“I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”
_ Just kids, by Patti Smith
I read Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, in February, reread it in summer of 2015, and have mentioned this book all the time. It is so massive to me – not because the author is an iconic figure, the godmother of Punk – but for its candor, depth, and very human feelings – the things that I look for in memoirs.
Patti Smith, born in 1946, is the legendary Punk rock singer-songwriter, a poet, a visual artist and photographer. The book revolves around Patti Smith’s relationship with one of the most significant people in her life-her soul mate, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and their evolution from young aspiring people to professional artists. Their friendship began in odd situations in New York, carried through the years; they both loved and hurt each other deeply. They supported each other when the other was down. Their relationship fluctuated after Mapplethorpe admitted that he was gay; and for a while, they went in and out of friendship. Nonetheless, their love for each other in the end endured even beyond Robert’s death in 1989.
Just kids is well-written from the beginning to its end. It is so liberating and uplifting; and yet it doesn’t hide the very difficult times when Patti, before establishing her path, was still starving, roaming the streets, sleeping at doorbells, in subways or in graveyards, when “a handful of coins on the telephone could mean one less meal.” Living on the edge, she admittedly mused,
“I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos – the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?
I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.
Often I’d sit and try to write or draw, but all of the maniac activity in the streets, coupled with the Vietnam War, made my efforts seem meaningless. I could not identify with political movements. In trying to join them I felt overwhelmed by yet another form of bureaucracy. I wondered if anything I did mattered.”
Patti’s struggle to find a purpose in art and life is so human and relevant to me as a young person. What is the aim of a real artist? Should it be in “great zoos” (the museums) or be towards the PEOPLE? In a culture that still devalues and stifles individualism, it is not easy for me to find a means for self-expression that won’t be persecuted or bullied, except in doing small-scale paintings to convey my thoughts. But I am yet comfortable doing it for myself; I want to reach out and inspire those who are like me or less lucky than me. After reading Just kids, I believe that that mission is possible.
Many young aspiring artists who still question their paths, I think, will find inspiration in Mapplethorpe, for his absolute confidence and belief in arts. In low times, when even Patti “nearly regretted the pursuit of art”, it was Robert’s drive and focus that assured them to stay staunch and hold on to their missions.
“He wasn’t certain whether he was a good or bad person. Whether he was altruistic. Whether he was demonic. But he was certain of one thing. He was an artist. And for that he would never apologize.”
That never meant living by the will alone; there were times when Robert had to take to hustling, offering himself to strangers to make extra money; when they lived on day-old bread, took turns to see art exhibitions to report to each other; when they were so desperate that they had to pocket drawing supplies.
Just kids also dedicates a large proportion to the 1960s counter-culture, having an intrinsic historical value. In the 1960s-1970s, New York was a scary place to live; yet, it was the nurturing place for generations of artists, i.e. Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Dylan Thomas, Jimi Hendrix, Salvador Dalí, etc. Hotel Chelsea was a strikingly iconic place where these artists lived and frequented, the “salon d’Art” for ambitious and already esteemed artists alike. Patti and Robert were part of that artistic community, were mentored by many of those artists, and were simultaneously adding “fabrics” to that tapestry. All of these scenes are captured vividly in Patti’s classical eyes and candid narration.
If you love arts, music, and poetry, please read this book. You will find how beautiful and powerful effect that those three elements can create together, that every effort you put in arts is worthwhile.
If you love New York City, 1960s-1970s, this book is perfect for you. If you are still wavering in your career choices, read this book. You don’t need to be in the humanities to be inspired by Patti and Robert’s stories.
If you are still lonely and searching for true friendship, for ones who will understand you and love you for the weird person that you are, please read this book. It makes me laugh, smile, and weep and remain hopeful as ever.
Just kids is written with heart and soul, and I am so glad to have this book in my life. Please read the book, then listen to her recording “Paths that cross.”
In 2005, Patti Smith was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Just kids won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction and has been continually circulated among a wide range of readers. Patti Smith’s debut album Horses was a key factor and major influence on the New York Punk rock scene.
——Some useful links:
Louisiana channel interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6nIhaagnbA
Patti Smith’s advice to the young: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2EO3aXTWwg
* Some of Patti Smith’s greatest songs:
– Paths that cross: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cln_1lthtC0
– People have the power: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPR-HyGj2d0
– Fire of unknown origin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_2KIUuShbM