Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Just Kids by Patti Smith (2010)

The next book for the best book club in the U.S.A. (Go DAFFODILS!) is Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids (2010). I'm not the most informed on Patti Smith's musical career, and while I like Horses quite a bit, I find some of her music is a little too poetic and overtly political for my taste. This book, however, hardly gets into Smith's music at all. Instead it is a kind of dual coming of age story of Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in late-1960s / early-1970s New York City. It's a story of a foundational friendship and young artists finding their voice. But most of all, its a love story.

Smith and Mapplethorpe were both born in 1946 and moved to New York City in the late 1960s. Once they found each other, they quickly formed a life together that supported the two of them both personally and artistically, and which didn't end until Mapplethorpe's death in 1989.

I'm not the hugest fan of the memoir as a genre (they can occasionally be wonderful, but usually either try to out do other memoirists in a horrible experiences contest or fall into the the rose-colored nostalgia trap), but Smith has written a beautiful and readable book about her experience in New York City and her relationship with Mapplethorpe, both hard subjects to approach without falling into cliches or glossing over rough edges.

Smith's background as a poet sometimes bleeds too heavily into her prose for my taste (particularly when describing herself), but for the most part she maintains a straightforward style that works well with her subject matter. The large chapter of the book that covers the couple's time in the Hotel Chelsea gets a little namedroppy (does Smith really remember every person that was at Max's Kansas City or some party or poetry reading every time?), but I imagine many readers are coming to the book for that 1970s New York experience and will appreciate knowing all the details.

I'll save some of my comments for the book club, but be prepared for the final chapter to melt even the coldest of hearts. Worth reading regardless of your musical tastes.


nikki said...

as I was progressing through the 2nd half of the book I became increasingly disgruntled by her name-dropping, but the final chapter made up for most of that.

Joolie said...

I am coming here to vent about a tiny thing that is bugging me about this book--nearly every time anything happens on a particular date she has to work in which artist or historical figure had a birthday on that day, like it's some kind of mystical sign. Every damn day is someone's birthday, Patti Smith! Give it a rest!

I wrote this comment on August 4, the birthday of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Barack Obama, and Richard Belzer.

Spacebeer said...

You are absolutely right about this, Joolie B., and it bugged me too. Although I think I'm considerably less drawn to signs than Patti Smith is. Actually after reading this book I learned I do not have an artistic temperament in the least.