Patti Smith's Artistic Education

Patti Smith's Just Kids is essential reading for anyone interested in the New York City of the late 1960's to the mid 1970's, that gilded era of Max's Kansas City, Warhol's Factory, the Chelsea Hotel, and the early days of CBGB's, to name just a few venues that proved pivotal landmarks in the cultural landscape of the city.

I recall the first time I heard Smith's music on the radio in Boston. Her first album Horses had just been released, and the DJ was obviously uncomfortable with her music, for he proceeded to mock her, insisting her music was destined for oblivion. I was accustomed to the freewheeling format of '70s FM radio, but I knew the DJ was an idiot. I was also convinced her sound was distinctive and thrilling. 

Smith had developed a name for herself as a spoken word poet before that first album was released in late '75, some months after the release of her genre defying indie label single "Piss Factory." I was alternately fascinated and confused by Smith, arriving on a wave of buzz reminiscent of the Divine Miss M just a couple of years earlier. Smith both preceded punk and also helped usher it in. 

Lacking a hit single, her music remained somewhat obscure until "Because the Night" sprang forth in the spring of '78, a collab with fellow Garden State native Bruce Springsteen. That song remains a highlight of '70s rock radio, with its stark piano and voice opening, building to a dramatic crescendo a la "Born to Run," reminiscent of Springsteen while also heralding her own unique sound.

Smith would release just one more album after the success of "Because the Night" and its attendant album, Easter, before taking an extended hiatus to marry Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5 and moving to Detroit, where she set about raising their two children. Smith was next heard from in '88, with her Dream of Life album, and then disappeared again until Gone Again in '96. She has recorded sporadically since then, and Just Kids marks her glorious foray into the realm of non-fiction.

In typically genre-defying form, Just Kids proved sufficiently uncategorizable by Smith's publisher that the book jacket labels it "autobiography/biography." While it is indeed both, the "bio" part applying to Mapplethorpe, it is a cleverly focused work of non-fiction that concentrates on Smith's early years growing up in South Jersey before she alighted for New York City. It is there she promptly crossed paths with Mapplethorpe, soon becoming his lover and remaining his friend until his untimely death in '89.

I remember thinking Smith came to rock relatively late, in her late 20's, and wondered what led up to the start of her recording career. This book answers that question and many others, in the process revealing an insider's view of a particularly fascinating period in New York City's arts history, from the outside and the inner circle, from sleeping on a stoop in Brooklyn to assuming a regular post at Warhol's back table at Max's, the legendary nightclub where the Velvet Underground would soon play their final US gigs.

Part of the magic of the book is the sense of childlike wonder Smith has retained after all these years, and her allure as both character and author. It is also a timeless tale of a love story of two soulmates who are meant for each other and yet end up following differing paths. Smith came from humble beginnings and it is a delight to read of her emerging poetic sensibility, her coming out as an artist. She seldom indulges in back patting, but rather shares her awe at meeting the likes of Sam Shepard, Grace Slick, and Allen Ginsberg, hopeful but unsure she would herself become a major artist.

Throughout, there is a sustaining dedication to artistic expression, and Smith's emergence as a singer is both fascinating and inevitable. Her determination to make it and her dedication to Mapplethorpe, a similarly disciplined artist, is both heartening and engrossing reading. An inside angle of a particularly fascinating period in New York City's history expertly told is what makes this story essential reading. It's tempting to ponder the prospect that Just Kids may prove to be her most enduring work.

(Just Kids is available from Ecco/HarperCollins paperbacks.)

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Lucky Days  (blockbuster)

"Lucky Days" at IndieScreen

An inspired new film is currently screening at one of New York’s most appealing cinemas, IndieScreen in Williamsburg. The venue features a bar and kitchen and is well worth a visit, particularly for the current run of “Lucky Days”, the first feature from acclaimed stage actor Angelica Torn. Torn enjoyed international success performing “Edge”, a solo piece based on the last day in the young life of American poet Sylvia Plath.

For “Lucky Days”, Torn adds film director and screenwriter to her resume. Film festival accolades trail the arrival of this film to New York City, part of a national tour of indie venues. The film is co-directed by Torn’s brother Tony Torn, who also appears in the film as a bouncer at a club on Coney Island, the symbolic setting of “Lucky Days”.

Torn plays a woman waiting for her long-time boyfriend to propose, an event that is fraught with complications. She is working at a mental health facility and living with family while her paramour Vincent (Federico Castellucio) lives across the hall with his disapproving mother (Anne Jackson) and non-verbal father (Rip Torn), played by Torn’s father.

Virginia, Torn’s character, finds her lengthy trajectory from girlfriend to fiancée further complicated by the arrival of old flame, Zeth. He has returned to reconnect with his brother J.C. (Will Patton), who is a patient at the hospital where Virginia works. The appearance of Zeth, played by the magnetic Luke Zarzecki, causes Virginia to question her existence. The rekindling of their romance provides Virginia the sort of passion lacking in her chaste involvement with the immature Vincent.

