Archive for April, 2010

On Patti Smith’s memoirs plus some thoughts on Fame, Luck, Youth, Talent, Art and the tragic tale of Ricochet

April 9, 2010

I’ve been feeding my BBC iPlayer addiction a lot lately, and recently listened to a Radio 4 broadcast of Patti Smith reading her memoir, Just Kids, about her early days in NYC in the late 60s with an equally young Robert Mapplethorpe. As she describes the raw excitement and naiveté of her own age of discovery, the beginning of her quest to “become an artist”, she does so with a hindsight that doesn’t exactly mock yet manages to gently rib some of the earnestness of youth. Youth with its melodramatic devotions and self-conscious pretense of not posing for effect, when that is precisely what is going on. Ah youth! Yes, I remember it well…

Although my own age of discovery occurred a number of years later, in a different city, Mrs Smith’s reminiscences stirred a bittersweet nostalgia for the feeling of that time in life when there are still so many firsts to have. I remember staying up all night on speed with my friends making collages while listening to Miles Davis, the Art of Noise, the Butthole Surfers; taking LSD in Golden Gate Park; watching Survival Research Laboratories stage robot wars underneath the freeway, firing fluorescent glass tubes into the concrete underpass where they would shatter into showers of excitingly sparkly (and highly toxic) dust; running from the cops in the aftermath of political demonstrations and participating in the first forced closure-by-sit-in of the Bay Bridge after a particularly inspired one; falling moodily in love with Genet, Baudelaire, Violette LeDuc and all the great French post-war intellectuals; checking out surrealist films from the library and watching them on an old reel to reel projector in my housemate’s attic loft while we played “exquisite corpse” and mixed cocktails in vintage metal shakers we’d picked up at garage sales.

Part of the power of nostalgia is of course simply to do with the time of life. Of being at that age of carefree and enthusiastic excitement, before you see so many ugly things in other people and in yourself, before your heart has been broken for the very first, and worst, time, before you feel the hardest of the hard knocks that can knock you for a loop and even beat the stuffing out of you for a while. Though all but the suicides bounce back and back again, and survive these vicissitudes, it seems undoubtedly true, well it is for me anyway, that the bounces were bouncier before and are getting ever less so. Sometimes it’s more like a slow motion climb from up out of a deep pit of molasses, or something that smells worse, but there you are. I can’t seem to avoid the obvious cliché here and conclude that thought with: c’est la vie.

Besides the time of life, the location is another piece of the magic. Even living somewhere dreary as a teenager and in your 20s doesn’t mar the fondness of the memories of all the creative solutions one’s little crowd probably came up with to combat terminal boredom. If you’re fortunate enough to have lived in an iconic location, whether a capital city or an incredible natural landscape, then the aura is even more bedazzling in recall. There were many magical things about the Bay Area in the early to mid 1980s and I feel lucky to have been there. It still echoed the energy left from the radiant radical movements of the 60s and 70s, a sort of buzz of the idea of revolution and as an early adopter of the punk rock sound, with a rich rock and jazz history, as well as an impressive pedigree in internationally renowned literary figures, it still had an outstandingly vibrant underground scene encompassing music, all the visual and performing arts and radical politics.

But I’ve got to admit that when I look back, and when I listen to Patti, I can’t help but think to myself what a difference it makes to be at what is really THE right place at the right time, to be blessed by the zeitgeist, to have introductions to the movers of the minute, the people who are changing culture, to find mentors from the generation ahead who want to pass their baton to you and grace you with the honour of being able to reach a wider audience.

Because no matter how groovy SF in 1983-89 was on an experiential level as a place to be and live and learn and grow and be exposed to incredible diversity, no matter how enriched a person it made you on the inside, it just was not a place from which other cities were taking their cue any more. Yes, this changed again with the web innovation a few years later, but in the 80s, San Francisco was more like a super-good secret. Not only was it incredibly fun, and filled with interesting people and places – it was outrageously cheap! (I weep hot tears when I think of some of the marvelous Victorian houses and massive lofts I lived in for what is now the price of a parking space in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.) Of course that too was to change, for the worse and permanently, as a result of the Silicon Valley explosion, so it was definitely a mixed blessing.

