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Just Kids by Patti Smith

September 5, 2011

I heard an NPR interview with Smith in which she talked about this book and its topic—her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe. I’m a Patti Smith fan, but have never been that interested in Maplethorpe (although I very distinctly remember the hullabaloo when I was young and my hometown tried to ban a Maplethorpe exhibit at the art museum, to the predictable effect of turning what would have been a non-event into a sensation). I would have passed on this book until my friend Sarah recommended it to me, saying that, more than a take on Patti and Robert’s relationship, it was about what it means to be an artist.

I have been waiting for this to be released as an audiobook, hoping that Smith would narrate it. She has one of the coolest female voices in the world, and while authors reading their own work can sometimes be treacherous, she’s also a fantastic performer. She does not disappoint here.

In 1967, Patti Smith moved to New York with little more than a few cents to rub together. She slept on doorsteps, floors, sofas, eventually in a bed with a guy she would meet named Robert Maplethorpe. The couple scraped by, taking whatever jobs they could to make ends meet, fueled by their shared passion for their art. Patti worked in bookstores and restaurants. Robert went as far as to prostituting himself. It was the Bohemian lifestyle, and they developed a symbiotic artist/muse relationship, routinely swapping roles. They soon moved into a room at the Chelsea Hotel in the bustling East Village, where they rubbed elbows with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and William Burroughs among others (my favorite cameo is Alan Ginsberg mistaking her for a young boy at the vending machine).

Although this book is a portrait of a relationship, it’s also an autobiography, a history of a changing America, a snapshot of the New York art scene and a manifesto on what it means to be an artist. Which all sounds like it could be pretentious, but Smith doesn’t have a pretentious bone in her body. She oozes sincerity. Her voice (both speaking and writing) is wholly authentic, full of contradictions: coarse but poetic, dry but passionate, laced with street slang but dropping references to philosophers and poets and painters and musicians and filmmakers and every other kind of artist and thinker at every other turn. Her prose is simple but often extraordinary. And everything she does seems to come from a love of expressing herself. If she had never made it big, you get the impression that she would still be sleeping on a sofa in a dirty apartment, painting and writing, happy.

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