Book Review: “Just Kids” by Patti Smith

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An intense love for reading and all that accompanies it has been instilled in me from a young age. When I was a kid, most of my spare time was spent with my nose stuck in a book. Recess meant more time reading page after inky page, and weeks at the cottage were like a challenge to myself to see just how many novels I could get through each day. I loved it. At some point, life became real and I was pulled out of the imaginary world that I had woven together from the hours I spent in the wonderful, distant realm of literature. Getting shipped off to Hogwarts no longer felt possible, and I definitely wasn’t a member of the elite prepsters who made up the Gossip Girl community. As time wore on, I grew apart from books.

Sometime over the past couple years, I became determined to rekindle my love for the written word. I missed the indescribable ability that books hold that enable them to create an escape for the reader. Sometimes the real world is boring, and you need to immerse yourself in another time and place in order to feel free for a little while. I found my niche in a seemingly never-ending list of novels and biographies about punks and groupies and artists and rock n’ roll journalists from decades past. More specifically, I became extremely interested in the female perspectives of these eras. And so the subconscious mission to read every single one of these books began.

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I began with There Goes Gravity by Lisa Robinson. She’s a well-known music journalist who spent much of her life on tour with The Rolling Stones and The Clash and countless other classic bands. Her first-hand account of life in the industry made me realize that I want nothing more than to immerse myself in that world. I also read A Freewheelin’ Time by Suze Rotolo, and within an instant I was wishing I could travel back in time to the Greenwhich Village of the sixties and spend my time in clubs and coffeehouses mingling with beat poets and folk artists. Most recently, I fell deeply in love with Patti Smith’s best-selling memoir, Just Kids.

I think I’m naturally drawn to people – and stories about people – who dedicate their lives to what they love. People who will stop at nothing to turn their ideas into reality, whether that’s an art exhibit or an album or a poetry anthology. Not only am I inspired by them, but I can see a bit of my own qualities in their personalities, and their lives make me want to keep on going. Patti Smith is one of those people, and so was Robert Mapplethorpe, who is her other half in the memoir and in her early life. That was probably the main reason why I wanted to pick it up, and why I couldn’t put it down once I had begun reading their story.

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First things first: Patti is an incredible writer. Her words have this wonderful quality to them that makes the story feel like it’s on fire. It’s passionate and raw and real and, like seeing a building burn down or wood turn to coals in a fire pit on a muggy summer night, you can’t turn away from it. Reading about a timeframe from someone who actually lived it is so much better than reading a soulless, scholarly novel written by a bystander, and I think Ms. Smith captured her world incredibly effortlessly. She bares all.

This novel is fearless. It’s so intimate and intense that you feel like you’re trespassing on the most personal events she’s ever experienced. And I love that. I love that she had the guts to do that, to open her heart and soul and to tell a story that’s as unedited and as true as possible. For one, it makes it astonishingly easy to immerse yourself in her world. In a blink of an eye, you’re in each crappy apartment she shared with Robert, and in another you’re in Electric Lady Studios while she records an album and then in the back room of Max’s Kansas City as Robert tries to get in with Andy Warhol’s crowd. When you have to take a break from reading, it’s hard to come to terms with the reality that you’re not really part of all that.

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This memoir turned Patti into a role model for me. Between her and Robert, I’ve never even dreamt of a duo that dedicated themselves so whole-heartedly to their work and to their art. They were one another’s biggest supporters. They acted as muses for each other, they were partners in crime and in creativity. They constantly pushed one another, Patti telling Robert to try his hand at photography and Robert insisting that Patti become a singer. You get the sense that even at their lowest, poorest points, they were essential to the other’s survival, and that their art provided sustenance. When Robert fell extremely ill or when all they could afford to eat was a grilled cheese sandwich or a day-old donut split between the two of them, they were often still writing or collaging or searching for inspiration. Art, as well as their incredibly intimate relationship, gave them something to live for.

Together, Patti and Robert were simultaneously strong as an ox and fragile as glass. There are points in the novel when it seems like they were walking on eggshells, and others when the world was their oyster. I think everything was fairly complicated, but they had a mutual understanding that neither one of them would ever find another person who would accept them so completely, and that’s what kept them together through it all. Their loyalty to one another was admirable. Patti’s love for him, even after he succumbed to the effects of HIV, is more intense than you could ever imagine.

