Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just kids

These are the wonderful things about this book: it jumps between the past and the present, it is episodic, it is tangential, and it is poetry.  Patti Smith is a poet and a punk rocker and an artist.  Just Kids documents her 1967 move to New York and her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  The two meet and move in together.  She works at a bookstore and begins writing poetry; he creates art: mostly altars and jewelry, until he discovers photography.  Smith recounts these years between ’67 and ’73 with a level of detail and specificity that is almost unbelievable.

Not that I couldn’t believe it.  There’s something to be said for the attention to detail in a time before the Internet, in particular for two young artists with few possessions and barely a dollar between them.  It’s as if the simplicity with which they must live forces every detail into sharp focus.  Smith writes in vignettes; moments of their lives are presented, one after the other, and the readers must draw the connection. She acknowledges this herself: “I was there for these moments, but so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments.”

The book becomes not only a memoir, but a time capsule to New York at the time.  This is the New York that enchants and frightens us.  Smith and Mapplethorpe live amidst the artistry and drug use, the civil unrest and changing politics. That New York is a freewheeling landscape of music and art and literature, and it is a character in and of itself.  So is the Chelsea Hotel where the two live for a while.  Icons of the time float in and out of its rooms and bar.  They make guest appearances in Smith’s book, sometimes for just a page, sometimes for a scene or two.  We see William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Jim Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Carroll, Sam Shepard.  And sometimes, as we now know, these guest stars die, and Smith mourns them in the pages of her book.

I happened to buy my copy in New Orleans during Jazz Fest.  At a lull between acts, I wandered into the book tent.  I walked up to the back table, and on top of one pile, among hundreds of books, Patti Smith’s Just Kids called to me. Maybe it was the slightly grainy black and white image of two kids with long, shaggy hair. Maybe it was the National Book Award sticker.  Maybe I had just wanted to read her memoir for a while, and it was on my radar.  Regardless, I opened it up and realized it was signed, so I grabbed it.  It took me a couple months to finally sit down and read it.  Somehow, the timing was perfect; I needed a book that inspired me to write.

In Just Kids, I found a three hundred page meditation on the purpose and pursuit of art.  If there is an overarching theme Smith sums it up in this way: “The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.”  Both Smith and Mapplethorpe were artists; she was the dreamer, and he was the worker.  It took their time together to learn this.

At times, Just Kids seems to be a string of memories, and at times it seems like an attempt to document New York and the particular nature of her relationship with Mapplethorpe.  The result, however, is the story of her own coming-of-age as a poet and musician.  Through her observations of the world around her, she developed her approach to the world, how she would use her artistry to interpret it. The appearance of Bob Dylan is particularly telling: “I suddenly understood the nature of the electric air. Bob Dylan had entered the club. This knowledge had a strange effect on me. Instead of humbled, I felt a power, perhaps his; but I also felt my own worth and the worth of my band. It seemed for me a night of initiation, where I had to become fully myself in the presence of the one I had modeled myself after.”  This power is a current throughout the book.

Pages: 320   FoA pages: 33,188

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