Here’s the first great book of the new decade. Just Kids by Patti Smith is a major work, an act of creative discovery, and a surprising new step in its author’s riveting career.
Was there every any doubt that Patti Smith could write? She wrote before she sang, actually, publishing rock criticism in Crawdaddy, Creem and Rolling Stone and several poetry chapbooks before ever entering a recording studio. But it’s rare for a musical artist to master the memoir format, and when I heard that Patti Smith’s first book would focus on her early friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989, I was worried she’d phone in a Valentine.
I needn’t have worried. Just Kids stands with Horses, Dream of Life and Gone Again among Patti Smith’s most definitive works. I won’t be surprised if it follows in the tracks of Bob Dylan’s equally brilliant Chronicles: Volume One and wins the National Book Award this year.
Now, I’m a pretty big Patti Smith fan, so it’s hard for me to judge how much this book will appeal to somebody who hasn’t listened to every recording she’s ever made and seen her in concert about eight times. But I’m a discerning Patti Smith fan (I sometimes even criticize her live performances), and I can tell when she puts her heart into something. She cooks it up into a stew for Just Kids. If you like Patti even a little bit, you might like this book a lot.
It’s the story of two wannabe Bohemians in late 1960s New York City, meeting cute, haunting the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City, inspiring and driving each other’s ambitions, understanding each other deeply, falling in and out of love, crashing into success, then suddenly coming to terms with the realities of disease and age. Patti’s poised, carefully controlled sentences weave a tale of power and determination, especially as she meticulously describes the physical talismans that seem to have always lured her forward in life — jewels, sketches, shoes, photographs, guitars, all endowed with mystical significance though they are really, of course, only significant because Patti Smith tells us about them.
A set of aesthetic, spiritual and social principles emerges quietly from these pages. Just Kids reminds us what a real memoir must do. It’s not enough to tell a story: a memoirist must create a chemical reaction, must form a living bond. By the time you reach the last page of Just Kids you feel like you were just hanging out with with Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe yourself. One could do worse for company, or inspiration.