Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Just Kids," Patti Smith

To my shame, I don't know a lot of Patti Smith's work. But she performed at a ceremony held by my company two years ago, when she received some kind of honor or degree from us, I'm not clear on the details, and by all accounts, she rocks. Her memoir, "Just Kids," won the National Book Award in 2010, and since I like reading about New York City and she has a connection to my job, I put the book on my library request list and waited. Patiently. For four months.

Being broke sucks.

The book is an account of Patti Smith's early years in New York City, from 1968 to about 1975, specifically her development as an artist and her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe is famous for taking pictures that cause Midwesterners to protest outside of museums--bloodied male genitals, riding crops stuck up asses, that sort of thing. I'm not going to post any of his work here because I don't want to get fired, but you can Google him if you're in a secluded area.

The book is a slow burn compared to most memoirs I've read. What keeps it going aren't deep dark secrets and soap opera revelations--just an aside, the memoir most guilty of this is "The Kiss," which is a memoir about a woman who had a sexual relationship with her father--but rather a series of quiet, thorough, and penetrating examination of the question, "From whence comes the artist?" It's a story that focuses on the artistic processes of Smith and Mapplethorpe, on how they developed as artists and as people.

I wouldn't recommend this book to people who like cinematic literature. The book isn't plot-driven, and it definitely feels like the author is looking back on a time long past, so there really isn't much of a sense of urgency in her writing, which is compounded by the fact that she uses very simple, straightforward language. Once you get into her rhythm, though, it's amazing how her simple prose can hit you right in the solar plexus. Alone, phrases like, "We were still intimate," or "Robert was asleep on the couch and Fred was crying," don't have much impact, but when read as part of the whole, they're heartbreaking.

Not a lot of people write like this anymore. There's something very Left Bank/Lost Generation about "Just Kids," with it's simplicity and search for meaning beyond the lense of nostalgia. Recommended for people who know a little about the art scene in New York City of the late 60s and early 70s, and of course, rock aficionados.

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