Monday, 10 August 2015

The Coral Sea / Woolgathering - Patti Smith


I always felt Patti Smith's great curse - the cross she's had to bear - is in being born American. She was like a strange and exotic flower growing in a cabbage patch. The cuckoo in the nest.
She grew up in New Jersey before moving to New York where she met Robert Mappelthorpe, and it was her relationship with him that crystallised her destiny to be what she's now become: a near-holy person, as near to a saint that anyone can be in this day and age.
I'll admit it now - I've always been a bit of a fan of Patti Smith.

She was influenced by the best - the Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, The Doors, etc - and she's never been shy of citing those influences but it was Mappelthorpe who cemented her will to be an artist. He was her friend, her mentor and her comrade-in-arms. Being American, however, was like an obstacle to overcome because the themes she was always aiming for were so un-American. She had so much more to prove and had a much harder battle to show she was serious. America has Walt Whitman but France has Baudellaire and Rimbaud, and England has William Blake. Of the four, it would probably have been easier for her to have Whitman as a spiritual guide but instead she chose the European poets and in doing so aimed far beyond her own culture.
In Europe she's now recognised as an absolute artist but I suspect that in America she's not viewed in quite the same way. What is it they say? A prophet is never recognised in their own land?

What Patti has built up over the decades is a huge canon of work and it's this that is going to be her legacy for humankind when she passes. I remember her once saying that in the end, you won't be remembered for your looks or for taking a lot of drugs; only the work will remain - so make it good.
Patti has stayed faithful to this idea and when it comes to her recorded output the only dud album she's ever made (in my opinion) is Twelve, her covers album. I remember her also saying about when she met William Burroughs when she was very young and him telling her to build up her name by the merit of her deeds and her work. Again, this is what she's stayed faithful to (which is why Twelve is a dud album - the songs are all straight covers and there's nothing really of herself put into them, so consequently they have little artistic merit).

Her recorded output is, however, just one aspect of her work. There is also her photography and her written work. Of her books, there's one in particular with the title Complete that I can always go to if ever I need inspiration as it contains both her lyrics and her photographs. It never fails. And then there's her memoir, Just Kids, of course. And then her lesser known books such as The Coral Sea and Woolgathering.

The Coral Sea is basically an ode to Robert Mappelthorpe, composed after his death in 1989. It's a deeply personal collection of poems - a season in grief, Patti describes them as - telling the story of a man on an ocean journey to see the constellation of the Southern Cross. The man is called simply 'M' and he's fighting an illness that's consuming him. Mappelthorpe, of course, died of AIDS.
"When he passed away I could not weep so I wrote," says Patti as an introduction, so as you might imagine it's not a light or an easy read. An interesting thing is that Patti makes no attempt to be communicative and instead it seems that the poems are the point in themselves. She's not trying to talk to an audience, a readership, or to anyone, really; and to understand The Coral Sea, it helps if you can recognise this.
Some years later, Patti performed it live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London accompanied by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine on guitar, later releasing it as a double CD. Like the book, it's not an easy experience but it's brilliantly mesmerising in its intensity and in many ways works far better than the printed version.

Woolgathering stems from 1992 and is another collection of Patti's prose poems, this time being a meditation on her childhood. Quite simply, it's accessible, it's beautiful and it's sublime. It's a joy to read.
One of the pieces by the name of Nineteen Fifty-Seven concerns itself with the year that Patti's younger sister, Kimberley, was born, beginning with the subject of her neighbour - an elderly man who would sit out in all weathers outside his house selling fish bait. As a child, Patti believes there are people out in the field near her home at night, working away at some strange task. She can see movement in the grass and she can catch glimpses and hear the sound of talking but can never fully see them. One day she asks her neighbour who these people are and he replies "They be the woolgatherers...", and from this Patti's imagination is fired. She goes on to describe the death of her pet dog and the fire that consumes a large black barn near to her home one night. She stands watching the fire as she holds her baby sister in her arms, knowing that the woolgatherers will protect the field from the fire just as she was protecting her sister.
If you know Patti Smith then you'll know this is connecting to the song Kimberley, from her Horses début album: "The wall is high, the black barn, the babe in my arms in her swaddling clothes. And I know soon that the sky will split, and the planets will shift. Balls of jade will drop and existence will stop. Little sister, the sky is falling, I don't mind, I don't mind. Little sister the fates are calling on you... The palm trees fall into the sea, it doesn't matter much to me, as long as you're safe, Kimberley. And I can gaze deep, into you starry eyes, into your starry eyes."

There's a line in one of the poems, Barndance, that catches childhood so well: "The child, mystified by the commonplace, moves effortlessly into the strange," and when you juxtapose this to, as an example, her indictment of George W Bush in the film Dream Of Life then you can see the sheer breadth of her consciousness. There it all is. A beautiful and clear insight into innocence and a scathing, coruscating anger against the abuse of power.

I rest my case: Patti Smith is as near to a saint that anyone can be in this day and age.
John Serpico


  1. Love her. I've haven't read 'Woolgathering' and have only encountered bits of 'Coral Sea', so I have work to do when i can get to it. I got hold of her earlier books in the late 70's - 'Babel', 'The Night' (w/Tom Verlaine) and stole 'Witt' from Bristol Central Library using the excuse that no one else would want it anyway. Don't tell 'em. I still have those treasured books. 'Just Kids' has to be one of the best autobiographies around.

    1. So it was you was it, who stole Witt from the Library? The Phantom Book Thief of Bristol! The number of times I went in there asking for it and the staff always saying they know they've got a copy but they just can't seem to track it down at the moment.
      As penance I think you should at least write a review it on your blog...

    2. I'll drag it out and see if I can make sense of it after all these years.