Hi Ho, the artistic life.
I had very divergent feelings about Just Kids
, Patti Smith's National-Book-Award-winning memoir about her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. There were times that I felt moved by the beauty of her writing, and others in which I found her to be nothing more than another spoiled, entitled kid who got where she got to, talented or not, because of connections. It is not that Smith arrived in NYC with a list of names and numbers. But she did have the good fortune to encounter a knight in shining armor who had a prodigous artistic drive and the good looks to attract a series of male gateways to the New York arts scene.
There is no doubt about the deep connection Smith formed with Robert Mapplethorpe, famed photographer to-be. They were not only lovers, but bffs. And that continued long after they stopped sharing a bed.
Smith takes us on a journey through the gritty and some not-so-gritty portions of the New York arts scene, offering glimpses of the many, many people she and Mapplethorpe met. It is a veritable who's who, including bits and pieces on Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sam Shepherd, Andy Warhol, Wiliam Burroughs, and a cast of hundreds. I never got the impression that Smith was name-dropping. She was as amazed as any aspiring artist might be at finding herself among so many notables. One downside to this is that so many shining lights speed by like houses at night as seen from a train. I would have liked it had she gone into a little (or a lot) more detail on more of these luminaries. She certainly does reinforce the image of the Chelsea Hotel as a cauldron of creativity in its day.
The story of her arrival in New York, meeting Mapplethorpe and struggling to get by is worth the price of admission, a real look at what it means to be a starving artist. And that is not just a glib turn-of-phrase, as Patti, at times, made use of the five-finger discount in order to eat. It is also fun to read about how she and Robert trolled discount stores for materials they would use to make jewelry or incorporate into other artistic projects.
Despite the minimal physical mileage traversed here, Just Kids is a bit of a road story. Instead of crossing continents, she and Mapplethorpe cross from obscurity to fame, from outsiders to insiders, from fellow travellers (in a very non-political sense) to lovers to soulmates
I was surprised at a few things. Ok, look at almost any photo of Patti Smith and tell me with a straight face that she doesn't make you think of the Calvin Klein ideal of physical appearance. Yet, when she appeared in a play as a person with drug issues she was completely uncomfortable pretending to shoot up. Even her director was shocked at her lack of hard drug experience. A little weed here and there does not give one that lovely Ginger Baker look. A diet sprinkled with stolen food contributed for sure, but nature sculpted that body, not dark substances. I was also surprised--having come to the book with no familiarity with Smith beyond her recording of “Because the Night”--about the diversity of her artistry, running from drawing to poetry, to playwrighting, to acting, and so on.
I have read better memoirs, and I do not think this should have won the National Book Award. But there is no missing the real feeling she communicates, the love she and Mapplethorpe had for each other. Her writing is good, sometimes better than good, and you will not be disappointed. But for many, the lifestyles presented here might be discomfiting, the willingness to engage in hustling, thievery, and very open relationships make the artistic world Smith and Mapplethorpe inhabited a decidedly acquired taste.