Saturday, August 31, 2013

Summer reading

 (Not necessarily reviewed in the order read.)

In the summer of 1978 (I just realized -- 35 years ago??!! yikes... :p ), when I was 17 and heading into my last year of high school, I had a part-time job as a salesclerk at a small antique shop owned by my mother's hairdresser. The shop was attached to their house, several blocks from the downtown core, so it didn't get a lot of traffic. I was usually by myself, and so I spent a lot of time reading & listening to the radio.

Seventies music often gets a bad rap -- but that summer, there was actually lots of great new music to listen to -- from The Police, The Cars, Elvis Costello, Bob Seger and Van Halen.  The Rolling Stones released "Some Girls." Warren Zevon had a smash hit with the quirky "Werewolves of London." A saxophone player myself, I thrilled to the solo on Gerry Rafferty's single "Baker Street" -- I got the 45 & played it over & over.

 I was not yet especially familiar with this guy named Bruce Springsteen, but I loved the dark allure of "Prove it all Night."

And there was another darkly alluring song that captivated my imagination that summer. (I did not know until some years later that it too had been written by Bruce Springsteen):  "Because the Night" by Patti Smith. I had never heard of Patti Smith, but from what I gathered, she was a cultish punk rocker from New York.

New York City back then was a dark, forbidding, foreign, seedy, dangerous place -- especially in the eyes of a sheltered teenaged girl from a small town on the Canadian Prairies. It was the city of Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and Saturday Night Fever. And if the New York factor wasn't exotic enough -- you could see the hair in her armpits on the cover of the album ("Easter") that the song was on (gasp!!).

(A few years later, when I was in university, the campus radio station closed down & sold off their entire record collection for a few bucks per album. I bought several, including "Easter." I may have listened to the whole thing a few times, but I primarily bought it because of "Because the Night" and don't remember much else of what's on it.) 

And yet. There was something raw and stark in her yowling voice, in the poetry of the words (she rewrote Springsteen's original lyrics for herself) and in the music that touched me, that left me wanting more when the song was over. 

All this is by way of preamble. ; )

This summer, I finally got around to reading Patti Smith's critically acclaimed memoir of her relationship with artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. I knew that Mapplethorpe had been a somewhat controversial artist, and that he had died young of AIDS, but I knew little else about him or his relationship with Smith.

Smith promised Mapplethorpe as he lay dying that she would someday write their story, and this book is the fulfillment of that promise. It's a story of young love, and loss, of coming of age and growing up, of innocence and decadence, of the late Sixties and early Seventies, of New York City, of poverty and self-discovery and art. It's about life at the storied Chelsea Hotel and the people Smith met there, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Allan Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, Bob Neuwirth and Sam Shepherd.

Smith arrived in New York at age 20, soon after giving birth to a baby boy & giving him up for adoption. While she could not afford art school, she hoped to live near one and work in a bookstore, which is where she first met Mapplethorpe.  A subsequent chance encounter threw them together again. The two became lovers -- but it didn't take long for Smith to realize -- well before Mapplethorpe was ready to tell her (or perhaps even admit it to himself) -- that he was gay. 

Most women, at that point, would have left -- but the two continued to live together, support each other, create art together (and still occasionally sleep together). They remained devoted to each other -- best friends, partners and soulmates -- although, as each became more successful, they eventually moved to separate apartments (albeit always close to one another, until Smith moved to Detroit to be with her husband).  As artists, they supported and encouraged each other and served as each other's muse. Mapplethorpe used to shoplift porn magazines and clip the images to use in his collage art;  Smith was the one who suggested he should start taking his own photos. Eventually he did, and the rest is history.

I have to admit I don't completely understand the whole "suffer for your art" thing. I like to think I have a bit of the artist/creative in me -- when I get writing, I can become absorbed for hours (it's hard to stop when the muse strikes and you're on a roll...).  But I guess I'm too practical & like my comforts too much to live in poverty for the sake of art, as Smith and Mapplethorpe did.  (Which I guess is why I studied journalism and wound up as a corporate hack, instead of living in a garrett & writing novels, as I dreamed of doing as a kid, lol.)  Their world was and is not mine.

I also found it interesting/irritating at times in that, for someone revered as a feminist icon of sorts, Smith often reverts into the caretaker role for the men in her life (& not just Mapplethorpe).  Mapplethorpe was charming and talented, but he could also be cruel and irresponsible and self-centred. She put up with a lot of crap from him.  

Nevertheless. I liked this book. A lot. It's beautifully written, with a lovely, wistful tone. Heck, we all do a lot of things when we're in our teens & 20s that we wouldn't do (and shudder to think about) in our 50s or 60s.

Which is not to say we don't look back on those days fondly. ; )

*** *** ***

As mentioned above (& in previous posts), I was dimly aware of who Bruce Springsteen was by 1978. My pre-dh boyfriend had a copy of The River in his collection, but it wasn't until I met dh -- a huge Springsteen fan whose dorm nickname (emblazoned on the back of his official floor T-shirt) was "Bruuuuuucce"  -- that I really became a Springsteen fan.

In the years since then, I've read a lot about the guy, including Dave Marsh's books. But I hadn't read anything about him in awhile, and I decided to pick up Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin, which received good reviews when it came out last year. (The paperback should be out shortly.)

The author is obviously a Springsteen fan, and has done some good research on his subject. Springsteen's shortcomings, particularly as a band leader, are not ignored. He could/can be a hard taskmaster, and while band members are not overly critical, it's clear that they have not always been happy with the way things were handled.

