Patti Smith's JUST KIDS: They Were Far More than That
Patti Smith wrote People Have the Power, Peaceable Kingdom and, with Bruce Springsteen, Because the Night and that’s just the tip of the artistic iceberg. Poet, painter, actor, composer, singer, muse – she’s all of it. She's my age - and I've met her.
Our own Susan Mernit called her "dangerous." This month she’s delivered Just Kids, a warm, inspiring memoir of her early life as an artist and her friendship with the brilliant, controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
The book is a gift. Because I worked for many years in morning television, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing countless musicians and painters and authors and film makers. Understanding my own limits, I used the conversations to figure out how each particular person became a committed artist. Their common denominator: belief in their creations and the willingness to take a risk to protect their integrity. Oh – and a determination to create that far exceeded any desire for the perfect residence, the perfect outfit or the perfect anything else.
Until Just Kids, it hadn’t seemed real; I had never been able to see, feel or understand the day-to-day of being lonely, or homeless, or hungry for one’s art. The honesty and humility of Smith’s book delivers all of that and more. She takes us along as she describes sleeping in doorways, cadging quarters to get a bowl of soup at the Automat (when there was one) and counting pennies for every piece of drawing paper.
The years Patti Smith shared with Mapplethorpe were those during which their artistic lives were evolving. As they moved from one plumbing-less loft to another, scrubbing, white washing and making a home, and then to the legendary Chelsea Hotel, they sustained and supported one another work in a way that was a revelation.
As Eve Ottenberg wrote in The City Paper's blog, "Indeed, it is uncanny how early each recognized the other’s talents: She urged him to try photography; he pushed her toward rock music. “Nobody sees as we do Patti,” he told her."
Then there was the impact of the times and the war in Vietnam.
Often I’d sit and try to write or draw, but all of the manic 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.
Robert had little patience with these introspective bouts of mine. He never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind come a light, life-changed.
From that passage, you can understand why Emily Temple, in Flavorwire, told us "Ultimately, if you’re a romantic, if you’re a fan, or if you’re nostalgic for a time you may or may not have even been present for, you will like this book."
Last year Patti Smith was among those inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She wrote in the New York Times that she had been ambivalent about the award - this independent spirit wasn't certain she wanted to treat her art in this way. Just a bit of it will illuminate the reason to treasure the book.
Human history abounds with idealistic movements that rise, then fall in disarray. The children of light. The journey to the East. The summer of love. The season of grunge. But just as we seem to repeat our follies, we also abide.
Rock ’n’ roll drew me from my mother’s hand and led me to experience. In the end it was my neighbors who put everything in perspective. An approving nod from the old Italian woman who sells me pasta. A high five from the postman. An embrace from the notary and his wife. And a shout from the sanitation man driving down my street: “Hey, Patti, Hall of Fame. One for us.”
So here she is. In her book as in her music, an artist, a woman, a poet, a friend, a mother and a person who hears and sees all that is around her. A woman who knows her neighbors.