“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” ― Lester Bangs
I have just finished reading ”Just Kids” for the second time and I can’t help feeling a bit of anguish as I’m about to express my perception of Patti’s first book of prose mainly, I suppose, due to the fact that it’s a best seller. Not that I disagree, Au contraire! All the praise about ”Just Kids’‘ is very well deserved, but so much has been said already that I forbade myself to read any of it so that everything I would say would be 100% mine. Therefore I will simply pretend I’m the only bloody diamond geezer who was clever enough to read it, heartily hoping to bring something new to the table in the process. I chose this quote by Lester Bangs as an opener because these words seemed to be the very foundation of one of the most sincere and coolest relationship ever, one that’s been told through the pages of ”Just Kids”, a true story that would in itself become an inspiration for so many more to come. It’s a call to be who I really am no matter what, because by doing so, I might be able to bring something unique and new in this bankrupt world.
”There Will Always Be Us!”
In ”Just Kids”, legendary, highly authentic American inspired singer-songwriter, poet, and visual artist Patti Smith, who became an influential component of the New York City punk rock movement, offers a very unique, never-before-seen glimpse of her honest, enduring, sister-brother, Yin/Yang, boyfriend/girlfriend magical everlasting relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the Chelsea Hotel in the late 60s and 70s.
The relation itself is the guiding light and the whole purpose of this book and if, at times, certain passages might seem trivial, well, they never were. This unconditional love they shared – creative, sensitive, stimulating and artistically prolific – becomes a sincere and deeply moving story of youth, friendship and ultimately success. The best thing being that anyone can relate to it in a very intimate, personal way. ”Just Kids” fully grasp the heartfelt passion and holds this very same unique, sensitive and lyrical quality that is written between each lines of her formidable body of work, from her influential 1975 album Horses to her visual art and poetry.
No one else could have better described all the ins and outs of the unique, constantly evolving story she shared with Robert Mapplethorpe, and this means way more than just itemizing their body of work, for the whole represents way more than the sum of it and their relationship in itself was on its own an expression of art. It just couldn’t be contained in its entirety in little works nor in big works for all to see. Parts have been laid in music, paintings, poems and photographs but even all these, as inspired and beautiful as they are, fail in giving us a complete picture. Even if it celebrates a friendship that left a permanent impact on almost every artistic aspect and style in America, it still had to be told in a book. It was essential and sacred. Patti had to share their journey under the blue star, a symbol of their undying love for each other, one last time.
Patti writes in a last Note to the Reader:
”We were as Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the black forest of the world. There were temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of and there was splendor we only partially imagined. No one could speak for these two young people nor tell with any truth of their days and their nights together. Only Robert and I could tell it. Our Story, as he called it. And, having gone, he left the task to me to tell it to you. ” – Patti Smith, Just Kids, May 22, 2010
What makes this book so special is how Patti manages to express a magic that started almost immediately. Patti arrived in NYC with almost nothing but her wish to accomplish something no one has done before. Robert was already in NYC and struggling on an urban survival mode, but nevertheless they both had a deep sense that life had something very special in store for them and that it was written in the stars. They never thought it would be so hard, that they would have to struggle so much just to survive but nevertheless it didn’t take very long for them to be able to recognize the signs. We can feel that they saw in each other something true and very real, something which they felt they would later be able to rely on as persons and as artists. Of course there were moments of doubts but maybe it was these crucial moments that would prove them to be essential to one another. It never was a give and take type of relationship. The base for it might just be honesty, true faith in each other’s talent, the hope that there was a place for them as they were and that with a lot of work, perseverance and a little bit of luck, they would both find their niche as people and artists. Lots of spoken, unspoken pacts were made, very few ever broken.
Despite a certain ”twinlike” aspect, their part in each other’s life could also definitely be seen as complementary. One could say that Robert was the eternal dreamer, on some aspects, even alien to practical knowledge and certain everyday life faculties and that Patti possessed a more down to Earth perspective on life but this is only a half truth since, when needed, on several occasions, they could trade roles and when the other one would be in dire need of a trait that would normally be the other one’s unsaid character/task assignment, they would put their egos aside and would manage to trade places if it would help the other to get through a rough patch.
”The premise was simply that one of us always had to be vigilant, the designated protector. If Robert took a drug, I needed to be present and conscious. If I was down, he needed to stay up. If one was sick, the other healthy. It was important that we were never self-indulgent on the same day.
