Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

On the night of Patti Smith‘s Union Square reading, and on the eve of the official release of her memoir, Just Kids, there was, as there often is, a lanky fellow in a dazzling blue band jacket playing Jimi Hendrix songs on electric guitar in the Prince Street subway station. His hair piled on his head to approximate Hendrix’s Afro, his old-school musical tribute offset by the iPod touch as accompanist strapped to his arm, it seemed a fitting spiritual transition from our modern office to Patti, a talisman from 1970s New York.

A few minutes later, on the sweltering fourth floor of Barnes & Noble, Smith emerged, complementary to our Jimi in black beanie and stringy hair — starting to look like Keith Richards underneath, but still imbued with some kind of hippie-powerful beauty and presence. She began the reading by reminding the packed room that it was Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday, so if anyone was bored that night, they should probably read some Poe. Or maybe, she added, her memoir.

Patti Smith’s new memoir is a love note and elegy to Robert Mapplethorpe, her lifelong confidant, muse, lover, and friend. On the day before Mapplethorpe’s death, she promised him that she would write their story. For Smith, as she explained, that was her only agenda — to write a story infused with the same love and happiness he brought to their life together.

Indeed, the memoir is a heartwarming love story, a clear song of devotion from Smith to Mapplethorpe, pure and beautiful and fascinating in its own way, though perhaps earnest to the point of sugary-sweetness in places. She stays true to her title, spelling out her encounters with childlike wonder and simple, easy prose, delivered with a shrug. For fans of either artist, it’s a delightful insight into their shared experiences; and for aspiring artists in New York (or anywhere), it’s a ray of hope — a we-did-it-so-you-can-too.

To this end, Smith is incredibly successful at immersing the reader in their New York — the book is filled with lush descriptions of atmosphere and artistic community, the romantic, grim, mystical version of the city that so many of us had in mind as teenagers played out perfectly in prose. This is a New York where you can buy a pack of cigarettes for 25 cents and stay at the Chelsea for 55 dollars a week, where Allen Ginsberg buys you sandwiches and you move to sit in Andy Warhol’s still-warm chair.

Even truer were the sheepish admittances of what it’s like to be a young artist in the world — one anecdote, after Mapplethorpe steals an etching of William Blake’s from Brentano’s and winds up panicking and destroying it, sticks out:

“Like Jean Genet, Robert was a terrible thief. Genet was caught and imprisoned for stealing rare volumes of Proust and rolls of silk from a shirt maker. Aesthetic thieves. I imagined his sense of horror and triumph as bits of Blake swirled into the sewers of New York City.

We looked down at our hands, each holding on to the other. We took a deep breath, accepting our complicity, not in theft, but in the destruction of a work of art.

‘At least they’ll never get it,’ he said.

‘Who are they?’ I asked.

‘Anyone who isn’t us,’ he answered.”

For us, the major flaw is that there’s not enough about Patti herself. We love Mapplethorpe dearly (being, among other things, of the generation that fetishizes Polaroids above all else), but this is not his memoir, nor is it billed as a book about him, but as a book about them both. Fine, but Just Kids seems to hold their union, and Mapplethorpe himself, far above any insight into Smith’s mind. There are no real details on her romantic life outside of him (and her approach to her own sexuality in the book is frankly Victorian), and more disappointingly for us, no real discussion of the internal struggle that must have gone hand-in-hand with their unconventional relationship.

After all, her lover discovered himself as a homosexual while still sharing her bed, and they masqueraded as a couple for a long period of time; he gave her a disease he had picked up from a night of random sex. Smith relates these things with a flip of the hand, as if they did not matter under the great sun that was her love for Mapplethorpe. Well, okay, maybe in the end. But what about the middle? There was no anger, no resentment? How could that have felt? The book feels like it has restrained itself into elegy form, unable to speak ill of the dead, a restriction that mars the reader’s full belief.

Further obscuring our connection: The focus is not only on Mapplethorpe as angelic figure, but also on the laundry list of literary, artistic and musical greats Smith encountered during her youth in New York. Even the interviewer at the Union Square reading asked few personal questions (most of which Smith answered by reading passages or recreating anecdotes from the book) before launching into a schoolgirlish list of all the celebrities she wanted to know about — William Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Steven Sebring. The list goes on, and while reading, it was delightful to come across these names, to connect puzzle pieces of memory and cultural reference (and if we’d gotten to hit on William Burroughs, we’d probably want to share), but it left us with less time with Patti, whom we like a lot.

The book ends before Smith’s real rise to fame — before her status as grandmother of punk rock — which lends the story a hopeful, youthful feel. There is much to come, but she doesn’t know it yet, and it is here that Smith’s prose style works wonders. Even with Mapplethorpe’s death, the reader feels the promise of the future in the childlike eyes of the memoirist, and believes wholeheartedly in its possibility. Ultimately, if you’re a romantic, if you’re a fan, or if you’re nostalgic for a time you may or may not have even been present for, you will like this book. If you get a thrill from little secret stories about the great American artists of the ’70s, and want a peek and their social hierarchy and yes, insecurities, you will like this book.

So, yeah, we liked it.

Patti Smith’s art show with Steven Sebring, Objects of Life, will be up at the Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea until February 6. Just Kids is now available at a bookstore near you.