What I’m Reading Now

Patti Smith didn’t appear on my horizon much. I knew she was a punk rocker, a genre that passed me by. During that period I was listening almost exclusively to Miles and Coltrane and their kin, with an occasional side trip to B.B. King and Buddy Guy and those folks. But I also knew that she had won any number of awards and shared with my mother an adoration of Little Women, a fact noted by Barbara Sicherman in Well Read Lives. (“What I’m Reading Now”)

My knowledge would probably have remained as is had I not decided to use up my Borders’ gift cards before the bankruptcy erupted. So as part of a buy one get one for half-price, I wound up with her memoir Just Kids and Freakonomics, which I haven’t read yet. Am curious to see if there’s more of a connection than their proximity on a sale table at a poor sad chain bookstore.

I am very glad I bought Just Kids for this story of a complex, brilliantly multi-talented woman and her genius boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe is a gift to the world. My first reaction was jealousy. Why can’t I write like that? She has such passion, such facility of expression. She gave herself the kind of education in the classics in art, music, literature, that I could have received, had I been paying attention. And she had to overcome far more than I with a series of childhood illnesses, a pregnancy at an early age, poverty to the level of near starvation.

Despite the differences in our backgrounds, Patti Smith and I share a great deal. We’re close to the same age, loved to read, spent time in rather seedy parts of Philadelphia, and had more than a passing knowledge of Archy and Mehitabel. Our family was so in love with the cockroach and the alley cat that we named our first feline Mehitabel.

At about 100 pages in, I’ve only found one objection. Smith says, “In the war of magic and religion, is magic ultimately the victor? Perhaps priest and magician were once one, but the priest, learning humility in the face of God, discarded the spell for the prayer.” But aren’t the priest and the magician still one? The magician has humility in the face of the power of the spells he weaves, which are incantations and at the same time prayers. I guess that’s one big difference between us: I didn’t have the Catholic faith to give me certainty.

The biggest surprise so far is Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe. He did not enter my awareness until the late 1980s when right-wing congressmen threatened the entire funding of the National Endowment for the Arts because of him and others. At that point I knew him as a provocative and innovative artist who captured aspects of the landscape no else had yet crossed. I also knew he was gay and I guess just assumed that he would never have a girlfriend. Watching their relationship development and mature is one of the joys of Just Kids

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