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June 22, 2011

Friends of the Takoma Park Maryland Library Reading Group Selection

Just Kids by Patti Smith
reviewed by Courtney

Just Kids by Patti Smith is the current selection for the Friends of the Takoma Park Maryland Library Reading Group.

Legendary musician and poet, Patti Smith is called the "Godmother of Punk" for her involvement in the birth of the New York City punk music scene, and her 1975 debut album Horses, which employed her unique combination of music and spoken word poetry, is one of the most influential of that decade, listed at number 44 on Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Her career has included collaborations with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, and a rock 'n' roll marriage to Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5 that lasted until his death in 1994. In her memoir, Just Kids, however, Smith chooses to focus on an earlier period of her life, detailing her long and profound relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, fulfilling a promise made to the artist to share their story.

Just Kids focuses primarily on Smith's 20's, spent living and making art with Mapplethorpe in New York City. She is a beautiful writer, and the New York she describes is as compelling and romantic as the Paris of Rimbaud she so idolized. Smith describes how she and Mapplethorpe worked menial jobs and lived in squalor, spending what money they had on art supplies and food. The early narrative traces Mapplethorpe's obsessive attention to medium and detail, turning their meager apartments into life-size art installations around her as Smith wrote poetry and drew. The two friends were far from the famous artists they would become, but they never wavered in their confidence in their talent, dedicating themselves entirely to the pursuit of art.

Mapplethorpe's struggle with his sexuality created conflict with his deeply religious background; Smith and Mapplethorpe had once gone so far as to fake a marriage to explain their cohabitation when visiting his Catholic family. Smith and Mapplethorpe continued to live and work together even after Mapplethorpe's realization of his homosexuality, supporting each other both materially and in their navigation of and entrance into the Manhattan artistic scene. Their time spent living at the famous Chelsea Hotel provides the context for interactions and friendships with figures like Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, William S. Burroughs, and Gregory Corso. Smith's account of their lives in the early 1970's reads like a Guess Who? game of significant literary and artistic figures, including her brief and intense affair with Sam Sheppard, a relationship with Blue Öyster Cult's Allen Lanier, her presence at the earliest Television performances at CBGB, and encounters with Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, and Salvador Dalí.

Despite the prevalence of drug use and addiction in the New York art scene at the time, Smith was never tempted by narcotics, even as she and Mapplethorpe surrounded themselves with the speed-fueled inhabitants of Andy Warhol's factory and famously heroin-dependent writers like Burroughs and Carroll. As Mapplethorpe embraced photography he also moved towards controversial material. His work began to gain notoriety, and his success allowed him to focus on the previously prohibitively expensive medium of film photography. Meanwhile Smith worked with Lenny Kaye to combine her poetry with music, and she and Mapplethorpe grew apart, though they remained close friends; Mapplethorpe is responsible for the iconic cover shot of Horses.

Smith continues the narrative through Mapplethorpe's premature death of AIDS-related complications in 1989, though the majority of the book focuses on their time spent together in New York. The deep love and respect the two friends had for each other is clear, and it is fascinating to experience the vibrant artistic scene of New York in the 1960's and 70's through Smith's eyes. Her avoidance of the narcotic dependence that claimed so many of her contemporaries allows for clear and precise narration of her experiences, and the strength of her artistic motivation allows the reader to appreciate the significance of the world she relates. Just Kids is a celebration and memoir of a friendship, not a person, and the lasting and profound impact that relationship had on the lives and careers of both Smith and Mapplethorpe. The lyricism of her prose compliments the subject matter and evokes her musical and poetic style. The deserving recipient of the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction, Just Kids' major flaw is its unsatisfying premature ending, and it leaves readers hoping for a continuation, detailing Smith's life after she became famous.

Posted by at June 22, 2011 04:58 PM