Thursday, January 27, 2011

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids
by Patti Smith

We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed, and he affectionately squeezed my hand.

“Oh, take their picture,” said the woman to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.”

“Oh, go on,” he shrugged. “They’re just kids.”

What does it mean to have a muse? To be one? As if by divine intervention, artists Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe found each other in New York City, and their relationship produced decades of work. Smith chronicles their journey with grace and wisdom in one of the most affecting memoirs I’ve ever read, Just Kids.

Those less acquainted with Patti Smith might know her only for her music, but even as a girl growing up in Chicago and later, southern New Jersey. She would draw and write poetry, enamored by the words of Robert Louis Stevenson and the art of Diego Rivera. Knowing that she had something to offer the world, she moved to New York in 1967, aged 20.

My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on a Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me.

I don’t want to summarize the whole setup to Robert and Patti meeting, as it involves a certain sort of magic that should be read on its own. Of course, they do eventually meet and almost immediately begin living together and working side by side. Whereas Patti at first created in a quiet and thoughtful way, Robert remained explosive and provocative. He painted and formed collages using images from men’s magazines, made jewelry and wore his clothes as conversation pieces. They encouraged each other and vowed never to separate. As is the case with many young, poor artists, sometimes they would forgo food in order to buy supplies. Patti took to recovering valuable books from bargain bins and sold them for a profit. Eventually, she took a job at Scribner Publishing to help pay the bills.

After a brief time in Brooklyn, they moved into the Chelsea Hotel, using artwork as collateral with the owner until she could get an advance at her job for rent money. Though a room at the hotel was expensive compared to other places, the varied important creative residents of course more than made up for any financial hardship. One of the more interesting things about Just Kids is the sheer number of notable people that Patti and Robert encountered on their journey. Jimi Hendrix, Edie Sedgwick, Diane Arbus, various beat writers — Patti even wrote a song for Janis Joplin. One encounter in the Chelsea lobby that made me laugh though was this:

I stood there holding a stuffed black crow I had bought for next to nothing from the Museum of the American Indian. I think they wanted to get rid of it. I had decided to name it Raymond, after Raymond Roussel, who wrote Locus Solus. I was think what a magical portal this lobby was when the heavy glass door opened as if swept by wind and a familiar figure in a black and scarlet cape entered. It was Salvador Dalí. He looked around the lobby nervously, and then, seeing my crow, smiled. He placed his elegant, bony hand atop my head and said: “You are like a crow, a gothic crow.”

“Well,” I said to Raymond, “just another day at the Chelsea.”

If the late sixties and seventies are not considered this country’s modern renaissance, then I don’t know what other time period could possibly qualify. One cannot accuse her of name-dropping knowing the cultural context in which she and Robert lived. Andy Warhol and John Lennon still lived. Punk and poetry collided. Though they were not easy times, New York City produced some of the best work during those decades, work we still revere today. Through extensive journaling, Patti Smith has been able to recreate the moods, the clothes and the overall environment in such an immersing way. It’s fascinating to read.

Despite all that was going on in the city at that time, it would be foolish to accuse both Patti and Robert of just riding the times, thus giving their work attention. The two worked in the truest sense of the word, evolving and improving alongside each other, even as their romantic relationship dwindled into something more platonic. For years, partially due to his Catholic upbringing, Robert Mapplethorpe struggled with his sexuality. Patti writes with great sensitivity and honesty on the subject, and though one feels her sense of mourning, it’s also clear that she knows their bond will still remain.

I realized that he had tried to renounce his nature, to deny his desires, to make things right for us. For my part, I wondered if I should have been able to dispel these drives. He had been too shy and respectful and afraid to speak of these things, but there was no doubting he still loved me, and I him.

Just Kids is a love story — a love story between people, a love story about art — and a story of sacrifice for what one believes is their destiny. Patti Smith has talked about the pleasure she had writing this book, and how even though she thought she would only write the one, she feels as though she may have another one in her. I hope she does.


Full disclosure: I checked out this book from my local library. Imagine that, I’m not reviewing another book where I have to disclose the publisher who sent it to me. However you obtain your books, be sure to also support your libraries. They are a treasure indeed.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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