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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Monday
Mar142011

« In Which We Can Feel The Horses Long Before Horses Enter the Scene »

Girl Geniuses

by ANN FRIEDMAN

I have to admit, it’s almost better than being with a man. It’s almost better than that.

– Patti Smith, 1975

Patti Smith describes Just Kids as “our story” – hers and Robert Mapplethorpe’s. Their first years in New York from the late 60s to the late 70s. From a flophouse in Brooklyn to the Chelsea Hotel to their own warehouse space. From Max’s Kansas City to CBGB. From lovers to collaborators to friends.

But it’s also “our story” - Patti and us. Patti and every woman who has felt within her a desire to create. Patti and herself. Patti Smith, defiant and sweaty and gripping the microphone, and Patricia Lee Smith, age 21:

I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would ever be possible, yet I harbored that conceit. I felt both kinship and contempt for him.

And Patricia Lee Smith, age 22. She can hear her own future onstage howl. She recognizes it when she passes Grace Slick in the lobby of the Chelsea and when she makes small talk with Jimi Hendrix at the Electric Lady. It’s so close that the reverb scares her away.

When I went back upstairs I felt an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people, though I had no way to interpret my feeling of prescience. I could have never predicted that I would one day walk in their path. At that moment I was still a gangly twenty-two-year-old book clerk, struggling simultaneously with several unfinished poems.

Except that she could have predicted. She did predict.

This hits so close. The feeling of seeing ourselves and our ambition in reflected in someone great and immediately quashing it with self-denial. Saying, I could never do that. I could never be that. I’m just a 22-year-old girl.

She believes in Mapplethorpe, though. So much more than she believes in herself. She works as a bookstore clerk while he spends his days at home making collages and taking his first Polaroids. Once they scrape together enough money for a tiny room at the Chelsea Hotel, her devotion even extends to the way she navigates their personal space.

I had everything I needed but it was not big enough for two people to work. Since he used the desk, I taped a sheet of Arches sateen to my section of the wall and began a drawing of the two of us in Coney Island.

And again when they move into their own place on 23rd Street:

We talked about it a lot. I would have the smaller space in the front, and he would have the back.

So matter-of-fact: He used the desk. I would have the smaller space.

Even in those moments, when we are that gangly 22-year-old, we have flashes of clarity. We can step outside of our insecurities and see ourselves close the browser tab on an awesome job listing. We can hear ourselves say our art is just something we kinda dabble in. We can feel the lie when we say it’s not a big deal, that we’re just not good enough yet, that we’re not quite ready.

After a while I left and went back to our old room at the Chelsea. I sat there and cried, then washed my face using our little sink. It was the first and only time I felt I had sacrificed something of myself for Robert.

Of course, Mapplethorpe supports and encourages her, too. He is always pushing her to keep drawing, keep writing.

Robert came home late, sullen and a little angry that I had drinks with a strange guy. But the next morning he agreed it was inspiring that someone like Bob Neuwirth was interested in my work. “Maybe he’ll be the one to get you to sing,” he said, “but always remember who wanted you to sing first.”

Ah, but that sense of ownership! That subtle request for credit! See? he seems to be asking, see how supportive I am?

Women’s support for other women doesn’t typically come with baggage of this size and shape. This is why it’s important for us to believe in each other – I mean, really believe in each other. To tell each other to stop punishing ourselves when, after years of pursuing our passion but still calling it a hobby, we remain unconvinced of our own power and ability.

It came, I felt, too easy. Nothing had come to Robert so easily. Or for the poets I had embraced. I decided to back off. I turned down the record contract but left Scribner’s to work for Steve Paul as his girl Friday. I had more freedom and made a little more money, but Steve kept asking me why I chose to make his lunch and clean his birdcages instead of making a record. I didn’t really believe I was destined to clean the cage, but I also knew it wasn’t right to take the contract.

Even after we are onstage, the front-women, performing for the first time with a full band behind us, we think it’s a dream. We look for something else, anything else, anyone else to credit for this magical moment. The dudes who passed along our application. The boyfriend who made us dinner. Dumb luck. But rest assured, it’s us. We worked for this.

That night, as the saying goes, was a jewel in our crown. We played as one, and the pulse and pitch of the band spiraled us into another dimension. Yet with all that swirling around me, I could feel another presence as surely as the rabbit sense the hound. He was there. I suddenly understood the nature of the electric air. Bob Dylan had entered the club. This knowledge had a strange effect on me. Instead of humbled, I felt a power, perhaps his; but I also felt my own worth and the worth of my band. It seemed for me a night of initiation, where I had to become fully myself in the presence of the one I had modeled myself after.

Smith was 29 when she recorded Horses. Joan Didion was 29 when she wrote her first novel. Tina Fey was 29 when she was named head writer of SNL. bell hooks was 29 when she published her first major work. Oprah had just turned 30 when she got her first local TV talk show.

There is a reason “boy genius” rolls off the tongue more naturally than “girl genius.” By the time most of us accept the fact that we have earned this label for ourselves, we are most decidedly no longer girls.

Ann Friedman is the editor of GOOD magazine. She twitters here and blogs here. This is her first appearance in these pages.

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"Redondo Beach" - Morrissey (Patti Smith cover) (mp3)

"Because the Night" - Patti Smith (mp3)

"Dancing Barefoot" - U2 (Patti Smith cover) (mp3)

with william burroughs

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Reader Comments (5)

So true, so true. Why is it so hard to claim our own power, to know that we are good (great!) at something and to embrace our talent?

March 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ

This was incredibly inspiring. Kinda made my day. The passage about Dylan gave me chills. I have to pick up Smith's book now. Have to.

March 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchelsea

Thank you so much for this post. I saw Patti Smith speak at Princeton University not all that long ago and I was so taken with her. Her mannerisms, her sincerity, her energy. I have her book and it has become one that I come back to again and again. Some passages transport me to a time with which I have a strong affinity, but in which I did not exist. Other passages are timeless. I can hear my own voice. I can see my own past. She is absolutely incredible. Thank you again.

March 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKaperko

Another relevant Steinem quote springs to mind: "We are becoming the men we wanted to marry." Being your own Jim Morrison or Bob Dylan is certainly a lot more satisfying than always just always watching some dude try to be one. And it's not that you don't want to still watch those dudes perform (if they are actually great performers), it's just that you also want them to come to your show and be equally invested in watching you perform. And not to resent that, and to understand that women might possibly resent always being expected to be automatic audiences for men. Which is where the kinship merges with contempt. It is only kinship so long as they recognize you and your artistry as exactly kin to theirs.

March 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

Patti is such an inspiration!

March 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterhot as sun

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