Before all that money and madness came into it, San Francisco wasn’t a place where you could find yourself at the epicenter of anything other than an earthquake. For all the inventiveness of its underground scene, the majority of artists never emerged into the popular awareness and the city didn’t lead the way in popular culture the way it could be argued it had done for a while 10-20 years earlier. Yeah it was great but the Zeitgeist didn’t grace San Francisco when I was there, unless you’re referring to the dive motorbike bar at 199 Valencia, which I believe is still there.

A few individuals from the scene I was part of did emerge into the public eye, but I have to say that many of the ones who struck me the deepest with their originality and talent have retained a certain obscurity in their subsequent careers, even while they may have carved out a niche, or a living, or both, in one form or another. I’ll pause here to give props to the wonderful Broun Fellinis who have SURELY got to find fame someday!

Some of my friends from those San Francisco scenes, and some very deserving ones at that, also had the business acumen to develop lucrative careers, were in famous bands, or made popular films, wrote best-sellers, and I give props to them all, but I try not to name drop so, hey – you guys know who you are and well done you! I am gladdened by each and every one of their triumphs.

But nauseatingly, the only person that I knew (not a friend, but an acquaintance and “person on the scene” that I shared a number of close friends with, which I don’t understand to this day…) who has truly achieved superstar status, has the distinction of being the least talented, most unlovely of the bunch; an unpleasant and chaos-inducing person with a suspicious tendency to leave burned-out flats and dead bodies in her wake. In a scene of very creative and talented people I never witnessed her contribute anything other than attention-seeking nonsense. A long long time ago, before whatever deal with the devil she made paid off, she once squatted in a bedroom of mine while I was out of town and then helped herself to my wardrobe on the way out. I know many such true stories and far worse. These can’t just be dismissed as youthful follies, but are indications of core character defects. Serious ones. So, observing her rise and the fawning and sycophantic way the media has fallen all over her, how she has been portrayed as some kind of complex brainiac has been a stomach churning view of the star-making machinery.  People, strangers, LOVE this woman, whom I shall not name, but does she really deserve their love? Her art’s not even good.  It must possess some weird fascinating power I guess, but I’ve always been immune to whatever that is and it’s always struck me as intensely charmless. But then again, I’ve never been able to understand how people can stand to listen to McDonna, let alone actually admire the woman. Fame, oh fame, you’re a very strange game…

So as much as I grew misty over Patti’s descriptions of her precocious love of Rimbaud, her poetic aspirations, and her charming tales of hanging out with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel (she does a wicked imitation of Janis speaking, ending every sentence with a croaky “ma-an”), I couldn’t help thinking that it really was a most extraordinary stroke of luck by which Robert Mapplethorpe happened to be practically the first person she met upon arrival in the big city, and whose inspired gift for image-making gave Patti the look to propel her from poet to rock star; with the second unbelievably fortunate coincidence being her chance meeting with Bobby Neuwirth, who was apparently an unparalleled nexus that introduced absolutely everybody to absolutely everybody else.

The role of well-connected mentors in the careers of some of our favorite artists has not been emphasized enough in their histories, in my opinion.

People say Chas Chandler exploited Hendrix, but he also championed him at a pivotal stage in his career. In fact, in many ways you could really say it was all down to one Linda Keith’s intervention, as she was the person who persuaded Chandler to catch Jimi’s live show at the Café Wha? in New York City. What if Linda hadn’t been so persuasive?

JESUS CHRIST! LINDA! WHEREVER YOU ARE, FUCKING THANK YOU!

I’m not suggesting that the young Patti, sitting writing in her journal, wasn’t worthy of being noticed by Neuwirth; she must’ve had “it” for him to notice in the first place. And in her case she was able to deliver on that initial curiosity by truly being a young, raw, undiscovered genius waiting to happen.

