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Patti Smith: Just Kids

June 22, 2010

In 1976 my life split in two when I picked up ‘Horses’ in the UQ Union Music Shop. In her memoir, Just Kids, Patti Smith tells how Robert Mapplethorpe took the now famous photo of her for the album cover. “I was full of references. He was full of light and shadow … When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.”          

Just Kids describes how Patti and Robert moulded themselves into artists during their time together in the late sixties and early seventies. ‘Just kids’ is a comment made about them by an older couple on a day out in Washington Square, but it exactly describes what they were – childlike kindred spirits: “We gathered our colored pencils and sheets of paper and drew like wild, feral children into the night, until, exhausted, we fell into bed.”

When she was very young she saw a swan lifting from a river into the sky.  “The sight of it generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings.” The swan stays with us throughout the memoir, as she gradually finds the words to speak of such transcending moments.

Apart from short passages at the beginning and end about Robert’s death in 1989, the story is told chronologically. Sven Birkerts, in The Art of Time in Memoir, says that there is no faster way to smother the core meaning of a life than to start at the beginning and work one’s way forward. But Patti is a poet, and she uses her skills to (mostly) avoid this danger. She movingly and clearly portrays the intensity of her relationship with Robert, and how it changes over time, especially as they both begin to realise he is gay. Almost everything in the book tells us something about how they develop as artists, initially in parallel, then diverging.  

Mostly the chronological frame works well, but around the middle of the book the succession of short vignettes did begin to feel like an autobiographical listing of ‘what happened next’. This is barely a minor quibble, as we still want to know everything about her experience of such a dazzling period of cultural history, the places it happened, such as the Chelsea Hotel, and the people who drove it: Alan Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, William Burroughs.

Thirty-two years after I bought ‘Horses’, I overdosed on Patti when she came to Melbourne in 2008. Whether quietly chatting at Readings Book Store or performing in the exhilarating concerts, she totally connects with her audience. That’s what she does, and she has done it beautifully in Just Kids.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Claire Wood permalink
    June 23, 2010 8:49 pm

    This is a great review and after reading it I’ve added “Just Kids” to my reading wish list.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    June 24, 2010 12:35 pm

    Now I wonder whether my adoration of Patti diminished my critical judgement. I’m usually too sceptical to be an unreserved fan of anyone – Patti is one of the few, although recently I’ve fallen for Martha Wainwright. But I do think anyone interested in a becoming-an-artist story or the New York scene of that period would like the book.

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  1. Patti Smith Wins National Book Award « The Echidna and the Fox

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