Just Kids by Patti Smith

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.

8 Responses

  1. Gotta read this. Patti had an
    Gotta read this. Patti had an exhibition of her Polaroids and other artwork at the Foundation Cartier in Paris a couple of years ago, and Mapplethorpe was a sort of ethereal presence in a lot of the work. Smith is definately an artist of the first calibre on many fronts.

  2. Sounds great–special glimpse
    Sounds great–special glimpse into NY arts scene at the time–thanks!

  3. Thanks, Levi … I’m in.
    Thanks, Levi … I’m in. Great Tavis Smiley interview with her on his website. Don.

  4. I never really listened to
    I never really listened to Patti Smith or had much interest in her albums or music. I remember when I first heard Piss factory I thought it was the most corny cliched hackneyed thing I’d ever heard … “…I’m gonna get on that bus and go to NEW YORK CITY…”

    It sounded like a parody to me.

    Never listened to Horses or whatever else her early albums were. I of course heard Because the Night and liked it. I thought and still think she did a great cover of that.

    But, I always respected Smith and her commitment to art and over the decades, as she did the Detroit thing with Sonic and things I’ve heard her say, I’ve liked her even more all the time.

    I’m very interested in this book and think it will be fascinating. So that may answer your question:

    “…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…”

    It’s nice being able to see the profiles in magazines and the like.

  5. I am adding this one to my
    I am adding this one to my Amazon Christmas wish list right now.

  6. Finished this a couple weeks
    Finished this a couple weeks ago…shoot me, I wait for paperback.

    What a fantastic book. About Robert Mapplethorpe? It’s about love, and art, and growing, and life as art…especially about life as art.

    Readable, accessible, and delightful

  7. to me, patti’s desire,
    to me, patti’s desire, honesty, passion, and veritable fount of creativity is all incredibly homogeneously interwoven, underlying anything she puts hand to coming first as it does. fangirl and master altogether all at once always, never failing to not just acknowledge the greater perspective of the ever ongoing great pantheon but turning us on with it as well, as if no one is outside it if they just but dig it and hit a key or make a mark or sing a note & then another. for all that patti brings and brought with her, it’s about the juice itself, beyond personality but not without it. i say that cause she was for me for a long time my idea of the premier archetype [sic!] of the woman poet and i believe she’d be the first to say i’d be missing the whole forest for the single tree. i always loved her not just for her works and her image but for the relaying of the reality with and within that and doing so inspiringly, sans disillusion or deflating demysytification. a master, in a world of masters. art/rat indeed. she says everyone has seven league boots but just don’t realize it, and it’s true.

    …y’know, when she did that Law & Order: CI episode last summer i giggled in droppedjaw surprise and then slapped myself for it. i was already a D’Onofrio fan and really appreciated what he brought to the Det. Goren role, why wouldn’t she as well?

    i only recently saw ‘A Man Within’ and absolutely loved the home movies in the Bonus Features section of the Netflix DVD. gotta get it for myself, a must have for sure.

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