The book is particularly strong in its account of Springsteen's family history and early days as a struggling young musician, which I very much enjoyed. (More recent years are more rushed through.)  Many Springsteen family members -- including his mother, sisters and aunts -- were interviewed for the book. (Patti Scialfa -- Mrs. Springsteen -- chose not to participate, and the book is mostly silent on the details of the Springsteens' marriage, children and family life. Julianne Phillips, the first Mrs. Springsteen, is also silent aside from a brief but gracious statement.)

Now, I thought I knew a lot about the guy.  I certainly knew about his troubled relationship with his father, Doug, which has been well detailed -- by Bruce, among others, in his stories and songs such as "Independence Day" and "Adam Raised a Cain."

But I was stunned to find that the book begins with the loss of a child -- an incident that reverberated through the Springsteen family for years & generations to come, To me, as a bereaved parent, it explains a lot about the Springsteen family dynamics and the home that Bruce grew up in.

The child in question was Bruce's Aunt Virginia, Doug's older sister, who was run over and killed by a truck while riding her tricycle at the age of 5, in April 1927, almost 20 years before Bruce was born. The loss devastated her parents (Bruce's grandparents), and Bruce's grandmother Alice in particular.  In her grief, the family's home life and structure disintegrated. Alice neglected Doug, then a toddler, to the point where he went to live with relatives for several formative years.

When Bruce was born in 1949 and introduced to his grandmother, "She clutched the boy to herself and for the longest time would not let him go."
She must have loved you to pieces, Bruce heard someone say not long ago. He laughed darkly. "To pieces," he said,  "would be correct."
Strangely enough, Bruce's sister, Virginia (Ginny) -- named in tribute to her aunt -- barely registered with her grandmother. "I thought I was doing the best thing calling her Virginia, but I wasn't," Bruce's mother Adele says in the book. "With Bruce, he could do no wrong."

"That was very caught up with the role I was intended to play," Bruce says. "To replace the lost child. So that made it a very complicated sort of affection and one that wasn't completely mine. We [Ginny and Bruce] were very symbolic, which is an enormous burden on a young child. And that became a problem for everybody."...   
Bruce remembers his grandparents' house as a strange, austere place, its cracked walls adding to an atmosphere already clotted with loss, memory, and regret. "The dead daughter was a big presence," he says. "Her portrait was on the wall, always front and centre." Fred and Alice trooped everyone to the St. Rose of Lima cemetery each week to touch her stone and pick weeds and errant grass from the little girl's grave. "That graveyard," Ginny says, "was like our playground. We were there all the time." 
The later years of Springsteen's career are given less ink... but the book deals sensitively with the deaths of E Street bandmembers Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons. Danny was the E Streeter who was with Bruce the longest -- he actually hired Bruce to be in his band first -- and I dare you (especially if you're a Springsteen fan) to read about his final, special guest appearance onstage with Bruce & the band in March 2008, dying of cancer (& knowing the end was near), and playing "Sandy" on his accordion one last time -- his personal pick for his swan song -- without reaching for the Kleenex box.  (I couldn't do it. I love "Sandy," and I bawled my eyes out. Apparently there are clips of the concert on YouTube, but I can't bring myself to watch.)

This is, overall, a very readable & enjoyable book about one of America's great rock & roll legends.

*** *** ***

I was a little disappointed with My Way, the memoir (with the same title as the famous song he wrote for Frank Sinatra) by Paul Anka. I've loved many of his songs over the years -- and, of course (point of patriotic pride) he is Canadian. ; ) And there is no doubt that the guy has been around & has some great stories to tell.

Unfortunately, the telling sometimes leaves something to be desired. My main problem with the book is that it like a verbatim transcript of a taped conversation. Which is all fine & good -- in a memoir, you want to sound real & have an authentic voice -- but the book rambles all over the place and repeats itself in many spots. (I lost track of how many people he described as "my good friend" or "my very good friend.") It really could have used a good edit. Maybe I'm just being picky -- it's my job to notice these things -- but it did spoil my full enjoyment of the book somewhat.

And while Anka obviously has some stories to tell -- and tells many, well -- there is obviously a lot he is NOT telling. For a guy who spent so much time in Vegas but claims to have stayed away from the mob figures who ra the place, he sure knows a lot about them.

And while he's happy to spill about the flings and foibles of the Rat Pack and others, he is less forthcoming about his own personal life, which includes two wives, five (!) daughters and one son.  While I understand his desire not to bad-mouth the mother of his young son, I do think he could have been a little more forthcoming.

If you are an Anka fan or enjoy reading about Vegas in its heyday, you will like this book. Otherwise, try to borrow a copy, or wait for the paperback.

*** *** ***

During my visit to my parents last summer, I read (and found myself cracking up over) a book by a self-proclaimed Strident Feminist from Britain, Caitlin Moran, called "How to Be a Woman" (which I reviewed here). 

Moran is back with a collection of her columns for the Times of London, called Moranthology. Among other topics, she attempts to become a World of Warcraft expert, interviews Keith Richards and Paul McCartney (not together), goes to a sex club in Berlin with Lady Gaga, deconstructs Downton Abbey, and waxes rhapsodic about Sherlock & its star, Benedict Cumberbatch (I am also a big fan and loved her take on it).

I like books like this -- collections of columns -- because you can dip in & out at random, reading whatever interests you first, and not lose track of plots and characters. And Moran is (still) hilarious to read. Do not attempt to read this in a public place, unless you don't mind strange looks as you desperately try to stifle your giggles.


  1. Thanks for these great finds! I love it when you talk 1970s or 1980s and music :-)

    I knew of Mapplethorpe and I knew of Smith but I didn't know of their intersection.

    I have fond memories of music from that summer, too!

  2. Wow, Loribeth, you're such a wonderful reviewer! You've told me things I didn't know (and might read more about Bruce now), and got me thinking. Glad you had a great summer of reading.