EVERY Wednesday-we review books. Old, new, not so old, not so news, but only the ones we think you should read at some point. TODAY:
BOOK TITLE: Just Kids by Patti Smith
BOOK TYPE: Memoir
YOU MAY ENJOY THIS IF YOU LIKED: 24 Hour Party People: What the Sleeve Notes Never Tell You by Tony Wilson; Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs by John Lydon; Chronicles, Volume I by Bob Dylan
REVIEW: I had some trepidation when I started to read this particular memoir. Patti Smith is a cultural icon, to be sure. Her album, Horses, is a landmark of rock and roll, interwoven into the DNA of much of the music I love. However, she comes from an era and a mindset that can sometimes leave me cold. To be blunt, I feared a compendium of meandering, beatnik-style stories in the service of self-mythologizing. While one could say that Just Kids does suffer a bit from self-mythologizing, overall, it is a touching and often poetic love letter to two great loves of her life: late-60s/early-70s New York and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Smith eloquently invokes growing up in the post-war suburbs (born in Chicago, moved just north of Philadelphia at age four, then to Gloucester County at age nine), with its attendant boredom and need for imagination and mythmaking to escape. Her story is consistently shadowed by illness, with the death of a school friend, frequent illnesses in the Smith family, and her own poor health taking their toll. She suffered though a teen pregnancy (dismissed with some discretion in these pages) before deciding her destiny led elsewhere. As an artistic type with a slightly rebellious streak (though, with an astoundingly caring, supportive, and artistic family), she decided to break out of the drudgery of the suburbs and head for New York City. She arrived in the summer of 1967, finding that the friends she planned to hook up with were gone, leaving her penniless and adrift.
Soon, Smith met Mapplethorpe, a kindred spirit – also lost in the City and hoping to make art his life. The two became lovers, and inseparable in spite of the wonderful and charmed life they would lead – still scraping pennies, making collages and bespoke gifts, writing poetry, scraping by on the margins of the astounding Warhol culture of NYC, but aspiring for more. Fortune brought them a stint living in the Chelsea Hotel – near the height of that building’s incredible history housing artists, filmmakers, musicians, authors, poets, and scoundrels – but it also brought Mapplethorpe his first taste of gay porn, hustling for money, and, eventually, homosexual love. Smith was quietly devastated by the changes in Mapplethorpe, but remained supportive and loving, all the while honing her craft under the spell of famous poets, playwrights, filmmakers, and musicians. The book ends right as Smith blossomed into the musical world – sparing us the sordid tales of success and excess, leaving right as the hard life in 1970s NYC was about to slip away.
It is a beautiful book, beautifully written and paced, with a fine and unfussy poeticism that makes it a true delight to read. One caveat – her memory is incredibly detailed in these pages, with artists, book titles, exhibits, names, moods, feelings, dialog, scents, wall colors, window sizes, all recalled with perfect clarity and not a single caveat (“might have been,” “as I recall,” anything). I understand the artistic license implied, and wouldn’t want to take away from her lovely and limpid prose, but her recall of her early youth, especially, instilled in me some doubt. We are treated with tale after tale of her losing all her possessions, so this fine detail can’t be from her own notes. We are completely dependent on her for her recollection that wherever she went, the most famous people of the day spotted her, took to her, gave her nicknames, encouragement, money, etc. But some of the early details made me doubt – being a dutiful Nabokov fan, I have a lifelong suspicion of dubious narrators, so it made me scratch my head when she said her mother gave her a copy of “The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera” for her sixteenth birthday (1962), a year before it was published. Did she really fall in love with the “languorous Modigliani figures” and a hall of Picasso at the age of 12 (in 1958) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art? These are quibbles, but they do make one wonder, later in the memoir, when, as a near-homeless unknown vagabond crossing through the Chelsea Hotel lobby, Dali high-fives her, or Jimi Hendrix gives her timely advice, or she serves as Janis Joplin’s agony aunt, or Ginsberg gives her a nickname, and so on, and so on. Ultimately, though it’s her memoir – and the larger meta-point I get from it is how incredibly important and powerful it can be to be at the right place at the right time – and to have life and love on your side. The stars smiled on Patti Smith, and in spite of the remarkable loss and pain of her life, she managed to turn propinquity into an art form. This book is a joy.
EPILOGUE: Bits of it were a movie, called Dream of Life, also released in 2010. I saw it with Patti Smith there, and it was awesome.
NEXT BOOK I PLAN TO READ: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami – I love this guy. I’ve read everything he’s written since the Wind Up Bird Chronicle and have loved every word. I cannot wait.