Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith
Title: Just Kids
I almost always find that the best part of an autobiography is the beginning: the writer’s youth. Once they’re rich and famous, it’s not nearly as interesting a read. Strictly speaking, Just Kids isn’t an autobiography, it’s a memoir: “…a salute to New York City during the late sixties and seventies…a true fable…a portrait of two young artists’ ascent”. Although I am a fan, I knew very little about Patti Smith’s personal life, and the very fact that there is little mention of her music career somehow cements the book’s appeal for me.
Just Kids details Smith’s love affair with photographer and fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe during New York of the late sixties and early seventies: the time of Andy Warhol’s Factory stars and drag queens, musical revolution, psychedelia and, of course, drugs. A little like Morrissey’s autobiographical offering, Just Kids reads like a highly romanticised version of events but it is enjoyable nonetheless. Smith’s prose can be described only as gorgeous and sweet, a reflection of her hopeful outlook on leading a successful life in art at the time.
Beginning with the author’s simple childhood in New Jersey, the story follows the young poet moving to New York without a cent to her name. After a series of unsuccessful jobs, Smith meets the curly-haired Catholic-born Mapplethorpe and soon moves in with him, two devoted but starving artists: “We wanted, it seemed, what we already had, a lover and a friend to create with, side by side. To be loyal, yet be free”.
Both are struggling, and in their apartment, Smith creates and studies her favourite poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Smith and Mapplethorpe’s story is one of art, sex, music, passion and an almost stubborn togetherness. Their New York is one from Coney Island, the Chelsea Hotel to notorious Velvet Underground haunt and amphetamine-fuelled Max’s Kansas City. The pair’s efforts to find fame as they rub shoulders with some now legendary names seduces the reader into wishing they’d been born earlier, experienced a world now closed to them.
As the story progresses and the scene moves to the Chelsea Hotel (to much name dropping), Smith and Mapplethorpe grow further apart as Mapplethorpe experiments with homosexuality, as well as S&M imagery in his photography. Smith travels to Paris on a shoestring, and, although a connection always exists between the two, they drift further and further apart. Mapplethorpe died of AIDs in 1989 in Boston and on his deathbed, Smith promised to document their story one day, as she has in
Although Just Kids won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction, critics have slated Smith’s prose deeming it pretentious, but I feel that her almost lyrical style of writing and the naïveté of her world and innocence of her relationship with Mapplethorpe make Just Kids an almost dreamy read. The final lines even brought a tear to my eye. But then again, maybe I’m just young and optimistic.
Originally published at http://kristensinclair.blogspot.com on October 10, 2014.