Dec 23, 2011

Just Men and Dogs at George's

Our dinner on Dec. 13 presented our host with a thematic challenge:  how to evoke the art scene of Patti Smith's 1970's New York without ignoring Mapplethorpe's enormous presence in her memoir.  With a little help from Armando, George succeeded quite nicely.  He presented us with a Coney Island menu (chili dogs and homemade Moon Pies) and a background soundtrack that was vintage Patti Smith.

As we reached for second helpings of Moon Pie, Armando set up an impromptu studio in the living room.  Backed by hot lights and a Hasselblad with a Polaroid back, Armando shot instant B&W head-and-shoulders portraits of all of us.  The more adventurous (or exhibitionist, in the case of Stan and John) pulled off their shirts.  The results: amusing, artistic, but hardly Mapplethorpe.  For that, Armando will need more capable subjects.  (Garth, where are you?)

The Book
Patti Smith's highly-acclaimed memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and her own coming of age as an artist in New York City in the 1960's and 70's was an unusual choice for us.  Written by a woman and mostly about a woman, it very nearly violated our cardinal rule (its focus on Mapplethorpe saved it from disqualification).  And while she won the National Book Award for Just Kids in 2010, Patti Smith was known to us as a rocker, not a writer.

Perhaps with these reservations in mind, I came to this book with a bias that I couldn't shake.  My distaste only grew as I recoiled from Smith's incessant name-dropping, her simplistic writing style (like Paul, I hated its staccato rhythm), and her tedious invocations of Rimbaud and Baudelaire as inspirations for her own nascent artistic sensibility.  So imagine my surprise when I showed up at George's and learned that everyone else found plenty to like in Just Kids.  

George and Dean were enthralled by the 1970's New York art scene described by Smith.  For his part, Doug felt that her name-dropping was simply part of the bohemian currency of the era.  Like Dan and Stan, he was drawn to her memoir partly out of a fondness for her music as a teenager in the 1970's--a style of music he contrasts with the "vapid, corporatized" rock music of today. 

Even those of us less attuned to her music found something to like in Smith's narrative.  Terry was impressed by her and Mapplethorpe's single-minded devotion to their work, Armando admired her strength and resilience as an artist (and was reminded of working in a music store and constantly re-stocking her debut album, Horses), and Paul (who joined us from Kansas City!) found the modest lives of 1970's rock stars, sans entourages, appealing.  For John and Larry, the strength of the book was its devotion to Smith's and Mapplethorpe's relationship as young artists.

For her story (but not for her writing), we awarded Patti Smith a 6.1, which puts her only a little below average in our ratings.  While I'm tempted to accuse others of praising Smith's memoir out of nostalgia or sympathy, my own rating (a 1) was a little unfair.  To make up, here is a stock photo of Smith:
Patti Smith, then

Next Up
We leave for our ski sojourn in the Sierras in January and return to a new selection of titles in February.   Until then, good reading!  [Ed. Note:  With no snow in the mountains, we've reversed course:  Jack has kindly agreed to host in January and we'll see if February delivers enough snow to make a weekend out of it.]

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