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Patti Smith’s poignant memoir

November 7, 2011

Patti Smith’s memoir “Just Kids” is a lovely book, earnest, honest and poignant. She describes growing up during the 1950s in a working-class family and her struggles to become a creative individual like the poet she most admired, Arthur Rimbaud. As an impoverished but aspiring young artist she bought a one-way bus ticket to New York City, not knowing how she would get by or where she would live. By good fortune on her very first day in the city she encountered the young man who would become her best friend, adviser, confidant and lover: Robert Mapplethorpe.

The two young people were inseparable for several years, during which time both of them gradually formulated their different forms of art. Living in a succession of cheap and horrible spaces, underemployed, often ill or plagued with lice, they counted every nickel and often went hungry. Many readers will be surprised to find Patti did not emerge from the waves as an aspiring musician. For many years before she  picked up a guitar, she painted and drew instead; she composed poems and she penned essays for music magazines. Their chronic lack of money meant that Patti and Robert kept an eye out for cool stuff lying on the sidewalks of New York that could be brought home and either worn, used around the apartment somehow, or incorporated into art assemblages.

The book is filled with fond reminiscences, neither self-serving nor arrogant. Young Patti goes to the Automat and places her last few coins into the slot, only to find out too late that the price has just gone up by one dime which she does not have. Cursing her luck, she turns to find a bearded, bespectacled, balding man offering her the dime she needs. It’s Allen Ginsberg! Going to his table to eat with him, he discovers that she’s not the cute boy he mistook her for, but a girl. Nevertheless they chat and become friendly.

Patti befriends musicians including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Todd Rundgren and the playwright Sam Shepherd.  She meets Lenny Kaye and with him performs the first rock ‘n’ roll poetry, slowly moving deeper and deeper into the music world. Her poems evolve into song lyrics which Lenny accompanies with music. All the while, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti move slowly into different parallel worlds as he realizes that he is gay. Despite their sexual divergence, they remain truest friends and art critics to each other.  Although each chooses a different partner and goes on to live his or her life separately, they remain devoted to their early vow to always be there for each other.

The loving pair of starving artists. (Look at those skeletal limbs.) Image courtesy http://theteleharmonium.blogspot .com/2011/07/just-kids.html

Patti’s well-written memoir is a wonderful example of the starving-artist genre. It evokes Kerouac’s bohemian novels as well as the lyrical chapter early in Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles, Vol. 1” in which he describes being young and aspiring and stone-broke in New York, wandering the snowy streets, searching for a couch to crash on, listening to endless records at friends’ apartments and finding inspiration therein. The book also shares some similarities with Jim Carroll’s “Basketball Diaries,” which described the author’s downward spiral into increasing degradation while simultaneously maintaining sight of his original poetic aspirations. Personally, I’m a sucker for the starving-artist genre, and I’ve even read the very first example of this category, the 1851 “Scenes de la vie de boheme” by Henri Murger. Curiously, my entrepreneurial teenage son has no patience for stories of this kind. “Why don’t they all get jobs?” he inquires in a withering tone of irony. He has no desire to suffer, or to be poor, or to salvage clothing or furniture off the street, as I myself did in my young adult days.

The cover of the American edition of Patti's memoir, showing her and Robert at Coney Island.

The book is a reminder of how little we really know our own artistic heroes. I once owned every one of Patti’s records and cut out photos of her from Rolling Stone magazine, but I knew nothing about her.  I thought she smoked and took drugs; I assumed she was a lesbian or at least bisexual; but she was none of these things. A young person in the late 1960s, Patti didn’t identify with hippies because she identified instead with Rimbaud. She never set out to become “the high priestess of punk;” she very simply was true to her own idiosyncratic creative gifts and the pieces fell into place for her. She never became rich from her writing or her music, but she gained lasting respect and honor. Like Walt Whitman, like Ginsberg and Kerouac, like Dylan, Patti Smith is now considered to be an integral and necessary part of American creative culture. Her memoir won the American Book Award for 2010 in the nonfiction category.

Patti’s book reminded me of my own early days, counting my pennies, listening to records as though they were Holy Writ, pondering how and where I would eat each night, attending gallery openings of my friends, strumming my guitar and singing in my echoing cold-water flat, the winter wind rattling the loose panes in the old windows. This is a book that I will keep and read again.

[Be sure to see Patti’s web site, http://www.pattismith.net.]

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2 Comments
  1. Patti Smith was interviewed on NPR’s “Fresh Aire” last year sometime I think. I didn’t know much about her, but I listened to the entire interview with complete fascination as she talked about this book. I will try to find it at my library after reading your review!

  2. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 🙂

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