Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book review: "Just Kids"

Just Kids, Patti Smith ****

Just Kids is a beautiful book about youthful optimism, the love of art, and the enduring love between two artists.

I've loved Patti Smith since the first time I heard her version of "Gloria." I can't really describe how shocking it was to hear her recite the words, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." I couldn't really wrap my 14-year-old brain around it.
Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
Meltin' in a pot of thieves
Wild card up my sleeve
Thick heart of stone
My sins my own
They belong to me, me
Are people even allowed to do that? Can you just say that? Does saying that make it so? Doesn't that mean she'll go to hell or something? Doesn't she know that? But then she goes on, and she does know it, but she doesn't care!
People say "beware!"
But I don't care
The words are just
Rules and regulations to me, me
I couldn't understand it. I couldn't really understand the whole song. But I felt... something. An independence... a wildness... a freedom. I felt -- and yes, I know how ridiculous and cliched this is going to sound -- but I felt rock 'n' roll.

And ever since then, when I say song is a great rock song (not just a great song, with a beautiful melody, or a compelling rhythm, or moving lyrics, but a great rock song), I mean that it's a song that makes me feel the same way.

Despite my love for her music, though, I knew next to nothing about Patti Smith's life. So that's why I grabbed her memoir Just Kids as soon as I heard of it.

I was surprised to learn that the book is mostly about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. (If you're not familiar with Mapplethorpe, he was a photographer who became most famous, or notorious, for his pictures of gay BDSM. His work was a focus of the "culture wars" in the late '80s and early '90s. He died of AIDS in 1989.)

Contrary to the image one might have of such a now-iconic figure in the history of rock music, Patti Smith wasn't born guitar in hand, howling her passion to the world through music. She initially had no idea that music would become her métier. Drawing and poetry were more what she had in mind.

In the story she gently lays out in Just Kids, Smith moved to New York when she was 19. She didn't know exactly what she wanted to do, except that she wanted to be an artist... of some kind.

Smith and Mapplethorpe
So she went to New York. Alone. With no job and no certain place to stay. Eventually she met Mapplethorpe, and they became friends/lovers. They lived together as (sometimes rather literally) "starving artists."

Above all, Just Kids is a love story. She and Mapplethorpe loved art and they loved each other, even after they stopped living together and Mapplethorpe began to understand his own sexuality. Eventually, of course, they succeeded as artists, he through his photography and she through her music and poetry. But the book is almost entirely about that shared "bohemian" period in their lives, when they lived for art and all they had was art and each other.

It's a romantic story, and Smith tells it with no trace of self-pity or self-mockery. There's no nostalgic indulgence in "See how hard I had it!" nor in "See how silly I was!" Instead, she tells it lovingly and innocently, adeptly mirroring the love and innocence of the two "kids" of the title.

It's not an "exciting" or "compelling" memoir; it's a gentle and sweet one. Yet its power, and the power of Smith's simple and beautiful prose, gradually worked its way under my skin and made me care about them as people as well as artists.

Ratings:
**** Highly recommended
*** Recommended
** Meh
* Don't bother


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