November 12, 2010

Just Kids
by Patti Smith| Ecco Press
Review by Mark Gustafson
(This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 15, Number 2)

book cover“I drew no line between life and art.” So writes Patti Smith, rock and roll heroine, poet, visual artist, and activist. She is a writer above all, as this beautiful memoir makes plain. The main narrative describes the relationship, first as lovers, always as friends and co-muses, of Smith and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (who died in 1989). But that narrative provides a framework from which a much larger story hangs.

First, this is a New York City-centered history of the time, especially the early 1970s, in art and poetry and music. Living on the street as a new arrival, eventually she and Mapplethorpe moved to the Chelsea Hotel. Smith says it was “like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe. I wandered the halls seeking its spirits, dead or alive.” A seemingly endless parade of worthies walked those halls, including Salvador Dali, Harry Smith, Janis Joplin, and Allen Ginsberg.

The principal drama, however, is Smith’s pursuit of art at any cost. She wrote poetry (and a play, with Sam Shepard), painted, drew, strung beads, and modeled for Mapplethorpe’s camera. They relentlessly encouraged each other. “I wanted to be an artist but I wanted my work to matter.” Her moral outrage, especially after the Kent State shootings, led to a sense of social and political responsibility. Although we know beforehand how this drama will play out, Smith manages to keep the reader eagerly anticipating as she deliberately notes the various steps on the way: the first poetry reading, writing the first song, playing at CBGB, and recording that stunning first album, Horses. One day, “three chords merged with the power of the word,” and a rock and roll poet was born.

This sublime book glides along with an utterly unassuming fluency. Despite the snarling, spitting, punk persona she adopted early on, Smith comes across here as a disarmingly sweet person, full of tenderness and curious about everything. Certainly remarkable for a rock star’s memoir (let alone anyone’s) is the show of critical self-awareness; Smith acknowledges her “sullen, restless behavior,” her crudity, her Dylan fixation, her arrogance, her “junkie raccoon look.”

Finally, Just Kids demonstrates the deeply mystical character of Smith’s outlook — prayer, spirits, sacred books, God, the fates, dreams, magic, angels, and talismans are scattered throughout these pages. She is ever honoring her artistic and spiritual lineage, the dead and the living. Things happen for a reason. There are no chance meetings. About being still an unknown and encountering Jimi Hendrix, Grace Slick, and others in the Chelsea Hotel bar, she writes: “It seemed to me that the vibrating patterns overhead were sliding into place.” Indeed they were, though retrospect is surely the memoirist’s advantage.

Much of this book complements and augments what her fans already know, for which they will be grateful. For those less familiar, it will be a rewarding and comprehensive introduction. And none can fail to be affected by the deep undercurrent of mortality. By the very act of writing this book, a vow made to Mapplethorpe, she means to assert that love is stronger than death. Thank him and God and Blake and Rimbaud for Patti Smith.