Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Last Book I Heard

I can't really explain why, but I am fascinated by accounts of New York City in the 1970s, especially if they focus on Greenwich Village and the arts world.  Maybe it's because I discovered the Village Voice in the seventies and was enamored with their coverage of the local scene.  In any case, I was looking forward to reading Patti Smith's memoir of that period, with an emphasis on her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, since I first heard about the book a year or so ago. As it happens, when I went to the library to borrow it, they had the audio version, read by the author herself, so it became the soundtrack to my long drive back from Buffalo to Dillon, and I couldn't have had better accompaniment.  Hearing Smith's prose delivered in her distinctive New Jersey voice, conveying genuine emotion prompted by the memory of her experiences, was a big plus.  She describes her upbringing in New Jersey, family life and early work experience, but the book really starts to take off with her arrival in NYC in the late sixties, where she works a variety of minimum wage type jobs while trying to make her way as an artist and poet.  Mapplethorpe becomes her partner, and their relationship ultimately transcends that of friends or lovers, with each fueling the other's creative impulses even as they move in different directions, she towards music and he towards photography.  It's quite a sweet story, told without irony despite the impoverished seediness against which much of it it unfolds.  Along the way, there are encounters with the likes of Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, and Harry Smith (compiler of the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music), not because they add celebrity color to the tale, but because each played a role in shaping the trajectory of Smith's and Mapplethorpe's careers.  Patti Smith's prose is every bit as impassioned and engaging as her music, but even if you're not already a fan, there's a good chance this book (especially the audio version) will win you over with its style, grace, and compelling story.       

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