Monday, January 17, 2011

Just Kids

I just finished Patti Smith's autobiography, Just Kids, a book that chronicles Smith's youth in New York City and the halcyon days spent with her best friend, ersatz lover, and artistic muse, Robert Mapplethorpe.

To be perfectly honest, what propelled me to read this book were the raving reviews and my fascination for Manhattan bohemia. I was neither a fan of Mapplethorpe's photography nor was I a steady follower of Smith's music, but I trusted the poetic sensibilities of Patti Smith's voice and believed that I would both respect and learn from her work.

I'm not going to write a review here since that is better off left for the professional critics but I would like to express my feelings towards this book. I was moved (almost to tears) by the first half of this autobiography. The second half is chock-full of names in the elite artist circles - writers, poets, painters, photographers, museum curators, models, socialites, and other free-floaters (Smith even goes to call them "incestuous") - belonging to a world I care nothing about. Celebrities, even those with respectable talents, and their cults do not interest me and have never impressed me.

I fell in love with the first half because Smith perspicaciously takes us through the early days (1969-1973) when her and Robert were essentially, just kids, doing everything they could to survive in New York City. Their struggles with money, food, art, life, sexuality, and everything under the sun is poignantly described with Smith's poetic but laconic prose. It's in these first chapters that you see the love that transpired between them and the love that inspired them.

What else is that this book is definitely a talisman for those nostalgia-philiacs like myself. And before anyone tells me that nostalgia is a longing for a place that never really existed, I'm aware of that, but there are a few scenes in Smith's old-world that would never take place now.

Patti Smith and Robert have fled their old Brooklyn residence because of a homicide that took place in their apartment. Frightened by the chalk-outline of a ghost, Smith takes the ailing Robert, suffering from what appears to be the symptoms of clamydia, to the Hotel Chelsea, a sanctuary for miscreants, drug addicts, dragqueens, and artists like themselves. With no money and no possessions to their name, other than their portfolios, Patti convinces the manager to rent them a room with their artwork as collateral and a recompense if they were to ever become famous. He obliges.

It was a world that still believed in art and the abilities of a nobody with a vision. It was a world that still valued the views of an irreverent loner and a world that still trusted in the transcendence of artistic pursuits. It's sad that that world is gone.


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