Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"Just Kids," Patti Smith

Patti Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids,” spins a magical tale that has the advantage of being a true story. It’s the story of two talented kids, both just barely turned 21, who find their way to New York City (Brooklyn first, followed by Manhattan) and somehow end up becoming icons in two different worlds – Patti in the world of rock and roll, and Robert Mapplethorpe in the world of art.

Patti’s writing throughout the book is engaging, and though I’m sure one’s enjoyment of “Just Kids” is enhanced by familiarity with at least one of the principal characters, I’d be willing to bet that such familiarity is not a prerequisite for enjoying the book. The supporting cast that Patti and Robert encounter on their journey to stardom is just as interesting – along the way, they cross paths with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sam Shepard, Harry Smith, and a litany of others…mostly at the Chelsea Hotel, but sometimes in other venues.

The way that Patti tells the story, it all sounds very romantic (and it is), but the hardships are always there, just lurking around the corner. Both of them went to the city with little more than confidence in their own abilities, but as they discover, the seedy old hotels and apartments of the city at that time were littered with the living remains of people – perhaps just as talented, but we’ll never know – who didn’t make it, and ended up strung out on drugs, or prostituting themselves to make ends meet, or both. So there was luck involved, sure – but one can’t help but thinking that success was their destiny.

Of course, the story does not have an entirely happy ending. Robert eventually succumbed to AIDS, and (although the book doesn’t chronicle this part of her life) Patti suffered the tragedy of multiple deaths of loved ones in a very short period of time. But above all, this is a book of poetic triumph. And as strange as these two may seem to some, you can’t help but root for them as you join them in their quest.


Reading the book inspired me to go back to Patti’s music, which I haven’t listened to for a while. Specifically, back to “Horses” – the debut album from 1975 – the cover of which is graced with a beautiful Mapplethorpe portrait of Patti.

More than 35 years later, “Horses” still sounds like a revelation. It’s a brilliant album from start to finish, but no more so than on the three extended cuts – “Gloria,” “Birdland,” and “Land” – all three of which combine Patti’s poetry with her music, to magnificent, spine-tingling effect. God knows that when I first heard those songs, it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Admittedly, it took me a few years to fully appreciate them. But now I do, and there’s little doubt that “Horses” is one of the great albums of the rock era.

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