Book Review: “Just Kids” by Patti Smith

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An intense love for reading and all that accompanies it has been instilled in me from a young age. When I was a kid, most of my spare time was spent with my nose stuck in a book. Recess meant more time reading page after inky page, and weeks at the cottage were like a challenge to myself to see just how many novels I could get through each day. I loved it. At some point, life became real and I was pulled out of the imaginary world that I had woven together from the hours I spent in the wonderful, distant realm of literature. Getting shipped off to Hogwarts no longer felt possible, and I definitely wasn’t a member of the elite prepsters who made up the Gossip Girl community. As time wore on, I grew apart from books.

Sometime over the past couple years, I became determined to rekindle my love for the written word. I missed the indescribable ability that books hold that enable them to create an escape for the reader. Sometimes the real world is boring, and you need to immerse yourself in another time and place in order to feel free for a little while. I found my niche in a seemingly never-ending list of novels and biographies about punks and groupies and artists and rock n’ roll journalists from decades past. More specifically, I became extremely interested in the female perspectives of these eras. And so the subconscious mission to read every single one of these books began.

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I began with There Goes Gravity by Lisa Robinson. She’s a well-known music journalist who spent much of her life on tour with The Rolling Stones and The Clash and countless other classic bands. Her first-hand account of life in the industry made me realize that I want nothing more than to immerse myself in that world. I also read A Freewheelin’ Time by Suze Rotolo, and within an instant I was wishing I could travel back in time to the Greenwhich Village of the sixties and spend my time in clubs and coffeehouses mingling with beat poets and folk artists. Most recently, I fell deeply in love with Patti Smith’s best-selling memoir, Just Kids.

I think I’m naturally drawn to people – and stories about people – who dedicate their lives to what they love. People who will stop at nothing to turn their ideas into reality, whether that’s an art exhibit or an album or a poetry anthology. Not only am I inspired by them, but I can see a bit of my own qualities in their personalities, and their lives make me want to keep on going. Patti Smith is one of those people, and so was Robert Mapplethorpe, who is her other half in the memoir and in her early life. That was probably the main reason why I wanted to pick it up, and why I couldn’t put it down once I had begun reading their story.

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First things first: Patti is an incredible writer. Her words have this wonderful quality to them that makes the story feel like it’s on fire. It’s passionate and raw and real and, like seeing a building burn down or wood turn to coals in a fire pit on a muggy summer night, you can’t turn away from it. Reading about a timeframe from someone who actually lived it is so much better than reading a soulless, scholarly novel written by a bystander, and I think Ms. Smith captured her world incredibly effortlessly. She bares all.

This novel is fearless. It’s so intimate and intense that you feel like you’re trespassing on the most personal events she’s ever experienced. And I love that. I love that she had the guts to do that, to open her heart and soul and to tell a story that’s as unedited and as true as possible. For one, it makes it astonishingly easy to immerse yourself in her world. In a blink of an eye, you’re in each crappy apartment she shared with Robert, and in another you’re in Electric Lady Studios while she records an album and then in the back room of Max’s Kansas City as Robert tries to get in with Andy Warhol’s crowd. When you have to take a break from reading, it’s hard to come to terms with the reality that you’re not really part of all that.

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This memoir turned Patti into a role model for me. Between her and Robert, I’ve never even dreamt of a duo that dedicated themselves so whole-heartedly to their work and to their art. They were one another’s biggest supporters. They acted as muses for each other, they were partners in crime and in creativity. They constantly pushed one another, Patti telling Robert to try his hand at photography and Robert insisting that Patti become a singer. You get the sense that even at their lowest, poorest points, they were essential to the other’s survival, and that their art provided sustenance. When Robert fell extremely ill or when all they could afford to eat was a grilled cheese sandwich or a day-old donut split between the two of them, they were often still writing or collaging or searching for inspiration. Art, as well as their incredibly intimate relationship, gave them something to live for.

Together, Patti and Robert were simultaneously strong as an ox and fragile as glass. There are points in the novel when it seems like they were walking on eggshells, and others when the world was their oyster. I think everything was fairly complicated, but they had a mutual understanding that neither one of them would ever find another person who would accept them so completely, and that’s what kept them together through it all. Their loyalty to one another was admirable. Patti’s love for him, even after he succumbed to the effects of HIV, is more intense than you could ever imagine.

Their tale is an inspiring one. Patti and Robert are both legendary, and the inner-workings of their greatness are revealed in this inspiring memoir. Their story makes anything at all feel possible. It instills hope and reminds you of the validity of all of your crazy, insane dreams and aspirations. It cements the importance of passion and hard work. I can’t think of anything more important than all of that. Patti has given the world an incredible gift and a valuable glimpse into the lives of two immeasurably influential artists, and now it’s up to us to put it to good use.

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