In the beginning I faltered, and he was always there with an embrace or words of encouragement, coercing me to get out of myself and into my work. Yet he always knew that I would not fail if he needed me to be the strong one”
The Chelsea Hotel
“I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively”
Back in those days, New York City was a very dangerous place. Some areas were filled with what is commonly regarded as the lowest forms of the human species likes thieves, pimps, rapists, thieves, hookers, murderers and so forth. Being young artists who strive to survive, of course they were bound to have to live in such areas. At one of their lowest points they were plainly told that they had to get out, that they wouldn’t make it if they stayed. Fortunately, there was a place that offered hope if you were an artist, a little island of optimism, gathering past, present and future generations of artists of all kinds where you didn’t even need to have money right away. Stanley Bard would keep your portfolio, or take a work of art until you could get it back and you were now part of a community that was very special, during the 60s and the 70s especially. The Chelsea played a huge part in the history of the new generation of artists of the 60s and the 70s.
”Gregory made lists of books for me to read, told me the best dictionary to own, encouraged me and challenged me. Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs were all my teachers, each one passing through the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, my new University. ”
”The Moon Turned Blood Red”
Yet they came to a point where one or both of them needed more space, more freedom. Some things are meant to be faced and dealt with on your own even if they knew the other one will still be there for me if need it be but never taking one another for granted and always being grateful of each other’s effort to play the right part when needed, never taking advantage of one another. In one word: Respect was of course the cement that sealed the ”deal”. Robert soon had to face his inner demons and question his sexuality again and again. Of course this was heart wrenching for both of them.
”He had been with a fellow and not for money. I was able to give him some measure of acceptance. My armor sill had its vulnerable points, and Robert, my knight, had pierced a few, though without desiring to do so.”
Their relationship morphed and this had major effects on their everyday lives. It is during theses major changes and adaptations that could have tore them apart that we see that love makes all the difference in the world and that instead of trying to exert control on each other’s lives, they simply went ahead with the flow and they grew stronger. I would say that we witness how something some would see as a humiliation becomes merely a chance to humble ourselves and let life take its natural course. Never stop to love and support those who are true soul mates. A bond stronger than marriage.
I will not spoil all the fun and tell you everything that happens. I already told you the big lines and a few little ones but Here is one last thing that I realised reading ”Just Kids”.
I so happened to notice that in general there can be two different kinds of artists. Some very callous, careless, aloof and undisciplined that are successful because of their God-given talent and so much passion that they seem to evolve in a different space and time, going all the way with everything they’ve got, with all their worries and genius. They truly appear as some unstoppable forces of nature, pushed by some alien powers. Then there are others with whom they share the same gift, also having a remarkable imagination, but very rooted in their reality, very lucid and conscious of the space they occupy as well as having a clear view on what is their place in society and what their relationship is made of and how strong it can be.
Now certain artists are lucky enough to have just about the right proportion of each of these components within themselves, to be well supported by a team of people they trust and that have faith in their work. I think ”Just Kids” is about the encounter of 2 people who miraculously manage to complete each other perfectly as people and as artists.
”Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions and young answers were revealed.
It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”
Together the Smiths had a son, Jackson (born 1982) and a daughter, Jesse (born 1987). Jackson, a guitarist, was married to Meg White (formerly of indie band The White Stripes). Jesse is a pianist. Both have performed on stage with their mother along with other members of the Patti Smith Group.
Patti Smith never forgot Robert Mapplethorpe and wrote ”Just Kids” in 2012. She had made a promise to Robertthat she’d write a book about them and she did, Patti wrote this memoire of their friendship in her own unique personal, direct, sensitive and wholhearted style and we should be all damn happy she kept her promise!
Just Kids won:
- The 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
- It was a Publishers Weekly’s Top 10 Best Books (2010)
- ALA Notable Book (2011)
- Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist (Current Interest, 2010)
- New York Times bestseller (Nonfiction, 2010)
- National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (Autobiography/Memoir, 2010).
- Just Kids was featured on the January 19, 2010, episode of Fresh Air, with Smith being interviewed by Terry Gross.
- Just Kids was also featured on KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny on January 28, 2010 and KCRW‘s Bookworm with host Michael Silverblatt in March 2010.
- It was the Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 from 1–5 March 2010, with Smith reading five 15-minute excerpts from her book.
Also by Patti Smith:
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