Just Kids

Just KidsJust Kids by Patti Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a gift. You do not know Patti Smith, but in committing to literature her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, she has crafted for you an exquisite offering, a rare act of generosity that will light you up from the inside. In that sacred space you will feel anew the love of absent companions, recall and smile at the purity of youth, marvel at the power of art, and nod in recognition of love beyond life, beyond weakness, beyond corporeal destruction. You’ll remember cohorts, consorts, conspirators who spurred and shaped you; maybe you’ll present one with this book, saying, “I haven’t been able to express how much you mean to me, as a lover/friend/mentor/adversary. Take this. She nails it.”

If you’ve become cynical, the power of Smith’s prose will cure you, at least for a while; Just Kids is that rare piece of work that surpasses hype. As the tale unfurls, dried up reserves of hope pour forth, the kind of hope necessary for almost any worthwhile human endeavor. If your hope generator is in need of servicing, look no further than Just Kids.

I read this book in three sittings. If I was a kid I would’ve done it in one. I would have put on a pot of coffee (probably Nescafe, to honor coffee enthusiast Smith’s brand of choice) and stayed up through the night, preferably in the small NYC apartment on West 23rd where I lived briefly in 1985. It was a couple doors down from the Chelsea Hotel, where a significant portion of this book takes place. Upon finishing at dawn, I would have looked out the casement window and envisioned, parading before the YMCA, the real-life mover-shakers of Just Kids, who often need only a line or two of Smith’s taut prose to rise off the page: Greogory Corso, Williams Burroughs, Sam Shepard, Tom Verlaine, Hilly Kristal, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Grace Slick, Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, Jim Carroll, Clive Davis and, more than any of them, the handsome petulant demigod Robert Mapplethorpe. All were themselves creations, personas invented by sheer force of will by aberrant humans. Apt pupil Smith served a lengthy apprenticeship among these  frequently difficult spirits, and part of the joy of Just Kids is in being able to see these these folks through her loving gaze, while knowing full well you’d not want to spend undue time with them. It is also through her eyes that we appreciate anew how these mavens changed the course of our culture, though most remain largely unsung. In my mind they are walking West 23rd, going for coffee, all of them -even the dead ones – still circulating in the constellation that is Patti Smith’s remarkable life.

The book is mostly about Smith and Mapplethorpe, of course, and theirs is a fascinating love story containing pretty much everything except hate and abandonment. They love, lust, betray, support, inspire, repel, goad, dare, obsess, disappoint, entertain, take advantage of, and forgive; Their bond survives pretty much everything. And even though they misbehave, you root for them to stay connected, even as Mapplethorpe struggles with his sexual identity, Smith slips around, each watches from the wings while the other comes into their own, Mapplethorpe ascends into high society arts patrons, Smith pays the bills by working 12 hour shifts at Scribner’s. Part of the sweet tension in the narrative is: will this failure/success send them away from one another for good? But it never does. Not even Smith’s rock stardom breaks their bond. Even Mapplethorpe’s eventual death from the the ravages of AIDS doesn’t do it.

Mention also must be made of Smith’s rendering of her childhood, the early sections of the book, which are luminous, funny, at times even mystical. Her days as a leader of an army of neighborhood kids, singing, shouting, breaking rules, thieving, all seem to have been perfect training ground for her fame vehicle The Patti Smith Group.

I’m a a fan of Smith the esteemed groundbreaking rocker, and I’ve enjoyed her memoirist prose before – in Babel and Woolgathering – but this volume marks a new clarity, a sustained narrative force that loses no thrust as our heroine weaves in delicious details about New York, food (or lack thereof), the ebb and flow of the cultural underground, the late 60s at street level, art as a means of self-realization (among many other things), and the transformative power of music and kindness. It’s a marvel.

Interestingly, word on the street is she’s working on a crime novel. Not what I would have expected, until I learned in Just Kids what a voracious reader Smith is, consuming everything from the Beats to (lots of) Rimbaud to Mickey Spillane. Whenever she’s done with it, I do know this: It will be the first crime novel I’ve ever bought and read.

As Smith wrote on the back of Horses – for which Mapplethorpe shot the iconic cover photo: “Charms, sweet angels. You have made me no longer afraid of death.” Charms, Patti, right back atcha.

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