I just finished reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Like literally five seconds ago. If I don’t write about it now, I’ll never write about it. It don’t think it made much of an impression on me. Although last night, I had a dream that I was watching Patti Smith give a poetry concert in some kind of long, empty hallway. I’m just kidding about the hallway. I wrote that to sound more dramatic. All that I can remember from the dream is that I was there. She was there. The space we were in, twenty minutes after I’ve woken up, is now empty. That’s how it goes with dreaming for me.
In any case, Just Kids, in case you haven’t read it (and you probably have, I feel like everyone but me has), is about Patti Smith, and her relationship with Robert Motherwell. I just wrote Motherwell.
But I meant Mapplethorpe.
It’s kind of a sweet slip.
They met in New York in the late 1960s, when they were both poor and young. He rescued her from a bad date, and they, homeless, found a place together in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, which they decorated with objects they scrounged from the streets.
It’s implied that their relationship was passionate at times, although Patti, in a gesture of respect—I believe—doesn’t ever really clarify what it was like to be in love with a man who seemed to prefer, at least later in life, men.
Patti and Robert were both raised Catholic, and despite it, Patti still seems to really love her parents. Throughout the book, she’s gentle with her words. Even when it’s clear that someone has cheated on her, or treated her badly, she’s still kind to their memories. Never eviscerating. The ultimate role model of Catholic forgiveness.
At first, the book was really interesting to me. Patti, as a young woman, is extremely endearing. She’s shy, and awkward. She loves literature. She’s straight edge. She works in a book store. She supports Robert as they try to make their way as artists in Andy Warhol’s New York.
They live in the Chelsea Hotel. They dress up, and go, every night, to Max’s Kansas City, which was what the Boom Boom Room is to 2010, only it lasted for longer as a thing. They hang out with the Factory superstars, and drag queens. They wear whatever they want, and hold sacred the idea of “the artist,” a person who cannot live within society, but is propelled to create.
Even as their physical relationship starts to deteriorate, they remain close. They’re soul mates. In photographs together, they resemble each other—Patti, the masculine, and Robert, the feminine. It’s pretty beautiful.
They are muse and artist, interchangeably. Even today, their best work is of one another. Robert’s photographs of Patti. Patti’s love letter to him, Just Kids.
Patti writes like the way smart, nerdy girls feel. She’s an outsider in this world full of drugs, and sex, remaining innocent. She hero worships the people who pass through the lobby of the hotel. Joan Baez. Jim Morrison. Candy Darling. Lou Reed. She never feels quite comfortable in her own skin. She observes, but she does not participate. She’s literary.
Eventually, Patti starts to get famous, and that’s kind of when I lost interest in the book. There are paragraphs of namedropping, almost like the acknowledgements at the beginning of a record. She begins, out of necessity, to have to breeze through her ascension to stardom, as well as Robert’s path to fame.
He picks up a Polaroid camera. He meets John McKendry, the curator of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He meets Sam Wagstaff, one of the greatest photography collectors in the 20th century. They serve as patrons, and give him the room and money to make what he wants.
Patti learns that she likes to perform. So she does so, with her poetry, which eventually she sets to music. Now, before reading the book, I had only ever listened to “Because The Night.” Otherwise, I was completely deaf to Patti Smith’s music. I think.
Then I listened to a bit of Horses, and decided that I didn’t like it much. The music is dated. At the time, perhaps, it was revolutionary. But there are much better poets than Patti Smith, and much better musicians. And there always will be.
Patti also created drawings, some of which I’ve seen. After reading the book, and falling in love, at least a little bit, with the path she took to make it, I will hold my judgement to myself. But let’s just say that it is akin to a sentence like this:
“When I walked on the stages of the world without him I would close my eyes and picture him taking off his leather jacket, entering with me into the infinite land of a thousand dances.”
Like, ok, that sentence, to a certain (young) person, might seem really beautiful, but when you’re really thinking about it, WHAT DOES IT FUCKING MEAN? And why not end with the leather jacket?
In any case, I was happy to have finished the book, this morning, because now I can move on to something else.
But I appreciate that Patti Smith is kind. I appreciate that she brought to life her youth. I appreciate her rendering of Mapplethorpe, whose photographs, out of context, I’ve looked at frequently, and breezed over quickly. I think he’s important. I think she’s important. Or at least they are in the book, which may be the legacy that trails them both, as the generation that birthed them fades out of existence in the physical world, on the wings of an angel singing one thousand melodies.