by Patti Smith
“Much has been said about Robert, and more will be added. He will be condemned and adored. His excesses damned or romanticized. In the end, truth will be found in his work, the corporeal body of the artist. It will not fall away.”
I read “Just Kids” while on holiday in New York City recently.
The book was a promise to her sometime lover Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom Smith had an intense relationship as a young girl, which continued in a different form as he became aware of and confident in his homosexuality.
Above: Robert Mapplethorpe
Both Smith and Mapplethorpe came to New York in 1967 as teenagers where they met and became part of the avant garde in that city. They both came from Roman Catholic families, the beliefs of which they would both renounce, and yet incorporate into their work. They were both incurable romantics, and as time went on and their career paths and life choices became clear and separate, they still remained great friends. Smith became famous for her blending of rock music and poetry, while Mapplethorpe became a photographer, at times controversial for his graphic homosexual images. He was part of the generation greatly affected by AIDS and died of the disease in 1989. Smith fell in love with a Detroit musician, married him and had children, but never abandoned her belief in Mapplethorpe’s genius. I enjoyed reading about a world that is both fascinating and foreign, with various cameo appearances by people like the playwright, Sam Shepard and other people in the punk rock and art scenes.
The book really is an elegy to youth, young love and New York the city, and its bohemian elements and quirky elements in the 1960’s and 70’s.
This second book, only written by Smith two years ago is about the other end of the spectrum; it’s about old age, the need to keep creating to keep death at bay, and about loss of a life partner.
The book takes the reader on an odyssey, as Smith travels to different parts of the world, yet always comes back to the same Greenwich Village cafe. In some ways the book is about nothing, something Smith acknowledges:
“It’s not easy to write about nothing. That’s what a cowpoke was saying as I entered the frame of a dream. ____ But we keep going, he continued, fostering all kinds of crazy hopes. To redeem the lost, some sliver of personal revelation. It’s an addiction, like playing the slots, or a game of golf.”
Much of it however is an ode to the irreparable loss of her husband, musician Fred Sonic Smith, who died only in his forties from heart failure. His image and memories of him crop up constantly in whatever Smith is writing about. Parts of this book are very sad, but ultimately art and its making is her saviour and what enables her to keep going.
She writes of crying during a plane trip:
“I watched the movie Master and Commander. Captain Jack Aubrey reminded me so much of Fred that I watched it twice. Midflight I began to weep. Just come back. I will stop traveling; I will wash your clothes. Mercifully, I fell asleep, and when I woke snow was falling over Tokyo.”
Smith travels to many unusual places, and in all of them she writes of cafes visited, in Mexico, Berlin and Japan, as well as graves she visits of writers that have been an influence on her. Her travels seem to be treks or pilgrimages to express gratitude to such creatives that have influenced her -Plath, Genet, Kahlo.
With certain passages Smith hits the nail on the head with her writing, in others she goes off on esoteric tangents. But at her best, her writing is very powerful and poignant.
” We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Pease stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.”
After her husband’s death, she writes of “performing small tasks with the mute concentration of one imprisoned in ice.”
Later she writes of what she believes in:
” I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. When we are young we think we won’t, that we are different. When I was child, I thought I would never grow up, that I would will it so. And then I realised, quite recently that I had crossed some line. How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron coloured hair.”
I enjoyed this book, but it’s probably not for everyone, as it’s slow paced and often sad.