Tag: Just Kids

More Ghosts

It was surreal to attend a movie about Dave Grohl’s band that was built on the ashes of Nirvana on the very day that marked 17 years since Kurt Cobain’s passing.

April 5th, 1994 is a day burned into my memory, not because I was such a huge Nirvana fan, so much as I became a kind of spiritual godmother to the reams of younger people I knew who loved him, and who came to me that day in tears. Grunge hit when I was in high school, and I grew to love the dirty, loud sounds of Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and most especially Pearl Jam. I appreciated Nirvana’s loud, abrasive stance, but didn’t warm to them immediately. I never felt an urge to see them live, much less to buy their album, but I like the spirit of what they were doing. Grunge was my generation’s punk, and it was the alarm bell for a wider world in my narrow, grayishly polite suburban world.
“Heart-Shaped Box” was always a more deeply affecting song for me than “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which seemed too clever and bratty for its own good. Instead of a stream-of-consciousness rant that riffed on teen experiences and peevish observations, I preferred the tortured, life-lived wariness of a scarily romantic, co-dependent love gone sour on itself:
Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet
Cut myself on angel hair and baby’s breath
Broken hymen of Your Highness – I’m left black
Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back

There’s something awfully frightening -and thrilling -about that song, which kind of sums up the public perception of Cobain himself in some sad way.
Foo Fighters: Back And Forth doesn’t shy away from the Nirvana legacy, but fully embraces it like a long-lost lover. Grohl reminisces on life as a suburban Seattle-ite, his love for punk, his influences, and his love of a band unit. Cobain’s stumbles and setbacks aren’t shied away from but, refreshingly, aren’t exploited either. The look on Grohl’s face as he haltingly names Courtney Love and adds, awkwardly, “his… wife” was bittersweet, if thunderously sad for the bad blood it implied. Overall, I would’ve liked more 90s-formative-stuff from the doc; I suspect some Foo fans don’t understand or appreciate the huge shadow Nirvana casts on Grohl’s creative output, and to my I-remember-when head, that’s pretty key to getting what he does now. Alas, much of it was left out in favor of more Foo-centric material, though the most important event wasn’t shown at all. And that had nothing to do with the choices of Oscar-winning director James Moll.
Owing to a technical glitch (or perhaps grand design), the screening blipped when the tortured singer/songwriter’s overdose in Rome was portrayed. All we heard was Grohl, saying over and over again, “I don’t know” and a shot of the Rome American Hospital and a cop in uniform standing outside. It was like something out of the Emergency Broadcast Network, or Derek Jarman, or William Burroughs (or all of the above). By the time the screening returned (it was being shown on a satellite signal from L.A.), Cobain’s passing had already happened. A whole, wholly significant chunk of the film had been inadvertently excised. In a way, I was relieved, but in another way, it felt like a robbery, not only for me, for but the entire audience in the cinema, many of whom would’ve been toddlers at the time of the actual event. The effect of that glitch stayed with me the rest of the night, even as the meteoric rise of the Foos was shown in all its gritty, rocking glory.
“I don’t know.” It was a perfect metaphor for Cobain’s life, and indeed, for the struggle so many artists -hell, people -endure pursuing some nameless, formless sort of creative immortality. I left the theater after the screening and walked by the Chelsea Hotel, located just down from the cinema. Ghosts really are everywhere in New York. Even if they aren’t apparent, their presence is palpable. Their struggle in life pervades the energy of the city, particularly the creative energy. Forget the well-known figures; it’s all the stragglers, the strugglers, the mad, bad, broke ones I notice.

Struggle is a funny thing; it only looks good in retrospect. I thought about Just Kids and about all the artists and poets and lovers and dreamers and… me. Moving slowly down Seventh Avenue, I could feel a million New York ghosts by my side, holding my hand and asking me to look around, take deep breaths, take it step by step. I thought about the woman I’d spotted in the Chelsea lobby, slowly making her way to the door with a walker. I wondered how long she’d lived at the hotel. I wondered how many paintings, drawings, novels, letters, songs, dreams, and rejections she lived with. I wondered if she’d felt as scared, alone, directionless, confused and overwhelmed as I do now.
Ghosts -in a cinema or hotel room, on a dark street, in the creak of a floorboard or the rattles of a window pane -offer mischief, but also hope. Because within the unpredictable is the limitless. Ghosts know this. Maybe I should trust that spirit a bit more. Maybe that should be my new way of remembering April 5th: the Day Of I-Don’t-Know, the Day Of Ghosts, the Day That’s Every Day. Maybe.

It’s My Life. Don’t You Forget.

Finding old photos deemed long-lost is both dizzyingly joyful and weirdly alarming. I found myself experiencing this tailspin recently as I inadvertently came upon photos from more than a decade ago; visions of past lives, selves, dreams, ambitions and moments came flooding back. It made me feel old and young, all at once.

