Book Review: Just Kids

Patti Smith is untouchably cool.  Her diverse body of creative accomplishments speaks for itself: Smith is a talented visual artist, musician, poet, and as the 2010 publication of her memoir Just Kids revealed, prosaist.  Few artists cross disciplines as adeptly as Smith, and few do so as she has without a single misstep.

A true creative original, Smith’s distinctive take on rock and roll—a mishmash of spoken word poetry, performance art, anarchical incantations, and a hearty, unpolished sound—emerged as a close precursor to the New York punk movement, quickly solidifying her status as a seminal figure in its development.  Forty-ish years later, Just Kids reverberates with the voice of an unchanged Patti Smith, one that continues to emanate the spirit of punk: her unpretentious candor seems to carry forth from another time. Smith is the rare sort of artist who manages to remain wholly authentic and unfettered by fame despite years in the public eye, a true gem amidst a culture obsessed with celebrity and rarely conscious of creative talent or critical of its absence. 

In Just Kids, winner of the 2010 National Book Award, Smith writes of her earliest years in New York City, a formative period of artistic development.  She recalls a time when decisions made, e.g. the decision to dedicate her life to art, had yet to ripen into the success that would eventually publicize her work.  Just Kids is as much an account of this period as it is a remembrance of her relationship with acclaimed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe—in fact, the two phenomena quickly materialize as wholly interdependent forces.

Patti and Robert are brought together by chance ­­­during the summer of 1967 when both are only twenty-one, just as Patti embarks on a self-defined reimagining of the American dream. The young Smith reveals her deepest motivations as expressive and non-materialistic, and Robert’s own burgeoning artistic vision is a perfect fit. The pair carry the story as a hero and heroine whose naiveté and genuine dedication to the pursuit of art is clearly a unique and definitive connection, one that Smith would eventually call seminal.

There is a pristine romanticism to Smith and Mapplethorpe in their youth; their devotion to art is depicted as a primal creative longing, a satisfying reaffirmation of each artist’s respective genuineness. The characters' pure intentions seem amplified as their story plays out on the acerbic streets of 1970’s New York City, a time some consider one of the city's worst.  Smith’s New York offers a captivating contrast to the gentrified Manhattan of today; her downtown is a gritty hotbed of offbeat personalities and artistic exploration where a diverse band of outsiders and social deviants take up residence in forgotten lofts or pay rent weekly at the Chelsea Hotel.  She writes of casual moments with Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Gregory Corso and Bob Dylan.

But as one is so easily and blissfully buoyed by the altruism of a story about two young people pursuing art with no expectation of return, so swift is the fall.  Just Kids develops into a narrative as much about loss as it is about art and love; fate materializes as a third primary character, and her role in the story of Patti and Robert is, if anything, a raw reflection of some of life’s most heart wrenching truths.

This is where the poignancy of Smith’s work lies: in contrast.  As one is drawn into the precious, treasure-box reality that Patti and Robert share, each moment of bohemian accomplishment is marred by the reader’s knowledge of what is to come, the story after the story.  Both Smith and Mapplethorpe would eventually confront the complications of fame and the extremes of a culture and city fuming with chemical and material excess.  Smith writes of the loss of a moment in American history that nurtured unschooled and diverse artistic expression, art for art’s sake; the loss of another New York, as it was at a time both dangerous and uncensored, in a moment when the place made itself a meeting point for those seeking a self-defined life; and most glaringly, the loss of Mapplethorpe, first on his own terms as recounted by Smith and later to AIDS in 1989.

Patti and Robert’s world offers, perhaps melancholically, a stirring alternative to the present where the cultural stage is an art world that seems to be perpetually reconstructing itself into new manifestations of the worst aspects of Western culture (materialism, branding, mass production, inattention to craft, loss of culture, lack of authenticity, etc.), and taking art with it (or vice-versa, one could argue). Seen in contrast, Just Kids reads like a brief utterance of truth in spite of its tragedy, one that simultaneously proffers the persistent existence of a second path. Smith presents a story that recalls a time when the essence of art was expression, something uniquely tied to certain individuals, something that required skill and insight rather than commercial prowess.  Smith, like her beloved Arthur Rimbaud, believes that artists can represent an authentic voice of reason, that they can act as visionaries who offer alternative ways of knowing and seeing, and her memoir stands proof that this notion isn’t merely the fodder of romantic imaginings.  With Just Kids Patti Smith gives us yet another poetic gem, this time a memoir that inspires reflection and reminds us of another way of being and another way of perceiving art; one that isn’t so far behind.