Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why I love Patti Smith—rooting for you at the National Book Awards

The National Book Awards will be announced at a dinner tomorrow night. (I'll be following the live tweets by the foundation that puts them on.)

My congratulations go to all the nominees, but I'm rooting like crazy for Patti Smith in the nonfiction category, for her memoir, Just Kids. (It's about her and notorious-in-some-circles photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.)

Patti has been a hero of mine since I first heard her wail "Because The Night" in the spring of 1978. I was a junior in high school. I think my allowance was 25 cents a week, so asked for her album Easter for my birthday and waited until June 3 to hear more.

I wanted it even more once I saw the stunning Mapplethorpe cover photo. (I had never even heard of him, but man, I liked the shot.)

My Catholic siblings were horrified by the exposed armpit. Hahaha. Seriously. It was 1978. We were sheltered Midwestern kids in the arch-conservative northwest suburbs of Chicago.

They were too embarrassed to take the album up to the checkout counter. They handed me the money and made me do it. If I dared. They were puzzled that I didn't seem grossed out.

I think it was the fourth album I ever got. I was barely aware of the punk rock movement tearing up Britain, and I'd never heard anything like it. I loved it.

But that was nothing compared to her first album, Horses, which was three years old, but brand new to me. It's still my favorite of hers.

After several months with Patti, I discovered Elivs Costello and then in rapid succession The Clash, Graham Parker, The Ramones . . . most of the bands that made a mark on me.

The Clash is my all-time favorite band. Graham's Squeezing Out Sparks is my favorite CD/album. These seriously changed my writing, but long before that, they changed me.

Patti Smith opened that whole world to me. And Horses, God. I still have it on vinyl. I gave away my turntable when I moved to NYC this summer, but I kept my copy of Horses. Just in case.

I can't tell you how much joy it's brought me. And "Land" is one of the most brilliant songs I've ever heard. It continues inspiring me. You can go anywhere with words once you hear what Patti pulled off there.

I riffed on it trying to get Dylan Klebold down in an early draft of Columbine, blissfully unaware that my agent Betsy Lerner, who was doing the first edit of my book was also Patti's agent, working on Just Kids through the same ten years.

I'm still not sure whether I ever showed Betsy those pages. But they got me where I needed on Dylan—internalizing both his depression and his burning desire to seek.

It must be kind of funny to Patti: being known for four decades as one of America's great, influential poets, to finally get a National Book Award nomination in the prose category, and nonfiction no less. Haha. Category, smategory, she's got the gift of words.

(I don't even want to quote my favorite line from "Land," because it may sound silly or foolish or immature out of context. It's not. And it still makes me smile, more than thirty years later.)

Here's the book summary, from the NBA site, btw:
In Just Kids, Patti Smith’s first book of prose, the legendary American artist offers a never-before-seen glimpse of her remarkable relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the Chelsea Hotel in the late sixties and seventies. An honest and moving story of youth and friendship, Smith brings the same unique, lyrical quality to Just Kids as she has to the rest of her formidable body of work—from her influential 1975 album Horses to her visual art and poetry.
So she will be at the NBAs tomorrow night, and my fabulous agent Betsy Lerner will be with her. (As of yesterday, Betsy had not figured out what she was going to wear. Hahaha.)

I'm thrilled for both of them. I've never met Patti, but Betsy is my primary adviser, mentor, and my guiding light. She came with me to the Discover Awards and the Edgars this spring and was so proud when I won. But I do believe she would have hugged me even harder had I lost.

Patti is blessed to have her. I think they're blessed with each other. Good luck tomorrow. Win or not, have yourselves a wonderful night.

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