Saturday, January 30, 2010

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Like Bob Dylan's Chronicles Volume One, this is a remarkable book for us longtime fans and I hope it is merely the first volume in a longer series of memoirs. Patti Smith the poet, rock-n-roll star, mother, artist, icon, rebel, myth maker and performer gives us her own coming-of-age story the way only she could have told it. Wow. To sum up what she says would be to deny you the pleasure of how she says it. This is her first prose book and mostly covers the period in her life from 1967-1973, when she was photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's best friend, lover, muse, co-conspirator and partner-in-crime. It's a love story that celebrates the miracle of finding each other at the exact right moment in time and making the most of it, living as fully as is possible on very little means but a lot of determination and sheer will, which takes the form of desire as well as desperate need.

I particularly enjoyed reading the cultural history--they lived on the streets of New York City in the summer of love, ended up in the Chelsea Hotel with leftover from the 50's beat poets and Woodstock era rock-n-rollers, hung out at Max's Kansas City on the fringe of Warhol's fading Factory scene, knew theater people from Penny Arcade to Sam Shepard--their work led them to the high society art-industry and the underworld of CBGB's respectively. This is all well-documented and /or made mythic here, depending on your interpretation of the book. You can expect cameos by Jim Carroll, Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Harry Smith, Jimi Hendrix(!), Grace Slick, Bobby Neuwirth & Janis Joplin to name but a few…

Another thing I liked about the book is how it covers the economic reality of being an artist and having no money. It describes the daily situation of what that was like in this time/place in lucid detail: the hunger pains, the shoplifting, the shitty jobs, unemployment, the shared sodas and hot dogs, bad diner coffee and late night donut shops, the alleyways, fire escapes and park benches--you will recognize the daily hustle of the punk--the artist as thief.

But the most fascinating part of Just Kids is Patti Smith's riveting re-assemblage of their personalized iconography and shared aesthetic universe. From Blonde on Blonde and the French symbolist poets in Patti's case and Midnight Cowboy to Michelangelo in Robert's--this is a meticulous inventory of their inspirations, visual & literary obsessions, hang up's, hang out's, freak-outs, textures, trinkets, wall-hangings, record & book collections, loft-apartment dwellings, (separate) pilgrimages to Paris/San Francisco --providing the reader with a fleshed-out, clear aesthetic lineage of their lives as insurrectionary artists who were gripped by influences both "high" and "low" and were able to fuck shit up, in the best sense of what that can mean. From how they moved and talked to what they wore and how they held themselves on the street, the way they lived their lives and what was important to them carried itself into their work, which in turn, ricocheted in the culture, changing the world we live in. Study this as a road map of two people who took the raw material of their lives seriously enough to live as if what they did mattered--it is the story of two artists who made work that mattered. Their art is the record of this commitment, to themselves, to each other and ultimately, to the world.

Oh yeah, I guess it's not too much of a spoiler to tell you that this is also a truly sad book, as Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in the late 80's, but in my view this gives the book urgency despite the life-crushing sadness that it must have brought to those who knew and loved him. To live anything less than a full life in the face of such as tragic loss…well that is the struggle we all must contend with in this world on a daily basis…that is mortality, the conditions under which we all live. (for some, like Patti Smith, this is a religious matter, but for me it is merely existential...) At any rate I find Just Kids life-affirming despite its documentation of deep, dark despair.

This is a truly awesome work. It will give you the ammunition you need to fend off the square "hipsters" in our midst. I hope young people take it to heart and I know those of us who have been around the block will be sustained by this for years. Use it as rocket is the place…the transformation of's right here, man. Let it surround you and become your daily imperative to create. In the immortal words of punk rock patti smith "I step up to the microphone and I have no fear".


Amy said...


decomposition said...

This is a great review Tobi. I haven't read the book yet, but when I heard her read from the book recently I really loved the stories she told.