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Just Kids, by Patti Smith

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Just Kids by Patti Smith is not really the kind of book I’d pick out on my own, but since I do really admire Patti Smith and my mom sent it to me (thanks mom!) just as I was starting to feel a little bogged down by my current read, A Tale of Two Cities, I thought I’d give it a try. Ultimately, I’m glad I did. After some reluctance in the first fourth of the book to really invest, I became hooked and rushed right through it.

In Just Kids, Patti Smith remembers her complex and enduring relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their symbiotic blossoming as artists. Sometimes lovers and always friends, the story of how Pattie and Robert were able to share their artwork, inspire one another, and help each come into their own–through extreme poverty, sudden success, and fatal illness–was incredibly endearing. Even though it is known from the start that Robert Mapplethorpe will die in the book’s last pages, I still felt unprepared to let him go by the end!

Patti met Robert during the summer of ’67, when she moved to New York City with no money or real plan for survival. As Patti and Robert, who would come to share a seemingly indestructible bond that no family member, friend, or other lover could touch, wander the streets of old New York, I was incredibly pleased to realize that I have lived in the city long enough and moved around within it enough times that I’m able to identify with all places they went! Not only the obvious places that everyone in New York has been to, like Chelsea and the Lower East Side and St. Marks, or even MacDougal street, where both Patti and I (and Bob Dylan) have all lived at some point, but Hall Street! Clinton Ave! Basically my current Brooklyn neighborhood! Does getting really excited about this mean I’m an official New Yorker now?

Also fun was the constant barrage of cameos by all kinds of other very famous musicians, artists, writers, and all sorts of miscellaneous bohemian weirdos who are now very famous! Most of them, like Bob Dylan, the Warhol crowd, and some of the Beat poets, were not at all surprising, of course, but still fun. Some of them, though, like…Salvadore Dali? That one was pretty awesome.

I loved reading about all these interesting people and what their enthusiastic, youthful selves were doing, what they were wearing, where they were going…but my biggest complaint about the book is that I didn’t ever feel I got what I really wanted, which is to know: what were they all feeling? What were they thinking? Patti Smith tends to rely on facts and happenings while expressing minimal emotion about it all, maybe expecting the reader to just infer. Sometimes, with other books, I have really liked this style and found it effective. But with Just Kids, this didn’t work for me. Of the Hotel Allerton where Patti spent a night with Robert, who was suffering from lice, malnutrition, gonorrhea, impacted wisdom teeth, infected gums and delirious fever all at once, where the sheets were stained, there was no running water, and the whole place smelled like piss and was filled with “derelicts and junkies”, Patti says only that “These marked the lowest point in our life together…It was a terrible place, dark and neglected, with dusty windows…” (86) and “I thought he might die” (87). At this point, I thought: That’s it, Patti!? That’s it!? I thought he might die? show me some vulnerability! I found descriptions of their respective rises toward fame equally lacking.

I mean, her tough persona is a huge part of what appeals to me about Patti Smith, but in reading the book I was hoping to get to a deeper, more personal place with her. I almost felt as if she held the reader at arm’s length, wanting to tell Robert’s story but while still being incredibly protective of it as their own. As a fellow human, I get that. But as a reader, it’s frustrating. Towards the end of the book and the decline of Robert’s health, Patti’s prose does, appropriately, become more sentimentally revealing. But it was almost too little, too late. What I wanted out of the book was some insight into Patti’s and Robert’s personalities, both individually and together. I wanted to know more about what made their special bond so unique, not just read over and over that it was. I wanted to get to know them. But I really only got to know about them. Though I did finally come to really feel for them, it took quite a bit of work on my part.

In all, I had a lot of fun with this book, witnessing the “glamorous” days of New York when so many of the creative arts and revolutionary feelings were flourishing; being shocked into remembering that oh yeah, it wasn’t glamorous at all actually, but incredibly gritty and gross and difficult to live in all these neat places back then; observing various cultural icons and idols at work and play. But if I wasn’t already a fan of Patti Smith and cohorts, or if I wasn’t as intrigued by the picture painted of late ’60’s, early ’70’s New York, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been drawn into the book by Patti Smith’s storytelling alone.

Sort of a silly side note: I used the picture of Patti on page 147 as an aid in explaining to my hairstylist the cut that I wanted, and got, yesterday. 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

April 6, 2010 at 6:00 pm