I am however, interested in contemplating that if that meeting and the previous one with Robert hadn’t happened, her path to record deals and accolades, and ultimately to legendary status, might not have either. Or the public might have taken a whole lot longer to recognize her talent.

What if Kate Moss hadn’t been spotted by Sarah Doukas that day at JFK International?

If you dig a little into the careers of people in the entertainment and arts business, those that aren’t there with a generous nepotistic leg-up I mean, you will frequently find such chance meetings as being the catalyst for getting to take a heady spin on the wheel of fortune.

What’s wrong with admitting that good luck plays a part?

One of the only “celebrities” I’ve ever heard admit to luck having played an enormous role in his career was Jerry Springer when he was on Desert Island Discs. I don’t want to get sidetracked down that road because he’s a complex and controversial character, and some people might be thinking “Yeah right he’s lucky! That he got rich off that crap TV show!” But for those that don’t know, he actually had a long and varied career before that, was involved in politics, and had some interesting walk-on roles in a few pivotal cultural moments. I was really impressed by the interview and he struck me as a deeply loving human being. But there I was promising not to veer off into a side-road trying to change people’s minds who think Jerry Springer’s a twat, and I’m already doing it. Must. Stop. Now.

But perhaps it’s not surprising that there is a strong resistance to recognizing the role of luck in some of the brightest careers. The mythology, especially in the USA, of anything being achievable through hard work and persistence, is seductive because of its can-do optimism. Certainly hard work and persistence is likely to get you further in life than mucking about doing fuck all, nonetheless it’s no guarantee of success. There are so many variable factors with connections and timing being the most wildly unpredictable and difficult to control. The right thing at the wrong time is going to fail, no matter how brilliant it is.

I remember the first wireless Internet service when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s. It was called Ricochet and they rolled it out in just a few locations at first with plans to get nationwide coverage eventually.

But people were only just beginning to sign up for broadband, with many people still satisfied with slow dial-up service and the cost of putting transmission towers all over the place to expand signal reach far exceeded demand. My friend Sue, a very future-looking woman in her late 60s, was one of the first people to sign up for it and was immediately enthusiastic. “This is gonna be great!” she said, “You can not only take your laptop with you everywhere, you can communicate with the world from wherever you are!”

But sadly Ricochet boomeranged straight past the dot com boom, instead dive-bombing and the whole enterprise collapsed and went into bankruptcy. By the time it was revived after having been bought in a liquidation, cellular phone technology had bounded forward and already had the infrastructure in place to dominate what was about to become a very viable business indeed. Ricochet anticipated the wireless revolution just a tad early and rather than missing the boat, went out to sea against the tide.

Sometimes it sucks to be a pioneer.

It’s interesting that the same technologies responsible for the next great wave of cultural innovation, our precious Internet and cool A/V tools, are also responsible for having fundamentally altered the ways in which people hang out and exercise their group creativity.  I remember hunting for dictionaries and reference books trying to verify obscure facts, flipping through physical vinyl record collections in order to read liner notes in an argument about who produced Pipers at the Gates of Dawn (Norman Smith), having to call someone’s mother to find out how long you leave a chicken in the oven and a million other things that we now take for granted being able to find out instantly.  As much as I love, love, love, the easy access to tons of information, much of it useful, there was something rather sweet and quaint about having to wait to find out something until you could either get a hold of the right book or person who could tell you.

And there’s something else I miss too.

Patti writes in her book of nights spent with charcoals and pencils, making collages and paintings and I remember doing that and I wonder if young people still do that. No doubt they are getting together doing many creative things, but I have a feeling that many of those things now involve the intermediary of machines. Now we stay up all night making “mash ups” with our digital audio editing software; maybe we build websites or write code to generate animated fractal art. But we don’t get dirty doing it and I think that makes some sort of difference that I can’t quite explain.

And although that seems like a strange way to end things when I read it back, I think I’ll leave it there.