Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Special Book: "Just Kids" by Patti Smith

Patti Smith's memoir "Just Kids", is so intimate, I felt like she was looking at me while I was reading it.  Her story of New York bohemians living in an atmosphere of self-discovery and commitment to art made a gentle and indelible impression on me. 

It was a world I have romanticized; one that I yearned to have been a part of.  The late 1960's. A time of creative, social and political ferment. 

It was a world of Andy Warhol and "Midnight Cowboy";  a world of Automats and Nathan's hot dogs and poverty and idealism; of the Chelsea Hotel and the Factory; of Janis Joplin and Sam Shepard and Alan Ginsburg and Viva and so many others still finding their way; of "Hair" and Woodstock, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix.

Of 1967, 1968, the drug culture and poetry and turning discarded objects into works of art.

(Names are dropped casually, like they were just neighbors.  Names and places that are are heavy with significance, that blossom with nostalgic connotations.)

Of mysticism and fashion, and books and art and sexual discovery and anything goes.

The world of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

This is Patti Smith's story of her days as a young artist, moving to New York to pursue her poetic dreams.  Living on the street, she meets the charming and sexually ambiguous Mapplethorpe, and thus begins their sweet loving friendship, and a vow that they would always be there for each other.

Amid their developments, their triumphs, their failures, their artistic experiments and soul-searching, their separate love affairs, their travels and their squalid rooms which they made into a home, they kept that vow.

These two people, with the souls of poets, one a future rock star and the other a soon-to-be photographer-provocateur, supported one another's fledgling artistic visions.

Among many other things, this is a terrific story of love and friendship.

The writing here is exquisite.  I hung on every sentence, written simply, clearly, bejeweled with detail of the everyday as well as the unusual.

I loved her delicate descriptions of their processes of creating art;  and pondered with awe their philosophies.  For Mapplethorpe, art was like holding hands with God and singing.  For Smith, the challenge is to create something significant, as art must illuminate.

Smith  describes her family and that of Mapplethorpe's, creating  full portraits in small sketch-lines.  Both came from religious backgrounds, which each rejected, but that yet still infused their art.  She perfectly blends this straightforward personal narrative with musings on creativity that went straight to my core and inspired me.

I especially adore Patti Smith's love for the book as an object of art, as well as a vessel for artistic expression.  She describes having supported herself by working in various bookstores and by buying obscure books and selling them to collectors for profit.  I was proud to see her champion the humble book, which I maintain will not soon die.

"Just Kids" is a marvelous, special work about creative struggle and poetry and finding ones' artistic soul, set in a time period which always fascinates me.  It is certainly one of the best memoirs I have ever read. 

I loved this book.  It rightly deserved to win this year's National Book Award.

And it put me in the right frame of mind for my next series: The Movies and Oscars of the Year 1970.


  1. I confess to being ignorant of this book until you announced your intention to write about it. Sounds intriguing; I love hearing about "those days", especially by someone whose willing to drop names like crumbs from a sandwich (Michael Caine's memoirs do much the same thing).

  2. I think you might enjoy the book. It might also make an intriguing film, and I wonder who you would cast in it!!