Today I finished Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids* and then casually started tearing up in Chiptole. I’m watering my insufficiently cheesed burrito bowl and wistfully staring at the cover; it had ended so touchingly and I was sad to see it go. I’m just glad I wasn’t in public during the Breaking Bad finale. That show is the goddamn GOAT.
Anyway, although the book is technically a memoir, it mostly chronicles her relationship with the most integral man in her life: Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe was an artist known for his controversial sexual photographs and homoerotic depictions until he passed away from AIDS in 1989. Patti Smith is a singer-songwriter who pioneered the fusion of poetry and rock n roll music. Prior to their fame, they were two young lovers and friends struggling to define their artisanal voice within New York City.
What I love about this memoir is that you don’t have to be immersed within the artistic realm to appreciate it. Patti and Robert’s friendship was so genuine and empathetic that I wanted to keep reading about their adventures. I find it so beautiful that that kind of intimacy existed between them; it gives me hope that despite all the darkness in the world, there are human connections so intense that they sustain you. Mutual affection and respect guided them—each one was the other’s muse, providing inspiration, encouragement, and eventually propelling their respective projects into public recognition. Smith described her counterpart as “a lover and a friend to create with, side by side. To be loyal, yet be free” (Smith, 81).
Their relationship was simple and pure: they lived together, worked together, lay together…and then sometimes openly had sex with other people. To be honest, the (few) polygamous people I know exhibit a holier than thou attitude and thereby tote their polygamy about obnoxiously. They act like society’s monogamous tendencies are inferior, limited, and wrong. In my opinion, I think it’s a personal choice based on psychological inclinations. What works for some doesn’t necessarily work for others. Patti Smith intrigued me because she embodied a seemingly elevated form of sexuality. She was pretty monogamous herself, but she was very tolerant and understanding of Robert’s need to explore his repressed homosexuality. At one point when he was hustling for money, I had a moment of feminist outrage where I wished Patti would speak up for herself more and express her valid concerns with his physically dangerous behavior. Then I realized that the truth of the matter is that she didn’t feel affronted. She espoused a less rigid understanding of the world and she was unwaveringly confident in what she meant to Robert. And if that’s enough for her, then more power to her.
She assumed the same nonjudgmental *you do you and I’ll do me* attitude when it came to drugs. As she and Robert moved from place to place in search of an affordable creative foothold, she was surrounded by substances. Artistry infused her entire being; it ran through her veins and she did not want something like heroin to take its place. While many of her friends turned to drugs for artistic insights, she refused to partake and thus surprised the world she was enveloped in. Yet, she was unperturbed by her companions’ narcotic-addled lifestyles. For instance, the first time Robert met her family, he took LSD right before to stay his nerves (Smith, 52). Sober Smith was largely open-minded with regards to other people’s choices, lending her an angelic quality. She was “in full possession of [herself]”; she knew what she wanted and whom she cared for and everything else was peripheral. I’m not a huge fan of her music, but I respect her as an individual because she was so passionate about Robert and her work. Together, they viewed the world entirely through artistic glasses—through the lens of limitless potential creation. A trip to the coffee shop wasn’t merely a trek to caffeine; it was an exploration in resplendent outfits.
Books such as this are refreshing to the reader because they capture the joy of what it means to be human: to love another and love what you collectively create. Her story speaks to your mind and your soul because she is an adept writer as well as a beautiful storyteller. Reading Just Kids made me feel light and untethered. Her words were like balloons daintily guided by static electricity because her existence was that of a woman floating towards creative energy. Science!
The only thing that irked me—mostly from a jealous perspective—is that the life she illustrated (a life as an artist alongside Mapplethorpe in the 60’s and 70’s) is much less attainable now. When they had no money, they traded their portfolios for room and board at the historic Chelsea hotel, a hub for renaissance. The idea of celebrity was more fluid; famous artists were accessible and you could walk amongst them, be their friends, and thereby garner inspiration. She sat at the same tables as Andy Warhol, Allen Ginseberg, William Burroughs, etc. Nowadays, I can’t just waltz into a bar and plop myself next to Tarantino. Furthermore—and I’m not saying this undermines her talent—but she did have tremendous amounts of support financially from the men in her life. I can imagine that we’d all be a little more brilliant if someone paid our rent and we didn’t have to worry about meals or student loans. Nevertheless, I’m just bitching on the side because I want the freedom to be fabulous. I also want a friend named Tinkerbell, like she had.
Overall, Smith effectively memorialized the man that was her rock and her salvation. It’s not a complex read—just a moving one—and if you want to feel the vibrancy of their relationship, I recommend it. I promise I’m not the only one that can vouch for her poignancy. The memoir won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction and became a New York Times bestseller. If that doesn’t convince you, Johnny Depp attested, “Patti Smith has graced us with a poetic masterpiece, a rare and privileged invitation to unlatch a treasure chest never before breached” (Smith, back cover). I give it 4 out of 5 camel humps and I hope that I stumble across you readers weeping in chain restaurants once you are done with it.
|Smith || Mapplethorpe|
*Smith, Patti. Just Kids. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. Print.