Thursday, August 15, 2013

Just Kids

Hi everyone,

I picked up Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids, in a used book store while vacationing in San Francisco last year. One of the editions had a glowing quote from Johnny Depp on the back cover, a sign that this copy was meant for me. But I'd wanted to read Just Kids long before I saw Johnny's endorsement of his friend's book. My dad already recommended it to me because, he said, it's about New York. A couple of friends said I'd like it because it's about artists. After Just Kids won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2010, I was sorely disappointed that I missed Patti Smith talking about it nearby during a free Smithsonian event. (Note to self: never read the Friday Weekend section of The Post on Monday.)

Although I knew very little about Patti Smith before reading Just Kids, everyone was right: I loved it! This inspiring memoir chronicles the lives of struggling artists in New York City in the 1970s and '80s. After her dad takes her to a museum for the first time, Patti Smith dreams of nothing other than becoming an artist. With a few dollars in her pocket and a satchel of belongings, she buses it to New York to follow her dream. The first person she meets in New York City is artist Robert Mapplethorpe, for whom this book serves as a love letter, honoring their complicated relationship and celebrating their unconditional love.

Robert Mapplethorpe,
photo-booth Polaroid, 1970
Patti Smith seems lucky. Alone in the big city, she happens to meet a homeless guy who helps her find food during those first few nights on the streets. She happens to find a guardian angel in Robert Mapplethorpe, who encourages her to find her own voice and use it to create her art. She happens to meet influential people who get her work seen and heard, helping her to become the poet and rock-and-roller she is today.

Her vivid writing and desire to be among the great artists she admires is exhilarating and infectious. She paints the New York scene with such great detail that you can smell the atmosphere and feel like you too walked into a bar finding Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol, and Janis Joplin sitting at the counter. In that way, this book reminded me of Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, which describes the illustrious artistic and literary community he found in Paris in the 1920s. I didn't recognize all the names that Patti Smith dropped on her journey, but I appreciated her star-struck luck and evolution as an artist.

Ken Moody & Robert Sherman, 1984
But Robert Mapplethorpe's struggle intrigued me more. Unlike Patti Smith, who desired and worked to become a great artist and then, as one thing led to another, became famous through her work relatively easily, Robert Mapplethorpe already knew he was a great artist and struggled to get the recognition he deserved. Somehow, before reading this book, I knew more about Robert Mapplethorpe's work than Patti Smith's. Since he died of AIDS in 1989 when I was a teenager, I must have heard and saw more about him at that time. Some of his striking black-and-white photographs are unforgettable.

His relationship with Patti Smith was news to me, and fascinating. Through this book, you experience undeniable first love and witness two artists at work together, however different their styles. Patti Smith has artistic breakthroughs amid piles of poetry books and paper, with drafts of verse scattered all over the floor and walls. Robert Mapplethorpe sees the art he wants to make and creates it on the spot, neatly, methodically, and quickly. These two personalities are vastly different yet entirely complementary, inseparable, and supportive. Despite growing up and apart, their bond never breaks.

This thoughtful book is accompanied by photographs, artwork, and poetry from these two great artists, mementos of their extraordinary partnership. It offers a glimpse into life as an artist and captures a time in New York that has long since gone. Just Kids fulfills Patti Smith's promise to her friend to write their story for the world to know. "No one but you can write it," he said. She vows to continue their work and collaboration for as long as she lives. Although not part of their world, reading their story inspired me to draw, to write, to create something. If you read Just Kids, you will be inspired too. What are you waiting for?


Photo credits: book cover © Patti Smith; photo booth self-portrait © Robert Mapplethorpe, from Patti Smith's archive; Ken Moody and Robert Sherman © Robert Mapplethorpe; Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe © Kate Simon 

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