Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

2 Feb

Reading Gone with the Wind and Just Kids back to back was, if nothing else, a lesson in creating setting. Time and place are such essential components to each book, despite the vast differences in their respective settings. And the fact that one was fiction and the other, memoir.

These two books could not be more different – aside from that one small, but important detail of how beautifully time and place are evoked by each author. It seems fitting that they are the first two books I’ve read in the new year when I’m actually tracking geography. As deeply as I was immersed in the atmosphere of Civil War-era Atlanta in GWTW, I was even more so in Patti Smith’s rendering of 1960s and 70s New York City. Her relationship withe Robert Mapplethorpe is exquisitely portrayed – and is really the focus of the memoir, but I was more drawn in by the descriptions of Brooklyn around Pratt Institute, Washington Square Park, and especially the Chelsea Hotel. Smith paints such a picture of life in the artistic, poetic, rock ‘n roll community of the 60s and 70s that it felt tangible and romantic. Her life is populated by icons of the time: Allan Ginsberg, William Buroughs, Janis Joplin, Todd Rundgren, Andy Warhol, and Jimi Hendrix. But it’s populated in such a way that these people are just part of her life; yes, they’re famous or will become famous after they pass through, but she distinctly gives the impression that they’re just people that she spent time with, feeding off of each other’s artistic contributions.

The title of the book goes to the heart of what it’s about. Not just about Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, the book is about these intensely cutting-edge, talented artists becoming the people they were meant to be. They’re not yet the ground-breaking photographer or the mother of modern punk; they’re just kids trying to survive in NYC and trying to make their art the best way they know how.

Yes, admittedly, the book romanticized what was obviously a financially meager and emotionally turbulant part of her life, but it was romantic because that’s how she felt at the time. I never got the sense that she was rose-coloring her glasses after the fact. Instead, she clearly loved her life in the moment in time and made the best of her surroundings and reveled in the art and artists around her. She and Mapplethorpe had a complicated relationship, to be sure, but it was at its core a deep and profound, loving and encouraging relationship.

My impressions of the book should be pretty clear from this review so far, but in case they’re not, I really liked this book – with a caveat. As a long-time fan of the Beat generation, I loved this glance into their world at the time they were writing. I’ve never been a particular fan of Patti Smith’s music, so I listened briefly to her album, “Horses” when I was done reading the book, hoping for a similiar atmosphere-evoking moment just like the book (I didn’t want it to end!), but sadly, didn’t get that at all. I’m thinking about picking up some of her other writings though. I was already a fan of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, but I sought out some of it with his story fresh in my mind hoping to see the progression and attitude that Patti Smith describes.

Just Kids won the National Book Award – and rightly so. The language and the feeling of the book – I wanted to swim in it and actually mourned a little when it ended (there were so many tears). She absolutely deserved to win, but I wish in the end that there was more substance in describing the later years of their friendship. She does such an amazing job of describing their early life, but by the end, it felt lacking. Throughout the book, as I said, she’d been building this characterization of the people they were eventually going to become. But I felt very little acknowledgement of their eventual fame and icon status’ individually as artists from her writing. Perhaps it was intentional and she wanted to focus entirely on their evolving friendship, but they DID become artistic giants, and there were few nods to that by the end. I guess I was hoping for a little more from her about their respective careers and fame, but it’s a small complaint in the midst of a book that I devoured and savored at the same time. Highly recommended read.

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3 Responses to “Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith”

  1. Kerry February 3, 2011 at 9:40 am #

    I’ve heard only excellent things about this. When I first heard of it, I didn’t think it was for me, but upon reading more, I’m starting to come around. I like your point about the romanticizing of her experience – it’s not rose-colored glasses if you were loving it when it actually happened. Thanks for the review.

  2. Dorothy W. February 4, 2011 at 3:54 pm #

    Very interesting! I don’t know much about Smith at all, but I’ve heard such good things about this book. It would be fascinating learning about what her life was like and the people she knew.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Review: The Thirteenth Tale « a home between the pages - February 10, 2011

    […] otherwise picked up on. But what I did notice here – and which I touched on when I reviewed Just Kids – is the desire to have a larger understanding of the literary references throughout the […]

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