The week beginning January 24th, Patti Smith was in London playing gigs, telling stories and eating a little cake. She played with Patrick Wolf at a fundraiser for St. Giles in the Field church in Covent Garden and strayed to Surrey for an event held in honour of W.G. Seabald. She also spoke with Geoff Dyer at the Royal Geographical Society for Intelligence Squared and read at the London Review Bookshop. I was lucky enough to see her at these last two events.
At the Royal Geographical Society, in her croaky voice and Jersey-twang, Patti told tales of her childhood; how she’d saved all her money to sneak into a club to watch John Coltrane, only to be thrown out for being underage after fifteen minutes (“It was worth it”, she assured). She went on to describe the New York of the late 1960s and her time staying at the Chelsea Hotel. She spoke about being at the very edges of the world she wanted to enter - and then about being part of it. In her remembrances the Chelsea Hotel was as riddled with artists as it was with lice. She describes her room filled with “piss pots” in the same breath as describing a visit from beat poet Gregory Corso - he told her it was his kind of place.
At one stage she read out a section from her memoir, ‘Just Kids’, about her first meeting with Allen Ginsberg in an automat (a coin-operated joint selling grim fast food). Ginsberg stood her the price of a grilled cheese sandwich and a coffee and watched her devour it before peering at her and asking “are you a girl?” She got the picture immediately and asked “is that a problem?” He told her no and they parted ways. They later became friends and would joke about their inauspicious first meeting. Ginsberg asked her how she would describe the encounter; she told him, “You fed me when I was hungry.”
Her gratitude to and love for Robert Mapplethorpe, for whom ‘Just Kids’ was written, was threaded throughout the evening, and she credited him with giving her confidence in her singing voice and in her art work. “No one saw anything in my voice accept for Robert.” At the London Review Bookshop she staged an impromptu poetry reading, joking that in your old age it was always good to have another profession to fall back upon. The highlight was her scat reading of Bob Dylan’s Dog, fizzing with a verve and madcap spontaneity, and letting us see just what she could do with her voice as she half-chanted half-sang to the pounding rhythm of her feet. She recited more from her poetic (and surprisingly comical) memoir, which I heartily recommend reading.
It was in this spirit of praise that I embarked on my Patti pilgrimage, encouraged by the convergence of two photography exhibitions that had touched her life. The first was ‘Angel Headed Hipsters’ at the National Theatre which was made up of a black and white photographs taken by a young Allen Ginsberg. The exhibition, which is open until 20th March, touchingly captures Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs at the very start of their literary careers. The second was an exhibition at the Alison Jacques Gallery, curated by the Scissor Sisters, of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. Mapplethorpe’s work is graphic and erotic and instantly recognisable. His images, deemed obscene in the ‘70s, are streamlined, simple and vital. The isolated body parts are always challenging rather than objectified and, with the careful curation of the Scissor Sisters, there is always an ironic nod to the blushing eye of the audience, as though they are slyly winking at you from behind the lens.
Throughout the readings and exhibitions the sense of a dynamic, mutually supportive community of artists is always present; everybody was into everybody else’s work, and your contemporaries were your harshest critics and fiercest supporters. It is hard not to feel nostalgic for this sense of artistic community, and question whether it still exists today. “We took the subway to West Fourth Street and spent the afternoon in Washington Square. We shared coffee from a thermos, watching the stream of tourists, stoners and folk singers. Agitated revolutionaries distributed anti-war leaflets. Chess players drew a crowd of their own. Everyone coexisted with the continuous drone of verbal diatribes, bongos and barking dogs.” - Patti Smith, ‘Just Kids’.