A review of Just Kids by Patti Smith

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Just Kids
By Patti Smith
ISBN 9780747548409, 2010, 304pp, AU $39.95

While reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids I couldn’t get the Jim Carroll song “Those Are People Who Died” out of my head. Perhaps that’s because this book is an elegy, not only to photographer and artist Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith’s long time partner, friend, and muse, but also to a range of  famous people from Jim Carroll himself (who died in Sept 2009), to Smith’s late husband Fred Sonic Smith, Andy Warhol and many of his prodigies, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Allan Ginsburg, and a whole era of bohemian New York City that no longer exists. The book is an elegy to youth, to art, to guts, to innovation, and to love. The story might have become a self-absorbed ‘glory/halycon days’ lament in a lesser writer’s hands, but Patti Smith isn’t just a performer. As this book reminds us, she was a poet first and foremost, and her medium has always been words. Her command of language is as powerful in prose as in poetry.

The book is written simply, with a tender humility that shines the light on Mapplethorpe and other tragic geniuses of that era, tracing their guiding hunger, their successes, and ultimate failures. The book isn’t sad though—it’s transcendent. Smith is the survivor, her story extending well beyond the pages of the book. But even Smith, and the rock and roll legend she became after the timeframe in which this book is set, is incidental. The real focus of this book is the work – the images, music, theatre, and words that survive the all too human foibles of their creators:

Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead? That pursuit is what burns most deeply. I got over the loss of his desk and chair, but never the desire to produce a string of words more precious than the emeralds of Cortés. (279)

Although the book is deeper and more powerful than your usual celebrity biography, it is still a fast read full of good looking celebrities ranging from Bob Dylan to Sam Shepard, ultra-cool locations that any New Yorker will recognise instantly, and a range of amazing outfits:

On the Bowery I found an unconstructed raincoat of Kelly green rubberized silk, a Dior blouse of gray houndstooth linen, brown trousers, and an oatmeal cardigan: an entire wardrobe for thirty dollars, just needing a bit of washing and mending. (225)

The book opens with Smith and Mapplethorpe’s respective childhoods, and moves through her experience as a broken young misfit mother who has given her child up for adoption, her first arrival in NYC on a bus, her romance with Mapplethorpe, her early attempts at creating an artistic niche for herself, and her progression as she begins to drive, rather than follow, the scene that is developing around her. The book stays focused on those early days (there’s surely another book about the later years and her rise to superstardom), and on the artistic transition as characters grow, come out in their own ways, and settle into their art.

Above all, this is a book that contemplates the value and power of art to rise above the here and now and touch something universal, timeless, and immortal — ‘the hand of god’ as Smith puts it. This is a fast paced, easy to read, and powerful memoir that does more than illuminate the glittery punkish edge of New York City in the 1970s and 80s. Not once does the book falter from the humility and honesty that allows the author to delve deeply into who she is and the strength in both her own journey and that of those around her.