Art Gallery of Ontario Patti Smith knows how to commune with the dead. She…
- Posted on Nov 17th 2010 2:30PM by Mike Ayers
John Lamparski, WireImage
The Spinner Book Club features excerpts of literary works about many of rock's greatest names. Sometimes they're even written by these performers themselves, who tell their stories in their own words, whether biographical or fictional. The volumes selected for Book Club are as expressive and revealing as the musicians themselves are on their recordings and on the stage.
It's no surprise that Patti Smith's recent memoir, 'Just Kids' -- the detailed account of her relationship with legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe -- has been named the winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction. While as a musician she's made her mark on pop music with her landmark debut, 'Horses,' as well as her Top 20 hit 'Because the Night,' at Smith's core essence she's a poet with an uncanny command of the English language.
Even in her budding punk days as just another kid trying to make it in New York, Smith disciplined herself in keeping diaries and daily note-taking, saving these little scribblings, which helped her construct the narrative to what became 'Just Kids.'
"I went over a lot of materials," she tells Spinner. "Robert's letters to me, my daily diaries of when I was 20; and when I lived at the Chelsea [Hotel], I wrote down what happened, every day. I have little notations like 'Cut Robert's hair,' 'Met Janis Joplin,' 'Got a new book store job,' 'Met Salvador Dali.' So I have the exact dates of when these things happened, so it helped in providing a proper chronology.
"I kept diaries as sort of a family history," she continues. "My grandmother kept diaries and I wanted to be a writer, but I couldn't always bring myself to write. So I disciplined myself about what happened in the day; I still do it. I write something almost every day, even if it's just a list of things to think about."
Up until Mapplethorpe's passing in 1989, Smith and he remained close friends even after severing their romantic ties -- and as much as the book is an account of Smith's life, she's actually fulfilling one of Mapplethorpe's last wishes.
"I promised Robert the day before he died that I would write it," she says. "And since I was the only one who knew him this intimately when he was young, and because we went through so much together as lovers and friends and artists, he could count on me to be truthful."
In conveying her and Mapplethorpe's life together, Smith actually took a two-part approach. First, she wanted the book to be "readable" and "accessible."
"Robert wasn't a reader," she explains. "So I wanted to write a book that he would appreciate. Sometimes with poetry ... so many different things are encoded in language. Sometimes it seems like a secret language. I really wanted the book to read as if it was a story; I was modeling myself more on fiction, then nonfiction, in terms of the inner narrative."
The paperback version of 'Just Kids' is now in stores and features a new cover, 16 new pages of poems and pictures; Smith worked on the overall design, as well. "When you're writing a memoir, every single thing you write can affect someone: It can affect their privacy, it can affect how they're looked upon and it's a huge responsibility,'" she says. "I took it very seriously and I know how hurtful it is when people don't represent you truthfully. I did my best to be close to the facts."
What follows is an exclusive excerpt of Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning memoir, 'Just Kids.'
Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement. It pattered the bright water, flapping its great wings, and lifted into the sky. The word alone hardly attested to its magnificence nor conveyed the emotion it produced. The sight of it generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings. The swan became one with the sky. I struggled to find words to describe my own sense of it. Swan, I repeated, not entirely satisfied, and I felt a twinge, a curious yearning, imperceptible to passersby, my mother, the trees, or the clouds. Continue reading the full 'Just Kids' excerpt here.