Their tale is an inspiring one. Patti and Robert are both legendary, and the inner-workings of their greatness are revealed in this inspiring memoir. Their story makes anything at all feel possible. It instills hope and reminds you of the validity of all of your crazy, insane dreams and aspirations. It cements the importance of passion and hard work. I can’t think of anything more important than all of that. Patti has given the world an incredible gift and a valuable glimpse into the lives of two immeasurably influential artists, and now it’s up to us to put it to good use.

Book Review: “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp” by Richard Hell

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One thing you need to know about me is that I’m in love with everything about New York City in the seventies. Maybe not the stupid amount of drugs that were available and probably not the violence, but everything else. The music scene in particular makes me wish that I could have existed at that point in time. Hilly Kristal’s club, CBGB, was in full swing, with bands like Blondie, the Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Television playing all the time. Music magazines including Punk and Creem were all the rage. American punk music was at its peak. Everything was raw and dirty and real.

I’ve read about a bajillion and one books about this era – Mick Wall’s famous Lou Reed biography, “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire” by Will Hermes, and, most recently, “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp” by Richard Hell. I picked it up on a whim just because I was intrigued by the title and the photo on the cover. I’ll admit that I’m a little attracted to young Richard Hell, and his striking features and the stark contrast of black and white interested me. I think he’s one of the more underrated minds of the New York punk scene, and I wanted to read his words and experience that time period through him.

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Richard Hell is best known as the frontman of Richard Hell & the Voidoids. He also spent time in Television along with Tom Verlaine, as well as The Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders, but he seemed to have developed fully into who he was supposed to be while he was with the Voidoids. The band is famous for their single “Blank Generation,” which I actually cannot stop listening to. They put out an album by the same name, as well as one called Destiny Street. Both are great records, and they sound exactly like they were made during the club scene of the seventies and early eighties. I like that.

“I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp” is, to say the least, an incredible book. The day I began reading it I got through a hundred and fifty pages. I could barely put it down, and I ended up finishing it within three days. I’m obsessed with it and with Hell’s life and with the people he interacted with and the albums and films he created. Hell is often overlooked, however he was largely responsible for what we know as punk. He was the original, he is who the Sex Pistols and countless other bands are stylized after, and he’s usually unrecognized for that.

The book recounts Richard’s life from his birth in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, to quitting music in 1984. Hell doesn’t hold anything back, but he’s respectful and fair. He’s truthful about what he was going through as well as everything else that was going on. His writing itself is incredible, if not somewhat messy. It feels like reading Hell’s exact train of thought. That roughness adds a certain quality to the writing and is instrumental in creating a connection with the reader, although I’m not entirely sure that that was Hell’s goal in releasing his story.

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Hell’s autobiography includes everything important from the rapidly growing punk movement of New York in the seventies. He recalls his own experiences, his movement from band to band, his relationships, his drug addiction, and his ennui. He goes into detail about his need to do things differently, his desire to define things for himself and to do things on his own. He talks about the good parts of his life and the times when he was at his lowest, and his honesty is much appreciated.

Not even a quarter of the way into the book, I fell in love yet again with punk. I’ve always been intrigued by the movement and its intense powers of change, but Hell’s story just solidified my love for it. I like to say that I’m punk rock, which is probably pretty far from the truth, but the words inked onto these pages gave me more and more to identify with. I came away with an intense desire to wear only black and white and to rip holes in my t-shirts and to put on heavy, dark, eye-makeup and to mess my hair up a little more. And I also realized that punk isn’t necessarily the image, but it’s a do-it-yourself attitude, the will to stop at nothing to get what you want, it’s about doing what you’re passionate about. I relate to all of those things. So maybe I am pretty punk rock after all.

“I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp” reminds you of what it is to dream. I am a self-proclaimed dreamer, and I’m sure most of my family and friends would back me up on that, and it felt good to read a book about a man who dreamt so unapologetically. According to Richard himself, he achieved the dreams he had throughout his whole life, so I guess the book, or Hell’s life, is proof that dreaming without limits and working hard pays off.   And it’s worth it. Books like this make dreaming big sound less stupid and more like a way to live, and anything that does that sounds good to me.

