‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith is a difficult book to describe or characterise. It is an autobiography through the lens of a sometimes brilliant and sometimes hurtful relationship.
I could start by describing it as raw since the tale it tells is certainly a raw one. I could call it unadorned since the language is simple and unadorned. At the same time it is romantic since it is above all dedicated to Smith’s love for Robert Mapplethorpe. We could also add honest since Smith does not gild the lily and honestly tells of stealing and cheating.
Smith quickly moves through her childhood and only really gets into detail when she tells of falling pregnant, being dismissed from teacher’s college and giving up the child for adoption at the age of nineteen. Soon after she leaves New Jersey for New York, already seeking the life of an artist and immediately runs into Mapplethorpe who shows her a place to sleep and then disappears before resurfacing when they meet for the second time at the bookshop Brentano’s.
What follows is a love story, a love of the artistic life, of New York, of the times and the artists that inhabited it but most of all a love of Mapplethorpe that changed but did not decrease when they stopped as lovers and he realised his homosexuality. Nor did it seem to change as both climbed the ladder of fame and success.
It’s also the tale of how two major artists developed together and separately. It’s one of the best books I’ve read on the dangerous, magnificent voyage towards capturing your soul in your art.
It’s a tale of the last bohemian gasp of New York, a tale of Warhol, Lou Reed, Jim Carroll, Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs and the parade of artists including Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison that moved through the city in the late sixties and early seventies.
Underneath the strong, simple language this is a book with a dozen moods and it was for me as painful and hurtful to read as it was joyful and loving. At times I gobbled it up in huge chunks and at others I could only read a page or two before having to set it aside.
I was a third of the way through when I had to stop for a week and immerse myself in her music and poetry. I had to listen once again to ‘Horses’ and ‘Radio Ethiopia’ and scurry off to a University library to read ‘Babel’ and ‘Early Works’. I felt an overwhelming need to get further inside the head of the woman telling this tale.
I already knew Patti Smith was a brilliant poet and a superb lyricist but never thought she would be this good at prose, though I shouldn’t be surprised, most great writers can turn their hand successfully to any sort of writing and so it has proved with Smith.
If there is a flaw with this book is that it is so spare, so sparse and unadorned, it seems bereft of motivation and characterisation. The only way you understand Smith or Mapplethorpe is through a bald recitation of the tale and it’s often cold and hard facts. There were moments in reading it I was thinking “yes, but how did you feel”, “yes, but what did that do to you, how did it change you”. In a way frustrating but at the same time honest and compelling me to read more.
This is a very good book. If, as I was, you were familiar with the emerging punk musician then it becomes a book you must read. This is a book that begs to be re-read almost immediately just so that you can start again with a slightly more informed eye.
I finished reading the book yesterday and by coincidence today’s Daily Prompt was “Franz Kafka said, “we ought to read only books that bite and sting us.” What’s the last thing you read that bit and stung you?” Well ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith certainly bit and stung me. It bit and stung me so much that I was forced to stay up for three hours writing this review.