Just Kids – a memoir by Patti Smith
By Patti Smith
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
Just Kids is a riveting read, but it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. After thirty years of listening to her music, I thought I knew Patti Smith. I believed that through her songs and poetry, I understood what makes her tick. But, I’ve come to realize that the Patti Smith I’ve admired for so long has been – in many ways – a construction, a chimera of my own imagination. The odes to beautiful losers scribbled on the back of a matchbook, the savage vulnerability of her crown of thorns singing voice, the rip you in the chest electric propulsion of her caffeinated anger channeled through Lenny Kaye’s guitar, tell such a tiny sliver of the story that everything else I’ve written about Patti Smith in the past now embarrasses me.
Just like Charlie Chaplin was not the little tramp and Robert Zimmerman is only Bob Dylan when he has to be, I’ve come to see that the sweaty blur of light and shadow who sang ‘I’ve fucked plenty with the past’ to me in my teen years, had a different, far more complex side to her than I was willing to allow – or she was willing to let me know. She wasn’t made of stone, cum and piss, sneering ‘look at my works ye mighty and despair’ like I held her up to be as I lay on my bed in the basement of my parent’s house, playing ‘Radio Ethiopia’ over and over again.
I remember epic concerts, barefoot Patti stomping and whirling, shrieking at audience members for daring to leave in the middle of a song to take a piss. “Your body is no excuse. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pissed my pants at a rock concert. “ For me, Patti Smith was restless nights crackling with electricity, pacing to find just the right harsh words to slash like switchblades through the curtains of polite society.
Punk icon, beat priestess, rock and roll saviour. There are echoes aplenty of all these aspects of Patti Smith to be found in Just Kids, but such anecdotes don’t even begin to touch the reasons why it is such an essential read. Why it’s such a good book.
It’s not even the vividness of Smith’s prose. Tender. Evocative. Explosive. The language is just another curtain that – in itself – affords the reader just a silhouette of the action, more dancing barefoot.
All these obfuscations, dalliances, side trips, hide a tenderness that is more than resolve. As Smith looks back at her early life with Robert Mapplethorpe, the caustic becomes lyrical. The bravado cedes to tenderness. It is an unexpected tenderness. A tenderness that is far more than the whispers between howling that made ‘Gone Again’ – her poetic response to the death of her husband, Fred Smith – such a deeply powerful record.
Just Kids isn’t a celebrity bio, but those looking for anecdotes about counterculture icons won’t be disappointed. William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, and Gregory Corso all make appearances.
In Smith’s prose, they reel and dance with the alcoholic junkie splendor that one would expect, but she also imbues each of them with a humanity that has eluded most writers. In every instance, Smith writes with a grace and tenderness that makes the more sordid aspects of her tale understandable. When she examines her affair with the married playwright, Sam Shepherd, she admits, “Perhaps it was the carelessness of youth but I was not completely cognizant of how our irresponsible ways could affect others.”
Undoubtedly, the section of the book that will most interest rock fans is the one that describes the period when she and Mapplethorpe lived at the infamous Chelsea Hotel in the late sixties. There are wonderful anecdotes about attending the Velvet Underground’s early gigs, writing a song for Janis Joplin just before she died, and sharing a moment with Jimi Hendrix on a stairway outside of a party she was too shy to go into. Each of these vignettes is beautifully told and go a long way towards humanizing musicians who long ago shed their mortality to become icons. For Patti, these were the people she was surrounded by, and as she admits she was too self-obsessed to realize the ‘importance’ of what was going on around her. ‘I sat on the floor as Kris Kristofferson sang her “Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis joining in the chorus. I was there for these moments but so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments.’
Just Kids is a tale of desire. Not just for fame, sex, belonging and an elevation to mythic realms. Instead, it describes a desire for personhood as Smith travels from someone who ‘had the attention span of a hopped-up teenage boy’ as the world unfolded around her, to the woman who could calmly and compassionately balance a life full of contradictions – social, sexual, and artistic – to glimpse and hold – like her idol, William Blake ‘eternity in an hour.’ Just Kids is about dreams adhered to allowing a person to become herself. Boiled down to its essence, it is the most American of stories in which a young woman and a young man had a dream they worked really hard to achieve. It is the tale of two underdogs who lived long enough to see the fruits of their labour.
Just Kids is a tragedy in which the good die young. Robert Mapplethorpe, a daring photographer who blurred the lines between art and sex, and raised pornography to Sistine Chapel heights comes off as gentle and human. Stars in his eyes, Catholic boy, an achiever who wanted to be loved and belong. Entering the turbulent world of New York’s late sixties art scene, Just Kids is the story of two innocents hovering outside of a glowing throbbing orb that could be Heaven or Hell. It is a story of vulnerability as on his deathbed Mapplethorpe asks Patti, ‘Did art get us?’
If art didn’t get them, lifestyle certainly took away a lot of the characters Smith writes of at far too young an age. Some committed suicide, some succumbed to drugs, while other like Mapplethorpe later passed on through AIDS related complications. As one of the few sober people in her circle, Patti managed to bob and float above the hardcore partying and destructive hedonism of those in her circle. How she maintained such innocence and purity while everyone around her engaged in such extreme behaviour is one of the more baffling aspects of the story she tells. She accepted Mapplethorpe’s hustling and Jim Carroll’s heroin use as just part of the social fabric she was engaged in, and fails to either condemn them or indulge in their behaviour herself.
Just Kids is about how love can survive baffling changes. It is impossible not to be moved by Smith’s confusion and pain as Mapplethorpe struggles with the realization that he’s gay, and the two try to maneuver through what that means for their love. It is also impossible not to admire her resolve as she cuts through society’s strictures as she and Mapplethorpe continue a dance of love that transcends the body.
Just Kids chronicles the period between 1967 and 1978 where Smith and Mapplethorpe were part of each other’s daily lives. Things become a little sketchy after that. Patti briefly states that she moved to Detroit in 1979 to live with her husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. Nothing in Just Kids alludes to how the pair met, but it’s important to remember that this book is not about them. Yet, the reader wonders what precipitated these changes in Smith’s life. Did fatigue set in? Did Smith need a reprieve from the past decade to try something new? But, these are subjects for another book.
As Patti opted for a life outside of New York, Robert Mapplethorpe kept on pursuing his muse, and the fame that he so desired became his. But, his was a short-lived joy as Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986.
In a tender exploration of love’s many faces and phases Smith lays herself bare as she outlines her struggle with her former lover and friend’s illness and death. The descriptions of their last work together when a very ill Mapplethorpe shot the cover photo for her 1989 album, ‘Dream of Life’ are heartbreakingly tender and as sad an end to a love story as has ever been written.
In the end, a person doesn’t have to be a Patti Smith fan to get something out of Just Kids. It is a book that reflects choices and situations that are at once specifically grounded in our time and as free as all eternity. It is a book about shedding veils and experiencing the essence of life, personality, and art. Just Kids is a triumph of writing and storytelling that should resonate long past the time Smith has shed her own mortal coil and joined her departed friends in the dance of the spheres.
This article originally appeared at http://restlessandreal.blogspot.com/2010/01/just-kids-by-patti-smith.html