Assorted novelties: Iconoclasm, admiration and Patti Smith

A drawing of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe exuding coolness.
(Crystal Yang • The Student Life)

I want to be Patti Smith. 

The punk rock icon, writer and chameleon artist is not just someone I admire or wish to emulate; I imagine wandering the streets of Manhattan as her, assembling pieces of scavenged artifacts into secret masterpieces tucked away in a studio apartment. 

My mind reformulates memories of afternoons in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, casually running into Salvador Dalí or Janis Joplin. Escaping into Smith’s memoir “Just Kids” is a timely activity, for just as we costume ourselves as ghosts, ghouls or sexy cowgirls on Halloween, the words on the page dressed me up as something other than myself. I wore all-black, tousled my hair and listened to the Velvet Underground. 

Smith is my paragon of coolness. Chronicling her life with fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe in 1960s Manhattan, she represents a world that was funky, creative and nourishing. Her memoir is nothing like the now common books from celebrities that seek to package a cult of personality in quirky anecdotes. Although I loved Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” and Mindy Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?”, neither author possesses Smith’s command of language. Her prose is musical, peeling off the page and moving through your blood like a kind of medicine. As I ventured through the book, I bore witness to an era of overture — a city filled with beginnings — with Smith as the conductor. 

While “Just Kids” is, for most people, a nostalgic account for a long-lost city, it meant something very different to me. My obsession with Smith was a week-long phase that changed my Spotify algorithm for the foreseeable future, but it also forced me to reckon with the very concept of admiration in general.

Anyone who has spent the smallest amount of time around me knows that I am deeply obsession-prone. My own psychoanalytical observation of this tendency has led me to conclude that attending a super hip all-girls camp from a young age taught me to worship the older campers and staff, influencing me to simply need a nose ring and listen to the Mamas and the Papas. Students at the 5Cs can relate to this tendency. It’s hard to spend more than ten minutes sitting outside the Motley Coffeehouse at Scripps College without completely reevaluating my personal style. We all admire people from afar, wishing that we could embody their coolness.  

What moved me in the pages of “Just Kids” was also Smith’s awareness of this impulse to admire — and even mimic — the people around us. One of my favorite passages described Smith and Mapplethorpe’s preparation for a night out at Max’s Kansas City, a nightclub and restaurant where they would go to marvel at Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick. While Smith dressed quickly, Mapplethorpe took hours deciding how he wanted to appear to his idols. Admiration was, for him, a force that shaped his personal presentation in a way that resonated with me. I could relate to the Shakespearean struggle of deciding how many necklaces to wear; it reminded me of the painstaking, life-or-death decision making that always accompanied getting ready with friends for a night out.  

This kind of worship and admiration shaped Mapplethorpe’s experience of living as an artist in New York. It was not, however, the same for Smith. She was also influenced by the people around her, but she appreciated them as teachers, guides and friends, rather than as heroes to emulate. Even further, she appreciated that the impulse to mimic others destabilized her own sense of self. Describing a dinner she had with fellow artists, Smith chronicled the disorientation brought on by her proximity to coolness and fame.

“As I sat there I noticed that I felt physically unstable, malleable, as if I were made of clay. No one seemed to indicate that I had changed in any way … I felt so profoundly altered that I fled and locked myself in our old shared bathroom on the tenth floor,” Smith wrote.  

“Just Kids” made me want to be Patti Smith, but it also made me acutely aware that this desire was complicated. I should not be comfortable with an unquestioned drive to worship coolness, no matter how alluring it may be.

In a literary sense, perhaps the sign of a good memoir is this yearning to embody the author. As a reader, we extend our sensations into their lived experiences, seeking to bridge a phenomenological divide and insert ourselves into their consciousness. Smith is particularly successful at opening up her prose to literary inhabitation. Her portrait of New York City made me miss a decade I never experienced, inviting wistful nostalgia for something entirely imagined. 

At the same time, Smith questioned this drive to embody, both demystifying herself as an author and her past world. She invited her readers to understand influence as something more than an aesthetic, imploring us to learn from and appreciate others while planting stakes around our own individuality. True emulation is not external, as we may think, but it is rather a process of determining our own values and interests as we absorb guidance from others. 

“Just Kids” is more than an ode to the swingin’ ’60s. It is an instruction manual for retaining your essential elements, your childhood myths and your itching sadnesses while basking in the glow of fame or influence. I still want to be Patti Smith. But I never want to lock myself, as Anna, in a bathroom.  

Anna Solomon PZ ’23 is TSL’s book columnist. An aspiring thinker in the political sciences, she is passionate about breakfast cereal, long runs and defending the honor of listening to the radio. 

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