Friday, January 14, 2011

Just Kids

By Patti Smith

New York, Harper Collins, 2010

288 pages Memoir

Up there, Down there

from Dream of Life by Patti Smith

Up there, there’s a ball of fire
Some call it the spirit, some call it the sun.
It’s energies are not for hire.
 It serves man, it serves everyone.

I am listening to Patti Smith music today, trying to connect with an era I missed completely, because I was studying theology--of all things--getting married and having babies. That was one reason why the book Just Kids was attractive to me. The other reason I was attracted to the book was because it won the 2010 National Book Award for non-fiction.

But more than just learning about the punk era and the people who took the revolution of the 1960s and moved it into the 1970s and 80s, this is a book about the spirit that moves people to become the artists, musicians, actors, and writers of any decade. For that reason, it is a book about the universality of creativity.

Patti Smith left her home in New Jersey in the mid 1960s and moved to New York. Almost immediately she met a young man, just her age, who had also arrived in the city from Long Island. His name was Robert Mapplethorpe, and for the next five or six years, they were inseparable partners and co-creators of art and poetry. Each went on to become famous--Robert as photographer, Patti as singer and poet, but they remained best friends until Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989.

They lived for a while at the Chelsea Hotel, where anyone who was anyone stayed; they ate at the restaurant where Andy Warhol ate. She mentions one meal at a restaurant where Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were both eating. She talks about the time that Allen Ginsburg tried to pick her up, thinking she was a cute young boy. Yet, this is not primarily a name-dropping book. Most of the names dropped are people who helped them, people who supported them, and people who encouraged them. Patti and Robert knew how to find the people who could help them the most. And because they were so uniquely gifted, both of them were able to find the audiences that would appreciate their work. One reviewer suggested that a cultural historian will love the cornucopia of people so succinctly evaluated. He also mentions, “Just Kids is the most spellbinding and diverting portrait of funky-but-chic New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s that any alumnus has committed to print.”

This is a very lyrical book; Patti Smith is a poet, and nearly every paragraph has phrases that are beautifully crafted and heart-breakingly beautiful. A beautiful passage:

“Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We became ourselves. For a time, Robert protected me, then was dependent on me, and then possessive of me. His transformation was the rose of Genet, and he was pierced deeply by his blooming. I too desired to feel more of the world. Yet sometimes that desire was nothing more than a wish to go backward where our mute light spread from hanging lanterns with mirrored panels. We had ventured out like Maeterlinck’s children seeking the bluebird and were caught in the twisted briars of our new experiences.”

One of the most touching moments comes when Robert takes Patti’s photo for her album, Horses. She says about the portrait: “When I look at it now, I never see me, I see us.” I cried as I read the last chapters about Patti’s new life as a singer, a wife and a mother and when I read of Robert’s illness and death. What had been their young lives had been transformed into something quite different, but the reader must cry for what had been, and for the bond that sustained them.

The Washington Post reviewer has the last word:

“More than a 1970s bohemian rhapsody, Just Kids is one of the best books ever written on becoming an artist -- not the race for online celebrity and corporate sponsorship that often passes for artistic success these days, but the far more powerful, often difficult journey toward the ecstatic experience of capturing radiance of imagination on a page or stage or photographic paper."
When I mentioned this book to my sister-in-law, Arna, who is 10 years younger than me, she knew all about Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. She has lived that bohemian artist lifestyle, and she knows the process of artistic development. Just Kids is a book for all of us, whether for me, who knew nothing of the times or the author, or for people like Arna, who lived a similar experience. It is an incredible book.

New York Times Reviews:

The Washington Post Review:

An interview with Patti Smith on NPR’s Fresh Air:

Patti Smith’s Website:

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