Just Kids, Patti Smith

Just Kids is a memoir detailing Patti Smith’s relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  It’s Smith’s own coming of age tale, which happens to be thoroughly entwined with his.  I came to this book without any real foreknowledge of Patti Smith.  I knew who she was of course, had given Horses the mandatory listen in college, but for whatever reason, it hadn’t stuck.

The music didn’t resonate with me at the time, so I’d filed her away in that “to revisit at a later time and with a different self” folder in my mind.  I did so in reading Just Kids, and where she had failed to grab me with her music in my early twenties, here, with her words, she got her hooks in real good.

The book is the chronicle of a friendship, lovingly told. It was enjoyable and, as a creative, I also found it instructive and encouraging.  We watch two successful careers unfold in very different ways; his through sheer will and desire for recognition, hers through a relentless exploration of herself and the modesty to not accept any opportunity that she doesn’t feel she’s earned.

After the ordeal of a teen pregnancy and giving her child up for adoption, Patti Smith made a vow to do something more with her life; she was going to live for art.  She’s one of those people who just took off for New York without anything more substantial than a hunger for experience and expression.

If there is any real key to her success in life, at least as it appears in this book, it would seem to be her openness to, curiosity about, and compassion for the people she encounters.  We see this first as she meets Mapplethorpe- literally one of the first people she comes across in New York.  After an inauspicious initial meeting, they’re shortly again thrown together and from there they’re inseparable.

Driven by his ambition and her curiosity and compassion, the two of them move through a series of living situations that increase in habitability by small degrees; for instance they trade ovens full of used needles for the infinitely more pedestrian head lice.  Eventually, they land on the doorstep of the books’ third main character, the Chelsea Hotel.

The hotel has recently changed hands and is closed to the public for renovations, so you can’t go there now, but all the same, even if you could wiggle your way past it’s tiny lobby, you wouldn’t be able to visit the wonderland of its past.  Many artists have passed through its walls, and just as many have written about it, so there are all sorts of ways to experience the hotel.   Here, in Patti Smith’s hands, the building, while never lacking in mystery or the charge and chaos of artistic energy, seems far less sordid and dangerous than many of the depictions I’ve read before.

In Patti’s Chelsea, Edie Sedgewick’s lighting her room on fire is a mere rumor of the past, and room 100 would still be open and non-descript for another decade or so before Sid and Nancy would check in and make it notorious.  By Smith’s side, we wander the halls, as if through a giant doll house, each room a diorama crafted with care by an eccentric child living within.  Luckily for us, Patti is invited to play in many of them.

Smith spends a lot of time plumbing the depths of their relationship to identify the more subtle ways that they influenced one another, but their importance in one another’s self-discovery is never more sweetly illustrated than in a repeating anecdote from those amorphous middle years between them, a time before their paths were set:

He agonizes over finding the right images for his work, she tells him he should take his own pictures.  She hums Edith Piaf tunes while leaving scraps of poetry crumpled up around their loft, he gathers them lovingly and tells her she should sing.

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