Book Review: Patti Smith - Just Kids

Just Kids by Patti Smith

I own this book in it's beautiful hardcover edition and recently acquired a paperback copy, courtesy of a friend. Said paperback copy was read within 24 hours (one should probably say devoured) and marked up with my own scrawling notes in French. I feel sorry for the person who is currently reading this copy, as they are probably getting distracted every other page, trying to decipher what my notes mean in comparison with Patti Smith's text. Maybe the next reader will add his/her own comments, and bit by bit, my copy of the book will be filled with the feelings the text evoked in others? Sounds like a pretty interesting idea actually...

I've always loved Patti Smith. I've seen her perform multiple times, love her writing, her music, her personality, just everything about her. A few years ago I went to a very small venue to see Karen Elson perform and nearly had a heart attack when I realised Patti Smith was standing right next to me. Like 5 centimetres away. I told her psychically (i.e. my brain sent out a message) that I adored her, because there was no way I was actually going to be able to say that out loud. Maybe she heard it, maybe she didn't. In any case, I love her. I think I was drawn to her at first because of her very healthy obsession with Rimbaud, which is very similar to my own very healthy obsession with Rimbaud. But I had no idea how similar a lot of my interests at the age of 19 were with hers, many years before that, when she was 20 and moved to NYC.

Just Kids is Patti Smith's tale of her story with Robert Mapplethorpe, how they met, how they grew close, their relationship, their life together, amidst the world of bohemian art and music in the late 60's and the 70's in New York City. The way she describes the New York she lived in is the same as the one I imagined growing up, a paradox: gritty but blooming, urban but bohemian, dangerous but safe at the same time, ugly but beautiful... One of those places where anyone and everyone, no matter what your background, interests, faiths or nationality is, can go and blend in and find other people just like them. I don't think that from this standpoint the city has really changed (although it is probably a lot safer than it was in the 70's and the 80's). Patti's New York resembles my own New York, a place that could have been my downfall, but ended up being my home.

Patti arrives in New York without an idea of what she is really doing there, practically lives on the streets, roaming around, and finds Robert, and both become inseparable, pushing each others boundaries within the world of art and within their own world, a world created amidst dreams and reality. Patti's writing has always been poetic in nature, even her songs are first and foremost poems that work insanely well with music. There is something so innocent and wonderful about her relationship with Robert, even when she describes the days when they are without money, Robert's obsessions with displaying his darker sides through his art, their break up and all of the other obstacles that pop up along their journey together. I think the most beautiful part of the whole story is the love that they have for each other, something that everyone in this world (I hope) can relate to. Everyone wants to have a Robert or a Patti in their lives, and if you have one, cherish him or her.

When I was 19 my best friend Maud and I decided to go on a trip to Paris. It was only three hours away from Grenoble on the TGV, but a huge deal for us because we were going to be able to walk along the quais of the Seine together and visit all of the sites that we had read about in our books. Our obsession with Gérard de Nerval was so huge that we did a lot of research into finding the exact spot where he had died, so that we could visit it ourselves (the exact street does not exist anymore if you are interested). When I got to the part in Just Kids where Patti makes her way to Paris and describes how she went on a search to find the spot where Gérard de Nerval used to drink I nearly burst into tears. Gérard de Nerval! My absolute favourite French poet and writer. When she describes how Robert introduced her to Tim Buckley and Tim Hardin I literally did start crying, as these were my own father's favourite singers, and he introduced them to my mum who introduced them to me. But it wasn't just these random occurrences that made me feel so close to Patti, it was just the way her mind worked at the time, how she would react to certain situations and how shy she would feel around people and at the same time how she wouldn't hesitate to speak her mind, whether it verbally or through some form of art.

I haven't read a book where I relate so much to one of the characters in a while, and this was all the more powerful because Patti is real, and really did live through all of this. I'm sure many other people relate to her just as much as I did and still do, but what I found the most interesting was that I felt like my 19 year old self again when reading the book: well-read, shy, obsessed with 19th century literature and music, sad but happy, full of poetry and ideas and living a different lifestyle to most of my peers (apart from the group of friends I had with similar aspirations). I'm so inspired again right now. Patti's tales of how she dressed and how her and Robert would search for the right outfit for the right occasion, are so spot on, tell of a time and a place but are also completely timeless. Robert also took some stunning pictures of Patti - I actually really want to get some prints of his portraits because they are really good.

I love the fact that Just Kids mostly tells of Patti and Robert's days before they became famous, and contains a fuzzy, fairy-tale type aura around it. It remains somewhat innocent and happy, despite some of the more difficult times depicted in the narration. I also wish I had the copy of the book I had annotated now, because I had made some comments that I am sure should be in this post write now. Probably something about paradoxical decadence, or another one of those phrases I used to bandy about when I was a teenager. So there you go... Paradoxical Decadence.

Read Just Kids. It's absolutely wonderful.

Patti Smith Website