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A Love Letter to Huck Magazine

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It’s very difficult to find good quality magazines. It’s even harder when you live in a small town and Wal-Mart is pretty much the only place to find them. Even then, every magazine cover is plastered with headlines about how bad the Kardashians look in bikinis or rumors that Kate Middleton is pregnant again or other things that use negative, completely untrue stories about women to make themselves money. And I like to keep in line with my feminist values, so I don’t read those. I’ll occasionally pick up a copy of Rolling Stone if it contains articles about The Vaccines or Florence + the Machine, and sometimes I flip through Vogue or Nylon to get fashion inspiration and to read articles that actually highlight the incredible things that women are doing rather than the things that make them look bad. However, independent magazine culture is beginning to thrive and that means there are tons of new volumes packed with solid articles. I’ve fallen in love with a few magazines, and although I order them online or venture to a Chapters to find them, it is well worth it.

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My current magazine obsession is called Huck. I discovered them a few months back when they featured Julian Casablancas + the Voidz in an issue. We all know how much I love Julian Casablancas – I could go on for days about his political views and the rawness of his music, and he drew a treble clef for me that I have tattooed on my wrist. That’s dedication, people. Huck’s issue with Julian and his band of insanely-talented, beautifully weird friends, the Voidz, came out around the release of their album, so there were dozens of interviews to sort through, but Huck stood out. I was immediately enamored by the composition and quality of the photography, and the interview itself was in-depth and unique. Aside from the interview, the issue featured pages about up-and-coming artists like Ibeyi and Future Islands, as well as articles about the UK’s housing crisis and how ballet is helping young girls thrive in Rio de Janeiro. All in all, it’s my kind of magazine, and I could hardly bear to put it down.

In the “About” section of their website, Huck states that they’ve been “refusing to be civilized since 2006.” The page also talks about their celebration of radical culture and movements that “paddle against the flow.” They showcase new thoughts and ideas, grassroots movements across the globe, and people who think freely and openly. Huck is about stories. It’s about people with a DIY attitude who will stop at nothing to get to where they want to be. It’s about what these people have learned along their journeys. Their content is high-quality and original, and all of it is incredible. Everything about Huck is beautiful. They push boundaries and talk about unrepresented people and movements. I can relate to so much of what they’re publishing, and the parts that I can’t relate to provide life lessons and rough frameworks from the people who are currently living the kind of life I want to lead. Essentially, I’m in love with everything that Huck is doing.

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I picked up Huck’s fiftieth issue a couple days ago. Entitled “Things I Learned Along the Way,” its pages contain stories from fifty intensely creative, influential people. They discuss the lessons they’ve learned throughout their lives and they sometimes provide advice to those of us who are reading, completely absorbed by every word. The people in this magazine are different. They’re not hotshot celebrities; they’re not likely to be on the cover of a tabloid magazine, and their faces aren’t on People.com every day. The things they share are worth reading and worth thinking about. I’m obsessed with every single story, from a director who spent his teenage years on trains around Europe to a musician who dropped everything to move to London just because it felt right to a woman who is building an empire with nail salons and is also empowering young girls to go after what they want. Huck talks to the important people, the people with interesting, relevant things to say, and it’s refreshing.

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Huck just seems to get me and what I’m about. They recently released a clothing line with Roots, and all the pieces are plastered with the words “paddle against the flow,” and that seems like a good motto to live by. After months of searching, I finally found a t-shirt, and I’m wearing it proudly. Most of my life seems to be paddling against the flow, so I think it’s fitting. In the fiftieth issue of the magazine, they added a mini handbook called “Making it On Your Own,” and although I’ve only flipped through it briefly, I can tell that it contains all sorts of secrets that will be crazily applicable when I’m out of university and trying to start a record label or organize a music festival or do whatever I decide I want to do with my life. I love DIY culture, and Huck celebrates that and the people who are creating careers for themselves, and eventually – fingers crossed – I’ll be one of those people. This year they also released their first-ever book, which is packed full of advice from creators, doers, and all-around rebels about how to live a creative life. Huck, and everything related to it, stands for all that I believe in. The fact that I was able to pick it out of hundreds of indie magazines astounds me, but I’m incredibly happy that I did. Although it costs a bit to get it shipped here from the UK and the wait can be agonizing, it’s well worth it. If you can get your hands on it, you should read it. Let it make you think, let it challenge your views, let it educate you and fill you with inspiration. I promise you it’ll do all of those things and more, and you’ll love every second of it.

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