Severed Heads, Rock ‘n Roll Fantasies

I’ve already written of my thoughts on Sam Shepard’s new collection of fiction and Patti Smith’s memoir.  And I’ve been thinking a lot about both lately. I was very excited about the prospect of reading these two together. I had consigned them in my mind as a pair, before I knew much about either. Patti and Sam. Well, Sam’s is not about Patti and Patti’s is not about Sam. So much for preconceived notions. Ironically though, it turns out that the two were bookends of another sort. It all got me to thinking about memoirs as deflecting masks and fiction as mirrors. Let me explain.

There’s a lot going on in Sam Shepard’s Day Out Of Days. A lot of wanderings down those blue line highways: Highway 60, Highway 152, Highway 78. Twilight days, rambling ways. Something has been lost, and here, in the parched deserts of the American West, there’s not much hope of picking up the lost thread. These people are old and worn out. Their boots are cracked and dusty. Like Casey Jones, they’re rounding the last bend and can no longer handle the motion. Watch your speed, Casey. It’s a lonely world we’re living in.

Unlike the expanse of the West in Shepard’s meditation, Patti Smith places us squarely in New York circa the late 60’s and 70’s through the death of Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989. There’s a lot going on in Just Kids as well, and if you’re of a certain age this may just transport you back to an era filled with the icons of the day: Rockers Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison; Poets Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Corso. The space is more compact: the Chelsea Hotel and the immediate area, smoky, haze filled rock clubs and performance venues, back rooms at celebrity haunts like Max’s Kansas City. And above the haze, the perfumed allure of nostalgia.

Smith’s story is a backward look, a memoir, a tale of slowly evolving into the dream and the person she wanted to become. Shepard’s loose collection is looking ahead – and the void seems to be just around the corner. And it’s lonely out there. Smith’s memoir is a detailed confession of sorts on becoming an artist. When she came to New York as a young twenty-year old, the first person she ran into was Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s almost too perfect to be true that these two soul mates, so much alike, driven to self-expression, should meet in this fortuitous way. Their views on art and the life of the artist – though their artistic talents and tools were quite different – were extraordinarily compatible. In the frontpiece  of her ode to Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith writes

…truth will be found in his work, the  corporeal body of the artist.

A clearer statement of the inseparable link between art and artist cannot be found. And while the link is nearly seamless, the art most often buries the artist beneath its splendor. True artists seem to be hard-wired this way. They prefer to bury themselves beneath the many layers of interpretation, so that the possibility of uncovering the artist is a daunting, impossible task. In fact, the desire to uncover the artist is, to the artist, beside the point. Smith is her art, as was her longtime muse Robert Mapplethorpe. In fact, their very friendship, friends said, was a work of art. They – and their art – were as one.

Smith’s memoir is a ‘true tale’ in which she lays bare her art and her life-long friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. So why does what she tells us seem so circumspect, so private? There is always something held back. There’s a protective layer about her story that is impenetrable. She wants to honor Mapplethorpe and their artistic bond, let us in on who they were, but she can only go so far. There’s nothing to hide behind when your art is who you are. The most revealing art, is also the most vulnerable chess move.

All this makes an artist’s “memoir” problematic. You can certainly see this in Smith’s prose. Her words are almost static, restrained, attempting to tell her and Robert’s story, but not telling it at the same time. You want to stop reading awhile and throw on some of her music – something I did several times while reading this memoir. It’s no accident that the most compelling parts of the book are the included photographs, mostly by Mapplethorpe.

Through fictions, Sam Shepard details (in part) the artists dual nature: there’s the artist, and then there’s the art. The two are separate. At least that’s the theory. Shepard hints of this duality in the recurring tale of the severed head. A man finds a severed head in a basket in a ditch by the side of the road. The head begins talking to him, and tells the man to take him to the lake and throw him in. The man eventually completes this task. For Shepard, art is that severed head talking to him. Incessantly. Art is a duality, and a disconnected one.

Because of this, Shepard can more easily reveal himself, if unintentionally. Since the stories are not “about” him, there is a safety net. He’s freer.  So free that he dabbles and cavorts with all sorts of forms. We’re meant to disassociate the writer from his work. The reader is supposed to honor that tradition. A work of fiction carries this caveat by its very nature. It’s up to each reader to decide what – or should I say who – is revealed. For me, fiction – really good fiction – drills to the very soul of the artist.

Smith – and by extension, Mapplethorpe – has given us the most visceral of sounds and images, but very carefully crafted to reveal only the public persona of choice. Like a carefully painted canvas, colors chosen for affect, framed just so, we are allowed to see a version. The preferred one.

A great writer is compelled to probe and reveal. If not himself, at least that image of his-self that he frees in his art. And at that point what is the difference, really?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Severed Heads, Rock ‘n Roll Fantasies

  1. Pingback: participles | Grammarist

  2. Wow, that’s a great book duet, Charlie. Nicely played.

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