Late to All Parties

29 Mar

“It was 1986 and the trees were heavy with bears.” That’s how I initially read the line. Quickly. And for a split moment, that mistake stretched out impossibly into a full-color mental image which lingered for much longer than the nanosecond it took for the thought to take root and expand via the axons in my brain. What I saw were the thick branches of an old oak strenuously supporting a family of black bears. Mama, Papa, a couple of babies, and maybe an uncle or aunt. I was more than four lines beyond when I realized “bears” was likely “pears.” And I was right. I returned briefly to the line to confirm, and the image of the old oak barely cradling the family of Ursidae was replaced with a more classic scene in my mind. Something that maybe Monet might have painted.

This line lives in Patti Smith’s memoir of her life together with the photographer and artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The book is called Just Kids. It is a good book. No, it is a great book. And it’s filled with her poetry and his photographs and her drawings and his collages and tales of their brief life together as true artists and partners struggling to survive making their art while they, at times, slept in doorways or subways and starved on the streets of late 1960s New York City.

I come to Patti Smith very late in my life. I come to all the good things, or artists, very very late in my life. It’s always been that way. I came around to The Beatles just two years ago. To Steely Dan last year when, mainly staying at home, I became obsessed with the precise work of Fagen and Becker and for some reason, even upon the hundredth or two hundredth play of every track from every album, the songs never seemed to fade from my favor. Every time I spun the track something new was found. In each and every one of them. Still holds.

And so I came to discover Patti Smith extremely late. Just three weeks ago, in fact. Oh, I have known all my life who Patti is. Just as I have known all my life who The Beatles are. Or Steely Dan. Who De Kooning is. Philip Roth. Jose Saramago. The Bee Gees. To all of them I came late. I’ve known about Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Billie Holiday all my life, but my train did not arrive at their stations until early 1990. I was 21 then. Waaay too late to get into Jazz. But better than never. Thanks to my obsession with bop, hard bop, and modal Jazz, I skipped the Boy Band craze of the mid-90s. I skipped over Hootie and the Blowfish, The Dave Matthews Band, The Gin Blossoms, Better Than Ezra, The Smashing Pumpkins. (I’ve always had a desire to rename them The Rupert Pupkins as my homage to Marty Scorsese.) I totally hopped over “the Seattle sound” although I was right there, right on time at Nirvana’s breakthrough. As well as Jane’s Addiction a few years earlier. (“Pigs in Zen” stood out for me on a compilation record of underground bands from L.A.) Probably the only two times I was with the program. On time. Since early ’90, Jazz has occupied many of my listening hours. It seems to be analogous to our universe—always expanding, never able to be caught up with by anyone. Not even the historians or aficionados.

Here’s what I love the most about Patti, though. And you’ll likely want to inflict a very painful death when I tell you first what I don’t like. I do not like her songs very much. I do not like her singing voice. And I do not like her poetry. In fact, I do not like poetry in general, unless it’s Charles Bukowski’s. Which really isn’t poetry at all. What I love the most about Patti Smith are her drawings. Her art. Her collages. Well, of course I love her as a human being. From all the interviews I’ve seen, all the speeches to various audiences I’ve listened to on YouTube, she comes across as an exceptional human. A true artist. Kind and generous with her time and words. But for me, her drawings just do it. They just do. It is truly a testament to her as a quintessential artist that people like me can flip through her artistic portfolio and pick what I like. What do I love about Patti? A, B, C, D, E, F? All of the above? There isn’t one answer. Mine is her visual art. We all benefit from her various talents.

Here are some others that I’ve come to love very late in life: Joan Didion, Thelonious Monk, Jackson Pollock, cooking (by myself), Vaporwave/Retrowave, the Impressionists, Electronic Dance Music, Anime/Manga, tiny drum kits, the Expressionists, cracked cymbals that sound like trash cans when struck, Toronto, kimchi, Indian and Pakistani cuisine, Muzak (“elevator music”), Mad Men, gin, standard time, cold weather, Withnail and I. There are probably some others that I could list here, but I sense you’re getting bored.

My obtuse way of rationalizing or maybe excusing this tardiness (ignorance? hard-headedness?) is that I will live a very long life. Not that I really want to. But my squaring up this tendency to arrive late to the party goes something like this: well, I finally got to appreciate and even love The Beatles at age 50 because it’s likely that I’ll live to a hundred. And so I still get to have a good half a century of spinning their records. To enjoy just as much and just as long as many others, when it’s all accounted for and added up.

I am and have always been an organized, disciplined, punctual person. You tell me the party starts at 10, I’m there at 9:45. You come to escort me up for the job interview scheduled at 11, I’ve been in the lobby reading a book for 20 minutes. I’ve always made my planes, trains, buses on time. Always. But for some reason art and music and literature always seem to encourage me to not be hasty. Maybe because they know that, despite my intuition, I won’t be celebrating my 105th birthday having just “discovered” Mahler. But that instead they’ll always be around for me to get to. Whenever I am ready to get to them. And however long it takes.

These are the semi-permanent footprints we, humans, leave into the terra firma. I say “semi” because there’ve been plenty of times in history that factions, tribes, torch-carrying mobs, and politicians have moved to erase these footprints thoroughly. Mostly for personal reasons. And almost always for obtuse and inconsistent moral issues raised by the artwork itself. The banning of certain “offensive” books in the Texas English language curriculum just recently comes to mind. Robert Mapplethorpe’s censorship in 1989 of his traveling collection of photographs, spearheaded by the insufferable, Philistine, politician-types like the disgraceful Jesse Helms (R-NC). The near-banning of “offensive songs” with “offensive lyrics” by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), created in 1985 and led by then-senator Al Gore’s wife, Tipper. Interesting side note here about the PMRC: the group’s formation was cemented with the financial help of Mike Love, a member of The Beach Boys, and Joseph Coors—the owner of Coors Beers. The group finally shut down in the late 1990s after suffering several legal losses in attempts to deem the music of Judas Priest or Ozzy Osbourne as “satanic” or “evil.” Or the likes of NWA and Public Enemy as “sexist,” “inciting race wars,” “anti-police,” and other similar nonsense.

Circling back to Patti Smith (and Robert Mapplethorpe) in her memoir from 2010, Just Kids: sadly Mapplethorpe merged off our ever-moving beltline 32 years ago, but Patti is still with us celebrating her 75th year of walking this spinning rock and still making art and telling stories. I have finally “discovered” her, and my life—itself moving toward a twilight period of sorts—is for the better. For the so much better. I am late to the party, as usual. But I am here. And the party is still going on.

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