I have little use for nostalgia; I’m not the sort of person to long for a time to return, or to wallow in the tail-chasing uselessness of regret. But I wonder about the effect the internet has on our collective memories. People are quick to throw up albums of their latest outing/party/dinner/etc, without considering that they just might be giving a part of themselves away forever. And while they’re busy photoshopping and uploading and updating and IMing their adventures, there’s a whole world around them that keeps going. I don’t want to live my life online; I want to live it … living.

After the funny, familiar, forgotten feelings passed, I wondered about scanning a few photos to share. Would I? Should I? Is it anyone’s business? How much does sharing my past propel me into the future? or trap me in the past? Does the relentless documentation of the mundane boil down to simple narcissism? the primal urge to connect? a bit of both? Have Warhol’s fifteen minutes been shrunk to mere pixels and megabytes, mp3s and mp4s? I grapple with these questions daily, judiciously weighing what to share, what not to share, how best to do it, and when to walk away entirely, and, you know, live my life somewhere other than online, or in the media at all. I can’t help but wonder how my artwork’s being influenced by all this reflection, however, or its symbiotic relationship with a larger popular culture where exposure and revelation seem to overshadow not just nuance, but the blood-and-guts beauty of day-to-day living.

As such, I’ve being paying a heap of attention to the news around Patti Smith’s memoir of life with Robert Mapplethorpe. ‘Just Kids’ won the U.S. National Book Award for non-fiction in November. Patti was recently interviewed by Stephen Colbert, who, responding to his humorous query about her punk, anti-establishment ethos, said, softly but firmly, “I like my award.” As if there was any question she might throw it back. The award is a testament to Smith’s mastery with words. The book is a hypnotizing blend of moving personal experience and a recollections on life in late 60s/early 70s as a struggling young artist. Famous figures like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Sam Wagstaff, Andy Warhol, and Lou Reed (among many others) float in and out, but what kept my interest flowing was Patti’s poetic, flowing prose shot through with equal parts youthful zeal and lived-in wisdom. There’s an old-soul quality to her work that in no way lessens her roaring passion or stirring memories of her personal and artistic development on the mean streets of the Big Apple.

Owing to this unique combination of flavours, ‘Just Kids’ has become one of my very-favorite books, ever. I devoured whole chapters across many late evenings when I began reading it, connecting deeply with certain aspects: involvement with artists; finding one’s own artistic voice; sacrificing for vision; growing confidence; growing old; shifting priorities; retaining authenticity. As I noted the end drawing ever nearer, I wound up slowing my voracious, passionate pace, instincts automatically kicking in to postpone the inevitable final page. Time -with anyone, with any place, with any memory, with any project -is always finite. Patti herself acknowledges this as she writes of the last time she met, and spoke with, her longtime … what? Friend? Lover? Mentor? Soulmate? All of the above. ‘Just Kids’ describes a life well-lived indeed, but it also bravely crosses into some personal, painful hinterlands.

That Patti was so baldly, boldly able to share a very, deeply personal part of her life with the public, without being saccharine, sentimental, or sensationalist is awe-inspiring. And yet, it feels natural. Patti honored the beauty of life she’s experienced, in all its gut-wrenching, thrilling, horrifying, glorifying majesty, by writing this book. She also honored Robert’s request. Nothing about ‘Just Kids’ feels forced, cheap, or exploitive. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s deeply moving and desperately personal. I’m a deeply private person myself (despite all my online activities might imply) and I am really not sure I’d ever be able to write something akin to ‘Just Kids’, nor am I sure I’d want to. I don’t be able to make the kind of promise Patti made with Robert before he died about writing a memoir of their lives, partially because I don’t think I could ever do those kinds of relationships justice in written form, and, frankly, I’m not sure certain things are anyone’s business.

I do, however, have photos and old journals; I have memories that flicker in and out, and boxes (and boxes!) of poetry, photographs, drawings, and paintings. This – -my life – – is the foundation of my art, and the art of many, past and present, whom I admire. Translating it all into something I feel comfortable sharing, without it seeming narcissistic, saccharine, or relentlessly navel-gazing, is a challenging, if inevitable, opportunity to open a door into a new world. It’s like trying to get into the best, most dreamy spot in the world, but there’s a guard dog outside, and you only know it’s there by its breath; it might bite you, it might let you pet it, but you have to get past it, blood, treats, cooing, and all.

Ultimately, the best art requires a certain degree of nakedness. And nakedness requires bravery. Patti was brave enough to be naked -in ‘Just Kids’ unquestionably, but also through her thirty-plus years of poetry, art and music. I’m gradually learning to go naked too. Damn it’s cold. But I’m getting used to it… maybe.

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