Saturday, June 18, 2011

Just Kids Is A Moving Tribute To The Artistic Spirit

Patti Smith is one of those untouchable icons, like Bob Dylan or David Bowie or Iggy Pop or Lou Reed. Those icons that seem so enormous, their work so unassailable, that they don't even seem like people anymore but rather have become symbols, referents to certain larger ideas. They themselves have become metaphors for distinct ideals that we observers can only reference, draw inspiration from, or warm our own creative spirits beside their primordial, immortal fires. They are too colossal to be people; they are simulacrum.

When Patti Smith published her memoir last year - Just Kids - I was immediately interested. Smith had long been a hero and influence on my life and work, and I was intrigued with the opportunity to hear her story in her own words. I was disappointed to learn that the book was written as a tribute to her friend, muse, and sometime lover Robert Mapplethorpe. While I certainly respected Mapplethorpe and his vaunted position in the art world, I was dismayed that the story would not be more centered on Smith herself.

Now having completed the book, I must say that my expectations were completely wrong. Just Kids is a fascinating account of the New York City from the mid-Sixties Warhol / Velvet Underground / Chelsea Hotel through the mid-Seventies, down and dirty / CBGB's / Punk scene - in other words, the NYC of my dreams. If I could have lived at anytime in history, in any place, I would have lived in New York City anytime between 1965-1985. And Smith's book is as much about the atmosphere and ambiance of the art and music scene of that era as it is about Mapplethorpe, or herself. Indeed the book is wonderful, as it presents the period as being magical but not without flaws.

In fact Just Kids is about two innocent, kindred spirits attempting to navigate the ruthless NYC art scene as well as themselves. An odyssey of discovery to find who they really were, and building the courage to live out loud as the people they truly were through the encouragement and positivity of the other. For Mapplethorpe this struggle was to first be comfortable with his homosexuality, then to live openly as the person that he truly was, free from guilt or shame - a transition that allowed him to explore his most significant and ground breaking work. For Smith, this process was about drawing from powerful male influences (Dylan, Rimbaud, Morrison) to form a launching pad from which she would explode as the epicenter of the CBGB's punk scene. Indeed, both Mapplethorpe and Smith were trailblazers, and Just Kids brings to the fore how each supplied the other with what was needed to break new ground - acceptance, understanding, and unconditional love. In this way Just Kids is a love story in the truest sense of the words.

If you are an artist, musician, writer or simply lover of those mediums, then Just Kids is a must read. Smith is such an engaging writer that even if you are not familiar with their lives and work, the read is charming and endearing.

NY Times review is here. Buy it here. You will not regret it.