It was the summer Coltrane died, the summer of love and riots, and the summer when a chance encounter in Brooklyn led two young people on a path of art, devotion, and initiation. Patti Smith would evolve as a poet and performer, and Robert Mapplethorpe would direct his highly provocative style toward photography. Bound in innocence and enthusiasm, they traversed the city from Coney Island to Forty-second Street, and eventually to the celebrated round table of Max’s Kansas City, where the Andy Warhol contingent held court. In 1969, the pair set up camp at the Hotel Chelsea and soon entered a community of the famous and infamous—the influential artists of the day and the colorful fringe. It was a time of heightened awareness, when the worlds of poetry, rock and roll, art, and sexual politics were colliding and exploding. In this milieu, two kids made a pact to take care of each other. Scrappy, romantic, committed to create, and fueled by their mutual dreams and drives, they would prod and provide for one another during the hungry years.
Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy. It serves as a salute to New York City during the late sixties and seventies and to its rich and poor, its hustlers and hellions. A true fable, it is a portrait of two young artists’ ascent, a prelude to fame. – Goodreads
Until I read this book, I had never even heard of Patti Smith. However, for about a year or so, I have been hearing about this book. It was mentioned by friends, other bloggers – even in the memoirs of other prominent figures (I’m pretty sure Amy Poehler gives it a shout out in her book). There came a point when I just had to give it a try.
My initial reaction was, “Wow. Okay, I get what all the fuss was about.” The book begins, of course, at the beginning. We learn about Patti’s humble upbringing, her somewhat painful experience of growing up and her entry into the artistic community in New York. Her poverty is so extreme, and yet the picture she paints of living with next to nothing in a very sketchy part of town isn’t one that evokes fear or despair. Rather, it’s probably the rosiest and most magical period in her life. It’s impossible to tell if her New York, the New York of the ’70s, really was a more open and welcoming city, or if the rosy glow is the haze of nostalgia. But either way, one thing is irrefutable: Patti Smith can write.
For about the first half of the book, I lost myself in her prose. she is this charismatic, bright-eyed kid, never losing her faith that whatever happens is fine – fate will provide for her. And it does. People come into her life who share food, advice, and shelter.
What really makes the story though, is her love for Robert Mapplethorpe. In essence, this book is their story – how they met, fell in love, fell out of love, and yet never stopped loving each other. Theirs is no storybook romance. Nor is it a happily ever after. But perhaps because of this, because it is laced with loss, pain, forgiveness and acceptance, it is one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve read. Life rarely serves up a perfect love story. But if you’re willing to adjust your expectations, it will offer the perfect people to love.
Of course, Patti’s story doesn’t always revolve around Robert (or even include him). And while the book is their story, it is also hers. The latter part of the book, when they diverge and she begins to experience success as a singer/songwriter/poet, wasn’t nearly as good as the first. Not only does it lack the deep emotion that runs through her recollections of Robert, but it quickly devolves into name dropping and superficial stories. It comes across a bit self-obsessed, and gets boring really fast. Now, granted, I have very limited patience with anything that comes across as showing off – particularly when it’s showing off social connections. So this was pretty much guaranteed to irritate me. On top of which very few of the names she dropped were of much interest to me (and what she had to say about them even less so). Her long-winded descriptions of her outfits for dinner parties, and her “outsider” status at social gatherings wore thinner yet.
Though she returns to her relationship with Robert at the end of the book it doesn’t have the same depth as her earlier memories, probably in part because I had become so frustrated with her that I couldn’t connect to her character anymore.
At this point it probably sounds like I didn’t like this book. But that’s not true. For me, it seemed like the book was split in half. The last part of it, the part about how Patti attained fame and success, really didn’t appeal to me, and my suspicion is that she herself had less emotion invested in it. It felt like a dry recitation of facts she knew her audience would want to read, but had less organic creative pull for her. Her strength lies in writing from a place of deep emotion, as she did when writing about someone she loved.
The first part – the story of her relationship with Robert, of her starry-eyed youth – was poignant, elegantly-written and just plain beautiful. The end of the book did not ruin that for me – I will be forever grateful for her words, for the glimpse she afforded into a loving lifelong partnership and the passages I highlighted and copied into my journal will be re-read many times. If you are a fan of Patti (or her contemporaries) or just love wallowing in perfectly placed words, this is a book worth reading. Even if you only make it halfway.
I will leave you with one of my favourite passages:
“Yet you could feel a vibration in the air, a sense of hastening. It had started with the moon, inaccessible poem that it was. Now men had walked upon it, rubber treads on a pearl of the gods. Perhaps it was an awareness of time passing, the last summer of the decade. Sometimes I just wanted to raise my hands and stop. But stop what? Maybe just growing up.”
Author: Patti Smith
Published By: Ecco
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Coming of Age
Date Read: January 4-8, 2015