Sunday, October 18, 2015

Book review: "Just Kids" shares a rapturous look at art, love and friendship

How did I not read this beautiful, lyrical, infatuating memoir before now? Just Kids waited silently on my Kindle for nearly three years, bought on a whim thanks to a sale price and lush reviews. But with almost no knowledge of Patti Smith or her work, I foolishly let it languish along with so many other titles destined to collect digital dust.

The swell of articles and interviews for Smith’s recently released follow-up M Train rained down more praise of the preceding book as well as the new, reminding me that I really should see what the fuss was about. Already in possession of Just Kids, it was easy enough to get started. The hard part, I discovered, was to stop thinking about it.

The book details her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe that spanned from the late ’60s until his death from AIDS in 1989. Smith made her bold arrival in NYC at age 20 with only one suitcase, little cash and no fixed residence. She met Mapplethorpe the first day, and they soon forged a close bond that left them emotionally entwined and dear friends long after their initial romance ended. Just Kids focuses primarily on her early years in New York with Mapplethorpe before they both gained artistic renown, and before their lives and loves took them separate ways – physically, at least. They always maintained an emotional connection, one that Smith lovingly and eloquently recreates for readers.

The magic Smith weaves here is in telling a charming, entrancing story about what was a rather gritty lifestyle. It appears romantic and alluring without seeming whitewashed, without making me think for one second I would really want to live such a life myself. That is, I can see how it was magical to her without being fooled it would’ve been the same for me. Yes, hanging out at the Chelsea Hotel with the era’s hippest authors and musicians sounds wonderful in theory, and you can clearly see how this was a dream life for Smith and Mapplethorpe. But Smith manages to caste the shine of how she saw it without pretending that it wasn’t a cruel existence in many ways. They often went hungry, caught lice from dodgy lodging, struggled for money, and shared a grimy hall bathroom with other lodgers (when they were lucky enough to have a bathroom at all – the phrase “pee cup” comes up for times they didn’t). But they had each other and their art, and that made everything worthwhile. After years of struggling, Smith went on to fame as a musician, poet and visual artist while Mapplethorpe made his name in the art world for his photography.

I knew very little about Patty Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe when I delved into Just Kids. The first time I heard Smith’s biggest hit, Because the Night, was as a cover by 10,000 Maniacs that I didn’t realize was a cover. When I learned the original was by Patti Smith, I confused her with Patti Sciafla, Bruce Springsteen’s wife (Springsteen co-wrote the song, which may explain my confusion). It wasn’t until reading this book I realized who was responsible for that gorgeous song, I'm embarrassed to admit. I did know Smith was renowned for her album Horses, which figures on many “best ever” lists for both the content and the compelling cover, and I vaguely thought Mapplethorpe photographed the cover (he did).

None of that matters; you don’t have to know and love the work of either Smith or Mapplethorpe to become gloriously lost in these pages. Be warned: Just Kids will make you ache to learn more about people that either influenced Smith or came into her life in some way. I felt captured in a row of dominoes, with each one toppling and leading me crashing into someone else whose book I’d soon be buying or who I'd be Googling for more information.

She was deeply influenced by poet Arthur Rimbaud, her lovers included writer/actor Sam Shepard and writer Jim Carroll (of The Basketball Diaries fame). She crossed paths with many more renowned writers, artists, and musicians, as well as some just famous for being fabulous icons on the artsy scene of the time. If you know little about any of them, her book may inspire you to learn more.

In the end, Just Kids celebrates the love of life. The joy in making art and in dear friendships emanates from these pages like music drifting through an open window. Accept that gift and let it wash over you, knowing the tune will stay with you long after the music goes still.

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