Personal Art: Patti Smith’s Just Kids

booksI finished Patti Smith’s Just Kids late last night.  For a poet, Smith’s prose was decidedly banal, and though I admire her premise — a coming of age/muse and artist/love and friendship story — the memoir read more like a who’s who of rock n’ roll, art high society, and fashion than a heartfelt and inspiring tale of following one’s dreams.  I admire Smith and her work, and though I don’t know much about Robert Mapplethorpe (and oddly, feel that I still don’t, even after reading Smith’s memoir of her relationship with him), but wonder if Smith could have infused her memoir with more of what makes her tick.

Smith notes often the hunger, real and symbolic,  she and Mapplethorpe felt, the odd jobs that kept them going, two young kids newly arrived in New York City, desirous only of making art–being true to their work. Smith held many odd jobs to support herself and Mapplethorpe, but her move from bookstore shop girl to rock n’ roll band leader seemed quick, even without effort.  I am sure that Smith’s gradual coming in to her own, her creation of her poetry, and her development of her musical side, took time, but it seemed to happen almost overnight in the memoir.  Perhaps the rise did seem to Smith instantaneous, or miraculous, and thus her rendition that made the climb seem insignificant. Smith and Mapplethorpe shared an intense and profound love, and  a mutual support of one another’s artistic development, but without the poignant ending of the book, I might not have fully appreciated that relationship.  As Smith recounts Mapplethorpe’s death, she narrates a tragic story of loss for a generation of young men who succumbed to the horrors of AIDS. It is then that she seems to reveal more about her profound connection to Mapplethorpe.

My belief in artists, whether they are photographers, painters, poets, or musicians (or all of the above), to help the rest of us be centered, connected, and rooted in what is meaningful,  might be unrealistic.  I wanted not Smith’s list of who she saw and talked to each time she entered The Chelsea Hotel or Max’s Restaurant, but the story of the relationships and struggles that brought her to the poetry, the story of the inspiration from other artists.  To her credit, she does note that Jimi Hendrix inspired her, and that she recorded her first album in his studio, but beyond Hendrix as cultural icon, I was uncertain that Smith had much more relationship to him that I have — that is to say, not much. I suppose if I wanted to read her poetry, I should buy her collections of poems.  I wanted more of her creativity in the memoir than was offered.  What I got was name dropping, as JY noted, and a meticulously detailed description of what she and Mapplethorpe wore.  What relevance this had to her life, or to the story she wanted to tell, is debatable.

When I finished the book, I was dismayed that Smith did not live up to my expectations, and maybe that is not her fault, but rather my mistake.  Maybe I am guilty of the very trap that I warn my students about when we study history.  Our heroes and role models, the people we look to for inspiration, are only human, after all, and we have to see them for who they are as three dimensional people, not who we hope them to be.  Perhaps the banality of Smith’s story shows some of the mundane aspects of her life in New York as a young artist seeking meaning–the daily trek to work, the grind of city living.  The trouble, even with this interpretation, is that what she seems to be looking for is the right connection with the right famous person, the open door, that will allow her to express her work to a larger audience.  Even though what artists like Smith seem to express is not about commercial success, she and Mapplethorpe were seemingly drawn to the “right places” with the right people.

pattismithSmith does mention a few times that she was often misread — directors thought she was a lesbian and drug user and she was neither.  Because she dressed androgynously, she was misunderstood.  Perhaps Smith’s focus on her wardrobe illustrates how all of us perform various roles — we express our gender and sexuality by our choices about dress.  Maybe Smith’s focus on what she was wearing acknowledges this performance — that all aspects of how we present ourselves to others is performance.  Just as Mapplethorpe pushed the boundaries of art with images that crossed dangerous sexually demarcated lines, Smith was on the path to question other divisions of life in the 70s, and maybe dress was part of her performance.

What I do appreciate about Smith’s narrative is the insight into the world of the late 60s and early 70s music and art scene in New York, the intensity of the creative moment there, and the response to world events.  What I struggled with was the purported commitment to making art, but sometimes without the connection to its purpose in the world.  In this time of great protest and cultural shifts, Smith barely seems to acknowledge that as an impetus for creative output. Art, perhaps for her, is much more personal than political.

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