all about the struggle to grow up and to try to be oneself. Given the materialism of everything that has followed since the Reagan/Thatcher period, such ideas may now seem quaint and idealistic. Yet for a moment at least the punk ugly duckling ruled.
Next week the series continues with an examination of ‘Just Kids’ in terms of the changing relationship between artist and public and the development of materials and processes.