“Dirty Magic”: Charles McNulty riffs on Patti Smith

Charles McNulty has hit some strong points in his LA Times discussion of rocker-writer-performer Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, published by Ecco/Harper Collins this past January (New York Times review here; Patti talks about the book on NPR’s Fresh Air here). As a critic in today’s cultural climate, Yale M.F.A. in hand, McNulty’s reading of the “dirty magic” of New York in the ’60s and ’70s feels like that of a privileged spy or stowaway:

Her teachers were her friends, lovers and fellow urban travelers. And her graduate school was the Hotel Chelsea, the raffish refuge of bleary-eyed poets and half-mad artists that she moved into with [Robert] Mapplethorpe [Patti’s “artistic soul mate”] in 1969.


McNulty then contrasts Smith’s “eluding pigeon-holes” and her wild, artistically fruitful relationships with collaborators and audiences with, among other “professionalized” suffocations, “the plight of contemporary playwrights fresh out of top-flight universities and searching frantically for arable soil for their theatrical endeavors.”

This we can all agree with, as we can with the undeniable advantages of the American arts-academia marriage (the piece points out a protective aspect). But McNulty takes the conversation a step further: Could the new, more community-aware attitude he detects in young students and artists—fueled in part, he hypothesizes, by the economic and environmental crises—pick up or be picking up on Patti’s vibe? He suggests they start by reading the book.

I posted recently about “dirty” performance training in Philadelphia; I think the artists I mentioned are working with these very questions. Andy also posted yesterday about what makes good playwrighting. What relationship do the “distrust,” “vengeance,” and “truth” he mentions have to community? McNulty may have named something we can all feel in the air. What do you think?

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