The film looks like a Cindy Sherman still come to life, with its vivid, saturated colors and beautifully composed interior shots. The script, tight and realistic with occasional comic moments, reminds one of the early films of Hal Hartley. Angelica Torn has a luminous screen presence and the timing of a gifted comic actor. Zarzecki is a similarly compelling actor, and together they make one of the screen’s most memorable pairings in recent memory.

My only minor quibble with the film is the occasional uncertainty in the tone of the film, as it veers from dry humor to drama. Still, “Lucky Days” dazzles with its stunning imagery, crisp writing, and the captivating performances of Torn and Zarzecki.

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Lush Life by Richard Price  (fictionwritersreview)

‘Life’ and Art

One of my favorite reads of the past few years, Lush Life by Richard Price, is the subject of a multi-gallery art exhibit on New York’s Lower East Side. News of the exhibit, named after the novel, bolstered my sense that the book merits re-examination. Price has several novels to his credit, including Clockers, adapted into a film by Spike Lee, who shared screenwriting duties with Price. He also worked with Martin Scorsese, earning an Oscar nod for penning “The Color of Money.”  Those credentials were sufficient to confirm Price’s place as an astute observer of gritty, urban life, while Lush Life has catapulted him to the status of premier chronicler of the modern LES. The attendant art exhibits serve double duty as promotion for a blossoming gallery scene, and an opportunity for literary reappraisal.

What is initially most striking about the book is how camera-ready it reads. It was as if Price had folded a completed screenplay into the relative expanse of a novel, with its descriptive details and interior monologues, possibly the quintessential story of 21st century life on the LES. Price is foremost a stylist, with a knack for the sort of salty fugues police dramas often aspire to but rarely achieve. Much of the novel consists of dialogue, largely involving police officers and detectives, often laced with profanity and the sort of piercing, unsentimental observations one would expect of New York’s finest.  It is unsurprising to learn that Price was a contributing writer to “The Wire”, the much-lauded series on HBO. Price’s story is set on the Lower East Side, with echoes of the past that haunt this neighborhood, shape-shifting from European Jewish immigrants, to Hispanic families, to the arty aspirants at the heart of the story. The LES has previously been placed under the interrogation lamp, both in historical fiction (E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime) and modern cinema (Joan Micklin Silver’s “Crossing Delancey”) but not as the sort of comprehensive chronicle of cross-cultural experiences of LES life Lush Life details.

The novel jumpstarts with a murder that reverberates throughout the interwoven stories that unfold and overlap throughout the book. Vivid characters are introduced and a palpable sense of place, the LES circa 2005, is evocatively conjured up.  Lush Life commences with three male friends being mugged walking home from a night of drinking, one of whom is shot. Detective Matty Clark commences an investigation that initially entails the arrest of Eric Cash. Cash is an aspiring writer and bartender at a buzzy local restaurant. It is the inconsistencies in his account of the shooting as detailed to Clark that allow Price an opportunity to display his singular talent at writing crisp, authentic dialogue, both between the two men and individually as interior monologues. It is in the process of the telling of the tale that Lush Life distinguishes itself from the plethora of police dramas, from “NYPD Blue” to “Law & Order”.  

If you can get to New York in the first two weeks of August, you will find a couple of exhibits still open from the art exhibit. Failing that, I suggest picking up a copy of Lush Life and folding time into your summer holiday to relish one of the most compelling crime stories of the past few years. It’s the sort of book that multi-gallery exhibits and cult classics are made of.  Lush Life is now available in paperback.

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Meg Kennedy  (pinterest)

Center for Book Arts a Testament to the Bound Book

I visited the Center for Book Arts for the first time this week, and vow to return soon. Located on the third floor of an unassuming mid-block building in the mid-20's, the CBA and its current exhibit are reminiscent of nothing so much as an art gallery, one of those located on the fifth floor of a building in nearby Chelsea.

Titled "Multiple, Limited, Unique: Selections from the Permanent Collection", the current exhibit seems like a good introduction to an organization that was created in 1974 as the first of its kind in the country. Back then, it's unlikely the founders could have envisioned a day, 35 years later, when the electronic book would outsell the paper book.

Clearly, most readers have embraced the virtual experience of the e-book, but for those who insist the hardcover experience cannot be replaced, the CBA is a testament to the irreplaceable quality of a paper bound book. To bolster its case even further, the exhibit showcases works that are purely aesthetic creations, lacking either a feasible method of opening and reading them. For example, Cloud Book Study, lacking any words, instead features a series of photos of clouds with an accompanying video illustrating the experience of flipping through the book to create the sensation of moving clouds.

What the exhibit so splendidly illustrates is the rich tradition of book arts and the innovative approaches various artists have taken to interpret the book. Included in the exhibit are catalogues, prints, and ephemera, all illuminating various techniques that have shaped bookmaking over the past 40 years. While many of the names of the artists may not be familiar to even dedicated book enthusiasts, the work is largely memorable. 

The exhibit is the result of a three year Collections Initiative, and its focus is both the preserving of traditional methods of bookmaking artistry, as well as promoting innovative artists. The Center features working presses and a small collection of books in its ad hoc gift shop. It might behoove the Center to consider a modest admission charge and an expansion of its shop to generate additional income. The CBA is well worth seeking out as more than just a very persuasive argument against replacing genuine books with electronic versions.

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