Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: Just Kids

Just Kids Just Kids by Patti Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Patti Smith gets it all wrong. Edgy rock and rollers are supposed to be narcissists and angry at the world. They’re supposed to resent their parents and childhood, and they’re supposed to see betrayal in all their relationships. They’re supposed to be heading toward some kind of nihilism, taking whatever gifts they might have along with them, consciously squandering their potential greatness behind love and self-destruction.

Instead, Smith actually likes the people she knows. She values her family and friends, and she sees a constant – if slightly moving – target in her art. She is after, always, some sense of poetry that isn’t absent from her America (because that would be easy) but is rather always present but almost over-looked. She believes there’s an audience for the difficult, and she believes there are reasons to find most people she meets interesting.

So, with that, her memoir is worth it just to get a glimpse of her. I’d class myself a B+ fan of her work. I love, very much, her “big” songs – “Because the Night,” “Frederick,” or “Dancing Barefoot,” – and I once spent a summer wearing out the grooves of one side of Horses, but I tire quickly of the more purely poetry cuts. I like some of her images, but find her work undisciplined. But never mind that; if you want a guide through the sometimes cruel, almost always too-cool-for-you world of the 1970s New York City art world, it’s hard to imagine a better guide. Certainly no one this inside it all could care as much about revealing it to the squares like us.

But, of course, the heart of this memoir – which seems to me deserving of its National Book Award – is her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s a strange story, sometimes magical, since she met him on the first day she landed in Brooklyn. I knew him as the famous chronicler of the homosexual underworld of his day, and I knew he’d died of AIDS, so part of me wanted to shout at her from the start, “Don’t fall in love with him – he’s gay even if he doesn’t know it yet. He'll break your heart when he figures out you can't make him happy.”

It’s a good thing she couldn’t hear me, though, because their relationship is so beautiful. They’re two “kids” who believe in one another, two talented people on the brink of discovering their art, and they discover it in one another before each does in him or herself. They go different ways, but they never stop loving each other. Sex is a curious after-thought in all this. Smith may sleep with half a dozen people, but so what? She chronicles the way she cares about Mapplethorpe, and the way he cares about her. I find him a lot less interesting than her, but he becomes interesting to me for the way he loves her so steadily. (I listened to Smith reading the audio version, and I came to love the way she’d imitate his drawn out, semi-exasperated way of saying her name, “Patttiiii…”)

There are a lot of other fascinating things that happen to Smith along the way. She gets picked up by Allen Ginsberg who thinks she’s just a pretty boy. She has an affair with Sam Shepard and the two casually write a play to kill the time. She takes up with a young Allan Lanier, a member of the just-becoming huge Blue Oyster Cult. And she and Lenny Kaye invent a new way to play rock and roll.

But through all that, the story that ties it together is her affection for Mapplethorpe, and the lens that makes it worthwhile is her own, deeply human one. The version I read includes an appendix with some excerpts of her poetry and songs in memory of Mapplethorpe – and there are moments in all of them to admire – but nothing we see from Smith rivals the simple and beautiful story she tells throughout this memoir.

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