Just Kids by Patti Smith

 

There are some books that linger in your psyche more than others, After a certain time your hand intuitively gravitates towards the coffee-stained pages of that old book. You find that it’s been waiting to give you support and inspiration. When you re-visit the story, you realize you have changed and evolved, and that it has a whole new meaning that could not have resonated with you before. Just Kids is one of those books for me.

On my search of a present for my niece at a crowded bookstore in New York, I had been stopped in my tracks by the simple beauty and the weight of the title. On the cover a blurry polaroid shot of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, the heroes of Smith’s memoir, depicting their enduring relationship. I instinctively grabbed it with a strange sense of nostalgia.

I had read the reviews, but they were more concerned with the avant-garde era of New York from the late 60s all the way through the 70s, the cultural history of which Patti Smith portrays with such detailed elegance and equally dry humor (“I didn’t feel for Warhol the way Robert did…I hated the soup and felt little for the can.”) In addition to Warhol, monumental characters like Janis Joplin, William Burroughs, Sam Shepard flow in an out like ghosts.

“I was there for these moments, but so young and pre-occupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments.”

What captivated me with such vigor however, was not the transparent significance of the gloriously bohemian era, but the mystical connection of these two kindred spirits that kept shining throughout their painstaking soul-searching on their pursuit to survive, quite literally, and to become the artists that they are known for today.

They meet when Patti Smith first comes to New York, looking for her friends. A sleeping Robert Mapplethorpe wakes up to deliver her to their new address. They run into each other again at the bookstore she works as a clerk. He coincidentally buys her favorite Persian necklace she had set her eyes on. “Don’t give it to any girl but me”, she says impulsively. When he walks by her, out of the blue, in a park where she’s trying to get away from a man, he saves her by pretending to be her boyfriend. “Run,” she cries out and they run. They run towards their future where they’d be each other’s lover, collaborator, fan, parent and of course, friend.

 As if it was the most natural thing in the world we stayed together, not leaving each other’s side save to go to work. Nothing was spoken; it was just mutually understood.

Do you believe in soul-mates?

As art was the thread that sewed  Patti and Robert’s heart and soul together, this multi-layered elegy is also an incredibly inspirational story for any artist who is struggling with their work, feeling lost and losing faith in finding a voice to be heard. Despite all the dead-ends and self-doubt, Smith’s combination of humble perseverance, fundamental belief in her mission to become an artist and this intrinsic faith in the flow of life can serve as an empathetic guide to anyone.

I wish I had read it when I was with my ex-husband. The book took me back to the youthful efforts of my husband and I in our early 20s, trying to dedicate ourselves to our art and writing, with such naive idealism. It took me back on the road from Boston to New York, driving a U-Haul that contained all of our belongings and impatient dreams.

Who can know the heart of youth but youth itself?

It is a hauntingly romantic book written with such poetic grace. Yet, it also has a contrastingly raw and precise tone to it. (“I learned from him that often contradiction is the clearest way to truth.”) It makes you believe in signs and angels. Yet, it also warns you that no matter how good you are, hard work is mandatory in every profession and every personal relationship. It reminds you that true friends are the knights protecting you when you are at war with yourself. It shows you that every detail, from what you wear to what to read to what you watch, counts. But most important of all, it restores your trust in life and faith in soul-mates, no matter what shape or form they enter, or exit, our lives.

“So my last image was as the first. A sleeping youth cloaked in light, who opened his eyes with a smile of recognition for someone who had never been a stranger.”

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe 1969

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